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Your Second Act: What To Do During Intermission

Your Second Act: What To Do During Intermission
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Photo Courtesy of HBO

BY LORRAINE DUFFY MERKL

From Veep to POTUS and now civilian. Yet another vicissitude in the career of “Selina Meyer” (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) will play out in Season 6 of HBO’s award-winning series Veep with her adjusting to life post-presidency.

“This is my second act. Selena Meyer travels the globe spreading democracy like patient zero,” she announces—and what a busy life it will be: painting over inner-city graffiti, avoiding landmines in refugee camps, and promising revenge on new congressman Jonah Ryan that’s so creative, “They will honor me for it at the Kennedy Center!”

Like Selina, I found myself in need of an Act II, when in 2004, after 9 years of freelance copywriting very successfully, the economy began to tank. Contacts that called regularly started to keep more assignments in-house, thanks to budget cuts; some even lost their own jobs, and looked to me to tell them how to get contract work.

With time on my hands, I let myself get caught up in a brouhaha at my child’s school, even though neither my kid nor I were involved. It coincided with the opening of the Tina Fey/Lindsay Lohan movie Mean Girls. I sat down and penned an essay about how mean girls learn to be so from their mean mommies. I called the editor of the local newspaper to ask for his email (like it was dollar he owed me), and a few hours later he called to say he was going to publish my piece in the next issue.

“Well, this is easy,” I thought, not realizing that what just happened was a fluke. I found out rather quickly how not easy getting work published really is when I tried to sell my next article. It was clear that if I was serious about pursuing this second career, I would need to get advice from active journalists and take some courses to understand the ethics of the business, find out what editors were looking for, and see how to properly submit my work.

In the meantime, though—as Selena proves in the next 10 episodes—adapting is the name of the game. Although Veep is played for laughs, there are some truths as she maneuvers through her transition period.

Put on a happy face.

“Well, this last year has been fun.” The show begins twelve months after Selina’s big defeat. She appears on CBS This Morning (where former employee, Dan, is the host) to talk life since leaving the White House. Through gritted-teeth and with all the PR spin of a child’s top, she discusses her memoir, in which publishers apparently aren’t interested, as well as her new charity that focuses on adult literacy—then in an impromptu move to add gravitas to the philanthropy, Selina throws in curing AIDS as well. (Big sigh here.) Phony positivity, yes. But this is how it needs to be. When I would show my portfolio for copywriting assignments, the interviewer would ask invariably what I’d been up to. Since I had no current ad jobs to speak of, at least I could talk up my newfound essay writing (even though I had only one clip), and my all-consuming volunteer work, courtesy of my children’s schools. “I’m so busy, sometimes I don’t even have time for paying jobs,” I’d say as I’d throw my head back and laugh, pretending they believed me—and sometimes they did.

Keep busy.

“I did take this opportunity to reacquaint myself with an old friend of mine by the name of Selina Meyer.” That’s the cheeky, affected way of saying: do all the things you said you didn’t have time to do when you were still in your First Act. It’s one of those moments of truth when you have to decide whether you never got to all the items on your to-do list because you really couldn’t squeeze them in or you just didn’t want to do them and used work as an excuse. I wrote my first novel; the one I always said, “It’s all up here,” as I pointed to my temple, followed by, “I just need a moment to get it down on paper.” Finally, I had many moments. It was then or never. “Fat Chick” was published in 2009. (FYI: It took longer to sell it than to write it.)

Compromise to get your foot in the new door.

“I was the first female president and I will not work for less than 87-cents on the dollar. And tell ‘em I’ll stand at a glass podium and wear a short shirt.” In 2004, 87-cents would have been a good deal (and I would have worn a short skirt, if I’d had toner legs.) The real point is that when you are starting over, even if you have some transferable skills, people know there is a learning curve, so you might have to do the first few jobs on the cheap to build up your resume. I was re-introduced to this fact just recently when producers expressed a desire to turn “Fat Chick” into a movie. When it came to negotiating the contract (read: money), I was reminded more than once that I was “a first-time screenwriter.”

Will Selina Meyer ever again see the inside of the Oval Office, except on a White House tour? Hard to say, since the comedy of Veep is based on the main character never quite getting what she wants.

Let’s hope that’s not the case for the rest of us.

 

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Lorraine Duffy Merkl
Lorraine Duffy Merkl is the author of the novels BACK TO WORK SHE GOES and FAT CHICK, for which a movie version is in the works.