In Writing

Late last winter, I received a certified letter. It was notice of an application for a variance on a property within 250 feet from my home.

I live on a hill, on a quiet little dead end with a smattering of woods at the top. I moved to the house with my daughter in my belly. Tomorrow, that same daughter will be moving to college. There are nearly two decades of smudgy fingerprint memories within this house’s walls, the sagas of a leaky basement and an intransigent bathroom door. It is, I like to only half-joke, the house I grew up in, although I was decidedly grown when I moved to it. It taught me much about what it meant to be responsible, to know that “the buck stops here,” to keep going even when I wasn’t quite sure what to do. I grew up in rented spaces, and learning home ownership was hard, but rewarding.

Although I live on this tiny, dead-end block, I am actually just two doors down from a different town, and surprisingly close to a highway. You mostly forget how close the highway is, because it’s obscured by trees, although when they’re denuded of leaves in the winter it becomes more apparent. That other town, unlike my own sleepy hamlet, has embraced development, with big high-rises going up tall enough to catch glimpses of New York City, and it was in this town that the application was being made. And it wasn’t just that they wanted to develop, it was what they wanted to develop: a fifty-foot hotel in a zone where nothing is taller than two stories, and which is not zoned for hotels. And, most significantly for me, it was uphill from me, and so would tower over my whole block, changing its slow suburban character forever.

I won’t bore you with the blow-by-blow of the resistance we mounted, but, suffice it to say, a resistance was mounted. We organized to go to meetings to oppose the application. We had phone trees and email lists. The developer kept pushing the date, and we stayed on top of it like a bloodhound on a scent. This morning, after much lost sleep, I got the news: application withdrawn. At least for now, my block gets to keep being the peaceful street where kids can bring sleds on a snowy day.

Besides just being flooded with relief, I was reminded how important it is to just keep going. Keep going. I know that doesn’t mean that if you just keep going everything will go your way, but it means to give things everything you’ve got, every time. So many people, in response to my latest entreaty to come to a meeting or send a letter, said to me, “You’re never going to win. They’re not going to listen. You’re wasting your time.” (And I don’t think it was our resistance that caused them to withdraw their application as much as the objections they were getting from the decision-makers). Still, regardless of the outcome, I wanted to feel like I had done everything I could. On this one occasion, persistence paid off. Even when it doesn’t, it’s still worth it for what it says to you about you.

This is a lesson that’s important to learn in publishing, and, really, in most endeavors. (But I know most about publishing, so I’ll connect it to that). Even our most treasured authors have had heaps of rejection, and writers you’d consider one of the greats were at one point told that they didn’t have what it takes. Authors you think were overnight successes actually only made it after decades of obscurity and plenty of duds. But they somehow kept going, through some mix of hubris and irrational hope, working hard, getting better, approaching things from a different angle.

In a culture awash with lionization of prodigies, luck, and inherited wealth, we sometimes fail to remember the magic of just doing the work. Make the call. Edit the paragraph. Run the mile. Keep going, and you will be rewarded, if not always with the thing you’re pursuing, but with the knowledge that you’re the kind of person you want to be.

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