Sometimes, I feel like I'm missing the boat as a writer.
We live in an age when more people are writing than ever before. There are 180 million blogs, and that number is growing. So if you want to become an author, like I do, you feel the heat of competition. And maybe, like me, you feel the urge, in the heat of the struggle, to write what gets attention: controversy.
What's a writer to do?
You don't have to spend much time on the Internet to get a feel for this. We're arguing about everything. Presidential candidates, theology, gender roles, delayed adolescence of young adults.
You get the picture.
These topics gain attention so quickly that it seems if you don't jump on the bandwagon, you're “nobody.” Sometimes, I find myself swept up in the flurry, wanting to weigh in on every issue — even if I don't have much to say. I wonder if getting wrapped up in these issues is getting us off track.
I want to be a writer because of the ability that affords me to influence people, not only in my own generation but for generations to come.
But will the same writers, bloggers, and authors who are popular now be popular in 10 years? 20? Is what we're writing the kind of literature that stands the test of time, that makes it through shifts of culture, language, and popular thought?
Obviously, there's no way to know the answer to that question… or is there?
Is my writing timeless?
I think about the classic writers we still read today. For some of them, their ideas are outdated or the language is hard to understand. Or even the cultural norms expressed take us out of our comfort zones.
But consider this: We esteem some literature so much that we make high school students read it, despite their perpetual complaining. We make them trudge through Shakespeare and The Grapes of Wrath and Night by Elie Weisel.
Why have these authors stood the test of time, while so many others haven't?
I look at writers like Steinbeck and F. Scott Fitzgerald and can't help but recognize how they weren't really popular while they were writing. Although they had small followings, the ideas they were expressing were counter-cultural and were challenging the traditional ideals of their day.
So as writers, we have to be willing to address controversy head-on. We have to be willing to say things that aren't popular.
But that can't be all of it…
Most of us who read C.S Lewis or Thomas Hardy don't often realize the ideas expressed in their books were counter-cultural. Unless we were history buffs or literature majors, most of us don't know enough about 19th century culture to recognize how offensive a character like Tess would have been to Hardy's audience.
We read and love these authors and pass them on to our children because we connect to their humanity.
I am human. You are human. We all wrestle with feelings of inadequacy, insecurity, frustration, and fear. We're all trying to find our voice, and wondering if we're valuable.
We are all looking for a reason to hope, a person to love (and to love us), something to live for that matters. No matter how much changes about our culture or our language, that will never change.
Why we love a good fight
When it comes to debates, I can see why we're attracted to them. It's important to nail down what we believe, so we can live in a way that is morally and ethically responsible. We're all trying to life a life of meaning and value.
But we could argue issues all day long, and even if we came to some kind of compromise about the most moral way to conduct ourselves or who should be president, tomorrow we'd start over. The next day, we'd wake up and have something else to argue about.
And in 10 years, we'd hardly recognize what we were talking about in the first place. All the while struggling through Old English to find out how Beowulf bares the same humanity as Holden Caulfield.
If you ask me, that's writing that lasts.
What really matters?
As a writer, I have to ask myself:
In 50 years from now, or a hundred, or five hundred, will the controversy of today really matter?
If I want to be the kind of person who leaves a legacy, does what I write really matter? Not if it will make me a buck or if people will sing my praises, but if it will be the kind of literature that makes a difference.
To be fair, I don't think that the issues of humanity are altogether disconnected from “hot topics.” What often sets timeless writers apart from those who quickly fade into oblivion is their ability to use writing as a vehicle to bare their own humanity.
That's the kind of writing we connect to and cling to. The kind that ultimately stands the test of time.
So what do you think makes writing timeless? Share in the comments.