Is Your Writing Timeless?

From Jeff: This is a guest article from Allison Vesterfelt. Allison is a writer, editor of Prodigal Magazine, and author of Packing Light. She lives in Minneapolis with her husband Darrell. Follow her daily on Twitter (@allyvest) or Facebook.

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?

Timeless Writing
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Contention abounds

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 For some of them, their ideas are outdated or the language is hard to understand.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.

Allison is a writer, editor of Prodigal Magazine, and author of Packing Light. She lives in Nashville with her husband Darrell. Follow her daily on Twitter (@allyvest) or Facebook.

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76 thoughts on “Is Your Writing Timeless?

  1. Allison — Your article resonates deeply with me. I’m just starting an online course about guest blogging. Almost all of the “attention grabbing” headlines we’re told to emulate seem to be either negative or “shocking” or controversial. As a writer focusing on mindfulness practices and maintaining a positive outlook on life, it’s hard to wrestle my ideas into these formulas. Thanks for the reminder to stay focused on the timelessness of the message. Anne Lamott said, “As writers, I think we should be part of the solution.” I think that’s what you’re talking about here.

    1. I agree Martha…
      I enjoyed your article Allison and I think timeless writing is “STORY.” The author is simply able to tell a good story through unforgettable characters.

  2. I can so relate to what you are saying here. I go back and forth with this one myself. On one hand, what I may think about a particular political issue may be totally irrelevant in a matter of days or months, but writing about watching my daughter try and catch a frog in the garden could be timeless. Yet on the other, my voice in current events could shape the tomorrow that affords my daughter the life that is able to discover nature by catching frogs in the garden. I think as a writer, we need to seize the day and walk in our calling. For me, that is dancing in more than one ballroom. Nice article! Be blessed.

    1. You bring up a good point. I don’t think political conversations are pointless. In fact, I’m sure there are political conversations that have stood the test of time. I think it has to do with how we engage those conversation.

  3. Truth makes writing last. Every great writer expresses some kind of truth, and if people see enough of it in a writing, they’ll be more willing to pass it on. We are addicted to truth when we really see it. The fads of today are really just misdirected ways for trying to find it. Brilliant post. Very deep and inspiring.

  4. So important! This is such a good thing to keep in mind when it comes to writing. In fact it’s a good question to ask yourself before you begin writing anything.

  5. Good thought, Allison. I think you nailed it here when you said, “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.” I don’t feel like I struggle with trying to find what is popular. I don’t think I would like writing if I felt like I had to cater to everyone. For me, writing has always been a way for me to process the up and downs of life. And, hopefully, others will be inspired when I share.

    1. Eileen — I like what you pointed out about how writing has an intrinsic value as well as an extrinsic one if we are honest and vulnerable, and write from our hearts. If we’re writing for controversy, I think we miss both.

  6. I like what you are saying here. So many of the things we write about are the here and now. We jump on and off bandwagons. We write about our pet issues. We try to stir the masses. What we could do, instead, is write about something bigger and greater than all of that which is really just stuff.

  7. In my profession, I focus on family history and telling the stories of our ancestors. These stories allow an individual to connect to something larger than themselves, place themselves within history and within the context of their family. But aside from that the reader connects with the story because they see themselves in the characters or in my case their ancestors, ancestors they often times have never met. For the very emotions you stated above, fear, frustration insecurity and so many more, we relate to a story because they reflect our own flaws and challenges, and that is timeless.

    1. Lynn — I love what you added about how connecting to another person’s humanity allows us to be a part of something larger than ourselves. I think this is why it is so moving and important for us to be connected to one another!

  8. “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.”

    LOVE this post and your comment about issues of humanity not being completely disconnected from current events/controversy. It takes a “writers eye” for what the common threads that bind generations are and a willingness to go with that, to trust the leading, to pursue articulating it well with what you’ve been given, with what’s in your experience basket and to not be driven by what will give you 15 minutes of fame.

    I’ll step down from my soapbox now. 🙂
    Wonderful post!

    1. Marilyn — I think it’s so easy to be lured by that 15 minutes of fame, but that as I mature as a writer and a person I look for affirmation in another place besides the number of people who read my article on the internet. I agree with Sandra. I like your soapbox. I’m glad you shared! Thank you.

  9. I deleted 4 blog posts before reading this one. This is an Inspiring “keeper” piece for me. It (and reader comments) illustrate the point! A chord was touched. A connection kindled. And that’s what sets a piece apart. Certain elements of all art never change because the artists and audiences never do….no grass grows over the path from soul to soul. Trends and issues are tossed aside, but what we move toward, hunger for, welcome and find lasting is the core connection. Timeless writing expresses what hurts, intrigues and uplift us. Trials and triumphs…how we love and want to be loved…how we move through the world. “A timeless story hangs on a hook of hope.” This is my mantra…(not just for writing but for every day). When I sit down to write, I imagine little golden things…threads of truth, sparks of light, charms of humor…all dangling by a hook of hope!

    1. Vivienne — I really like what you said about hope. I wonder if the messages that last the longest are those who give us hope in the midst of our human struggle. I think that adds an important extra layer to what I was saying. Thank you for taking the time to comment.

      1. My pleasure! I think there is usually an element of hope..if not from the characters themselves, then from the readers FOR them…I read “The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry” in summer and thought I was going to have to jump on the ottoman in my den to help him keep moving. I’m thinking now of all the great stories I’ve loved and finding a thread of hope running through them. Your thoughts and reader comments, have certainly directed my own, adding another colorful dimension to the texture of today! I walked away thinking, enlightened and just plain better for having spent time here. I look forward to reading more. Thanks!

  10. I don’t do controversial topics generally because I don’t like it. I don’t like the arguing and finger pointing. And we can get hung up on numbers so easily (I have) but in the end, they don’t really matter. Does my writing have integrity? Or am I chasing those elusive numbers? I just do the best I can and I leave the rest to the Lord. It’s his writing and His message.

    1. Melinda — I’m with you. I don’t mind a healthy debate, but the finger pointing and arguing doesn’t seem helpful. Like you said, I want to write with integrity.

  11. “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.”

    Totally agree with these few lines. It is someone’s humanity which draws me in. The more transparent, the more I feel he/she is speaking to me, about me, including me. When that element is missing, I quickly move on.

    When a writer writes about human struggles, that will last.

  12. Years ago, Francis Schaeffer wrote this little book called “Art in the Bible.” It’s three essays and all of them have some gems hidden inside. He talks about this whole topic in there and one of his big themes was to reflect the fullness of who you are. The essays unpack that better than I could, but I remember him talking about reflecting our sense of self, sense of place, and the unique time we are given to walk the earth. Thanks Allison, for a great Thursday morning reflection.

  13. Timeless writing, to me, is writing that connects the surface “to-do” list activities that we think comprise some sort of “normal” life with the deeper issues of what it means to be human. It allows us to have a deep conversation with the writing and ourselves and we emerge from this conversation looking at the world in a different way. Timeless writing is the book that you read time after time or the song that you play over and over because it expresses truth that resonates with the authentic truth of your being.

  14. I think the ulitmate goal of a writer is for the reader to nod his/her head and say, “Yes.” to what’s been written. I believe that happens when there is a ‘heart’ connection. That humanity you spoke of Allison…inadequacy, insecurity, frustration, and fear…and may I add joy, elation, tenderness, awe, curiosity ~ these human emotions allow us to join with the written word. And when we share our humanity, we have influence.

  15. I have always felt that timeless writing is that which connects with the fundamental emotions of people. The struggle against the seemingly insurmountable, whether it is a monstrous white whale, or coming of age in Victorian England, or speeding back and forth across America looking for the meaning of nation. These are things that are founded in our human need to know who we are and where we are going. They can be as grand in scope as Julius Caesar or as gritty as Tale Of Ordinary Madness but they speak to the heart not just the head and touch that part of us which is trying to discover itself in what it reads.

  16. The man who writes about himself and his own time is the only man who writes about all people and about all time. – George Bernard Shaw

  17. Thank you, Jeff Goins, for the guest post from Allison Vesterfelt. What makes writing timeless? When I began writing in diaries in 1954, I knew I wanted to keep the diaries. I had parents whom I wanted to honor with accounts of my days. Fifty years after I started a January 1960 diary, with the help of the Internet’s Blogger platform and input from my husband’s and my younger daughter, I began a compilation of my entries online that is allowing my nightly entries to be read by others. Comments I have heard are, “thank you for sharing these with the world,” “it is a time capsule,” and “I wish I had kept a journal.”

  18. Beautiful and profound, Allison. Thank you. I think you answered the question (at least for me) when you said: “We’re all trying to life (sic) a life of meaning and value.” I think this is what we look back on literature for. We seek to connect to the human experience of by-gone days. And the reason so much was unpopular or undervalued when it was first written is it takes time for a society to discuss and assimilate the new or counter-cultural ideas. Perhaps, if we write about what gives life meaning and value in our culture, our generation, it will be sought out by the next generation seeking to connect with the human experience in ours. Thank you again for the post. It was great!

  19. I think writing that continues to help and change people’s lives is also timeless writing. I look at book like 7 Habits of Highly Effective People as a great example. I think in 10 years it will still continue to impact people’s lives and that’s my goal with my writing.

  20. With every post about writing, I descry a common ingredient for success: honesty. All those authors that you mentioned wrote selflessly, meaning they had something to say and didn’t worry too much about what others might think about them. When C.S. Lewis was writing The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, J.R.R. Tolkien unabashedly informed him that nobody would like Narnia. Well…
    If you have something to say and the ability to say it well, time is no obstacle. The reason we still read books like The Pilgrim’s Progress and The Grapes of Wrath is not just because of their great literary examples, but because they withstand time due to the author’s honesty and willingness to make themselves vulnerable.

  21. Very good point Allison. In “Culture Making” by Andy Couch, he says that we’re known more for what we’re against than what we’re for. He states we need to create something beautiful and creative which will irresistibly draw people to truth. The Narnia series comes to mind as an example. The challenge to us as writers is what can we do as writers to create beauty and quality which will last?

  22. Timeless writing is an investment. You’ll get less attention now, but after a few years, you’ll have a stockpile of content that still matters. As such, I try to make all of the content on my blog timeless.

    As for legacies, they are overrated. I want to make a difference while I’m alive, and that’s good enough for me.

      1. There is a weak connection, because timeless words can lead to a legacy status, but not always. What if it doesn’t? What if you remain unknown or misunderstood? Was it all in vain? Why does it matter so much when you’re dead?

        If life is a sentence, then death is the period. I choose to focus on what my sentence says rather than “setting up” what happens afterwards, which I can’t control. Why should I care to leave a legacy? If I do great things all my life and someone frames me for murder or slanders me right before I die, was my life a failure? Should I be upset as a dead person?

        It’s a misguided focus that happens to be very popular. Worry about making a difference in your lifetime. But how many people have legacies from one-hit wonders or superficial actions? A whole lot.

        All that to say, we probably have similar or the same view, but perceive the word “legacy” in a different light. To me, the word means, “focus on what people think of your accomplishments when you’re dead…” and I don’t care about that.

    1. Elise — awesome, glad you’re enjoying Prodigal! We had a very talented group of writers to work with. And thanks for reading this article as well. Glad you enjoyed it.

  23. What writer would not want t their work to be timeless? To be read on and on through the decades or centuries. Yet you say, Fitzgerald was not accalined duirng hs lifetime and now The Geat Gatsby is considered a classic, one of the best American novels written. Syvlia Plath, while recognized,, reeived a Pultizer Prize following her death. Emily Dickinson, wrote on those small pieces of paper that she stitched otogether with thread (I actually saw them while in Amherst) and she thought she was a “nobody.” And published 1 or 2 poems in her lifetime. If a writer WORKS at being timeless, it most likely will not be. The person who writes their truth beyond the status quo (and often the author does not that until heshe receives rejection, even anger because he or she is breaking the status quo, And those who are doing the rejecting don’t even know that is the reaosn why. Timeless, not timeless, just write what is yearning to be expressed through even though you don’t know
    what that is, until the words flow out of your fingers from where? The mystery.

    1. Rachelle — I agree with what you said: working to be timeless is maybe the most sure-fire way to be NOT timeless. It’s counter-intuitive, but sometimes when, as an artist, I just let go and let my true self shine through, that’s when I produce some of my best work.

  24. A thought provoking blog, Allison; one which I thoroughly enjoyed. While I agree that the timeless writing we have come to know as classics is a worthy goal to achieve, we are not all attempting to write literary fiction. As a mystery writer, I do not aspire to be Agatha Christie and as such. must recognize that my writing might simply provide my readers with a really good read for, if I’m lucky, a few years.

    We see this with a number of writers of “commercial” fiction and I for one would feel honored to be amongst them.

    That said, I appreciate your post that caused me to think and voice my opinion. Thank you for that! I intend to keep reading:)

  25. The issues you speak of and the question you raised to yourself are the very things I’ve been wrestling with for years. What really matters after so many years? There has to be a connection with not only the words and the characters but also with the writer to understand and appreciate what was written many years ago. We identify with the character or the words cut us to the quick or we find ourselves alongside the writer wondering how he/she is going to resolve this particular relationship, problem, mystery. We read, we pause, we surmise, and we return again and again to those words that have stood the test of time because we “own” them too, they have become a part of us. Why else would I have committed whole passages of Shakespeare plays to memory, read Great Expectations more than once just to read the description of the wedding table, and loved Hardy’s Tess? The real conundrum is how do I accomplish this in my words to make them stand the test of time and connect with the coming generations?

    1. Nancy — that is the real question! I’m glad to get you thinking and hope you come up with something that challenges your writing. Appreciate you reading and adding your thoughts.

  26. I’m glad I took the time to read on past the first paragraph. You’ve got so much to say, so much to offer. I hope people realise this and look into your page.

  27. Allison, you’ve definitely hit on a topic that is often at the front of my mind when I stare at a white screen, watching the endless blinking of a vertical black line.
    I was recently given some great advice, that I’ve still yet to take action on. I was told, “If you’d get out of your own way… and truly expose your own vulnerability, it is then that people will respond and be moved.”
    Your line “to use writing as a vehicle to bare their own humanity” echoes what I was told.

  28. Timeless writing addresses core human problems, emotions, and motivators. I’m both a writer and a songwriter. I’ve spent years learning what makes a song timeless: and here it is… it strikes a universal theme with simple words and melody. It’s similar with books. Steinbeck was great because he struck a chord common to the masses of humanity. Woody Guthrie and Townes Van Zandt also do this in song. Now, great writers and songwriters don;t always become great sellers, but I believe they will find their way through the noise over time. My books study themes of love, religion vs. God, forgiveness, mercy, justice, etc,,, common human themes. I believe I have tapped into the timeless ideal of which you speak, but only time will tell if the masses will discover my work.

    1. Dan — that’s a great point. I didn’t think about the connection between songwriting and book writing but it makes sense that its there. I bet there’s a similar connection with screenwriting and playwriting, too.

  29. “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?”
    I don’t think you could have asked a better question, and I will try to remember to ask it of myself the next time…and time after that…and after that…I find myself worrying that no one will hear or care anything about my voice in a sea of voices.
    180 million blogs…oh, dear. I knew there were a lot, but I didn’t need to hear that. 😉

    1. Lucie — thanks for reading, and I’m glad the question has you thinking. I hope it helps you determine how NOT to get lost in a sea of voices. Don’t quit writing. Keep up the good work.

  30. This is an interesting question Ally and one that can help most people, not just writing. Ultimately one of the reasons I signed up to Jeff’s Tribe Writers course is because I understand that fundamentally we only have control of a certain amount of things, after that it relies a lot on luck and social influence; both your own and the influence of the people that are reading your work.

    I was reading a great interview with Noam Chomsky where he noted that “no individual changes anything alone”. I think this really rings true here because we can only write work to the best of our ability and share it with as many people as we can. It will be up to the people that read it to decide whether it becomes timeless.

    Having said that I picked up a great question that I can ask myself when looking at my work before I release it and that is “Will this work be a powerful piece in 10 years time’.

    Great article thank you

    Aaron Morton

  31. I am drawn to writing that tells an honest story of someones experiences, especially if it is told in a practical way, that inspires me to change.


  32. I really enjoyed this Allison. Thanks for your unique wisdom and insight into what makes timeless writing. I completely agree that its our humanity that hooks people and I’d say it’s often the pain of life (whether it be struggles like fear or the heartache of loss) that is often the most magnetic equalizer.

  33. You mentioned that we are human. I think part of what makes our writing timeless is when we connect with our readers through stories. Stories that capture the very heart of our readers. When we can tap in to the pain, frustrations, challenges etc. of other humans, and then let them know there is help, I think we’ve done a great thing. Thanks for sharing.

  34. I am glad to catch idea from your article. It has information I have been searching for a long time. Thanks so much.

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