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Investing in the Future, While Honoring the Past

How, as a writer or creative professional, do you make room for the new, the future? How do you create potential for yourself, your writing, and those who you hope to reach?

How does one leverage the wisdom of experience, respecting the events of the past, and honoring those who came before us, while still pushing forward into new territory?

How do you, as a creator, create new work, establish new processes, new habits, and in doing so, open up new possibilities?

I’ll admit, I get sad when I see an old house destroyed. Recently, I watched this happen in the town I live: a 100+ year old house was torn down, and the acre of land it sat on was cut up into three lots, making way for three new houses. This is the house:

And let’s watch the destruction and rebuilding, shall we?

Here it is from another angle, this time focusing a bit more on what was backyard. In the end, that yard fit two large houses in it. The third house is still to be built, that will occupy the space that was formerly the front yard of the old house. You will see that the property was very overgrown in the beginning, filled with trees and shrubs:

Did you get sad while viewing this progression? Did it stir up something inside of you about preservation of beautiful old relics? Did you feel something was lost? Me too.

But…

I’m challenging myself to see the other side of this. I had walked by that house what seems like hundreds of times, and my wife and I always talked about how amazing it was. But the reality is, it always seemed as though maybe just 1 or 2 people lived in it. It was sort of run down in many ways.

I spoke to someone who went inside it during an estate sale they held just before the house was torn down, and while he loved the craftsmanship of the old house, he admitted that it needed an extraordinary amount of work to bring it “back to life.” I didn’t get into details about the age of the systems, the structural integrity of the house, or the aesthetics of the walls, woodwork, and floors, but a renovation of that scale could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Someone would need to take this on, to invest. And if they did, in all likelihood, with an acre of land, they would have gutted it to it’s core, expanded it greatly in the back, and turned it into a much larger home, at least 3,000 – 4,000 square feet.

We live in a small town, most of the lots are smallish, so a 1 acre piece of property is pretty unusual, and a lot for a normal family to take on. Again – someone would want to make a huge commitment not just to “save” the house, but to maintain an acre of land in an area where most people live on 1/5th of that. What they take on is much more than a financial investment.

The point I am making here is to move beyond simple statement such as “Oh, someone should have saved it!” because it implies that someone ELSE should have saved it. We are bestowing that responsibility and investment and commitment onto someone else. It’s probably worth noting that the old house sold for more than $1.3 million, solely on the value of the empty lot alone.

What will happen with that piece of land? Three new houses with three families living in them, each creating new experiences and memories in that previously overgrown lot. What is the other “value” created in this process:

  • The original owner got a lot more for the lot than they paid, and it should be noted that their choice to sell, and who to sell it to was indeed a CHOICE. They accepted the tradeoff.
  • The builder will turn a good profit, each of those new houses will likely each sell for somewhere around a million dollars each. (new houses in New Jersey tend go for a premium)
  • The town itself will receive more tax revenue from that lot. They received around $16,000 per year from the old house, but will likely receive more than $60,000 total per year from the three lots combined. (and yes, I understand that this money offsets very real costs to the town, including schooling, public works, etc – that this is not somehow “profit.”)
  • Three new families will be able to live in this town, and in new homes they dreamed of.

Beyond the dollars and cents, what is being created are EXPERIENCES and POSSIBILITIES. For some, that is indeed measured in profit and the new possibilities that comes with that. But for others, it is created every day, in small moments. Everyone in this process made an investment, and from an outside perspective, all seemed to have benefited in ways that they actively chose.

So I am asking myself: should I be sad at the loss of this beautiful old house?

I recently wrote about “the good old days,” and the perception that things were always simpler and better when they have safely defined boundaries because they are in the past. The present and the future, on the other hand, are filled with gray areas, and questions marks of where they will lead.

I work with writers and creative professionals every day, and tend to see a fair number of blog posts and articles where people talk about a “battle” going on in publishing between “the old ways” and “the new ways.” Or among different “sides” representing opposing ethos in how to share one’s work.

I don’t see that, not at all.

I mean, if I take anything away from the past 5-10 years in publishing it is that there are MORE options, MORE possibilities for inclusion, and MORE ways to both honor the past while investing in the future.

And these are personal choices.

The beauty of what it means to be a writer today is that you have MANY potential actions, and that the path you choose is your own.

Regardless of what anyone tells you EVERY PERSON’S PATH IS UNIQUE TO THEM. There are not two paths (traditional publishing vs self-publishing) or even three paths (hybrid publishing!) There are as many paths as their are writers, and each of those writers can change their path at any given time.

The concept of “sides” in this or “battles” seems to miss the point. There are more options for us to come together, to choose our own path, and to craft and share the work we are most proud of. And of course, how this work affects the lives of others in positive ways.

So, am I sad that the old house above was torn down. Yes, I am. I am just sentimental that way. I love the idea of a place having a sense of permanence, even though I realize how laughable that is in the bigger scale of things. I won’t get all “nothing last forever” on you.

Even though I have a great deal of respect for that old house – for the past it represents – I am working hard to also honor what is being created here. Notably, the experiences of the good folks who move into those new homes, and become a part of this community.

And let’s face it, I did nothing to “save” that old house. I invested zero time, money, or energy to “raise awareness,” to try to create other options. Without that investment, how could I expect others to not invest in their own futures on this land? It’s easy to sit on the sidelines – or in this case, the sidewalk – and observe and judge. It takes a lot more to truly get invested, make hard choices, and create potential for oneself and for the community.

What I love most what writers face today is this: it is up to them. Choose to craft the work YOU believe in; choose the path to sharing your work – to publish – that seems right to you; and connect with readers in ways that make sense for who you are as an individual, and for what ensures your work has the lasting effect you hope it will. Invest in yourself, your work, and those you hope to reach. How you do so is up to you.

As it should be.

Thanks.
-Dan

  • Love taking this walk into publishing via the sidewalk view, Dan. I will always have an image of a beautiful old house becoming three new ones when I hear the term “disruption” applied to publishing or higher education or any other industry I’ve been part of.

  • Victoria_Noe

    This is lovely, Dan. Change is inevitable, even if we don’t like it very much.
    There’s a line in the first “Thin Man” movie. I think it’s during a party where there’s a lot of drinking going on (which, in fact, is a huge portion of the movie). Someone says something to William Powell about the good old days. “Don’t be silly,” he says,. “THESE are the good old days.”

  • Carly Compass

    Here you remind me of Milan Kundera, author of, The Unbearable Lightness of Being. In his book, Kundera examines freedom versus commitment and in each case convinces you that it is right. I am a big fan of Rehab Addict on HGTV. Nicole Curtis saves old homes, trying her best to keep the original integrity. So at the beginning of the article I was with you. Like Kundera, you have illustrated your point quite aptly, gently pulling me into progress. You take conservation and preservation and turn it into progress, but best of all you make it about writing!