I did some Netflix & iTunes binge-watching the other night. Mostly new stuff, but I did light into a few older shows, as well. Those old shows got me to thinking a bit; a bit about nostalgia, and a bit about just how much “recycling” of old material happens today, but mostly…mostly they got me to thinking about standing the test of time.
Not just shows, or movies, but also books, music, plays, poems, art…
At first it was just an easy stroll through those things that have stood the test of time for me: writers I still love, musicians, and the like. But that stroll led to more pointed thoughts: what actually makes certain people and works stand the test of time? Just what is it that makes them continue to resonate twenty, thirty, fifty, a hundred years later?
Keep in mind, when I talk about “standing the test of time,” I’m not talking about popularity. There are plenty of best-sellers and blockbusters that are now nothing more than forgotten footnotes in a few almanacs. Books like Coma, movies like Backdraft, bands like Dexy’s Midnight Runners*…they’re not bad, just completely forgotten.
*Actually, “Come On Eileen” is still a cool song…and still a staple in many bars.
No, I’m talking about works that are still enjoyed no matter how much time has passed. Works that still communicate their voice and vision and reality regardless of time’s passage. The Godfather is almost FIFTY years old…M*A*S*H ended thirty-five years ago…it’s been almost forty years for Downbelow Station, almost thirty since The Wheel of Time was started…almost a hundred and fifty for Tom Sawyer…
So what is this “sin” that leads so many books (and movies) to be “forgotten”?
Or, more accurately, catering excessively — exclusively, even — to the idiosyncrasies and trends of the moment. There is always that urge to be “cutting edge” and “topical”, but that urge needs to be tempered and controlled. Yes, you have to be up-to-date and current, and yes — very much yes! — you need to tackle the issues of the day, but you have to do so in a way that speaks to more than current trends and fashions.
You have to write honestly and openly…and you very much have to create characters that are open and honest, and that transcend those issues of the day to connect across the years. Why do Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn still work as characters? We don’t live in anything even close to that world…we’re a century and a half past that world. So why do they still resonate? Why do they still speak to people?
Because they are authentic. Because Twain captured the magic, and the honest feelings, of young, rural boyhood…no matter the time or place. He captured that magic, and still wrote to the issues of his day in a voice, and in a way, that matters just as much now as it did then.
Why is A Wrinkle in Time perennially one of the most-read children’s books? Why is it being made into a movie today? Because Madeline L’Engle wrote about issues and problems that her nine-, ten- and eleven-year-old readers STILL struggle with. That book was influenced by the world of 1960, but not defined by it. No, it is defined by themes and messages that matter just as much today as they did sixty years ago.
That is how you stand the test of time. More important, that is how you move past writing a story and move into the realm of writing a story.