Right before I started working on this post, I watched this video.
The video is well-worth a viewing, but if for some reason you can’t, it shows a series of astronomical objects, comparing their size, starting with the relatively small like Ceres, Pluto, and the Earth’s Moon and working up through planets, stars, and eventually galaxies. It continues to the scale of our universe’s cosmic web: tendrils of multi-galactic structure billions of light years across that weave through voids vast enough to contain millions of galaxies themselves. (For a clickable representation of the scale of sizes and distances in just our Solar System, check out OMGSpace.net.)
When you’re about to reflect on the topic of staying relevant, that is either the worst video to watch, or the best. Maybe both.
I confess relevance isn’t something I think much about. My first young adult novel came out about two months ago. I’m fifty-two, a grandpa. I haven’t had a teenager living at home for more than two years, or a high school student for more than four. My daughter is in her 30s. I listen to classic rock and wear cargo shorts unironically. In a way, I have about as much business writing about and for teens and I have performing brain surgery. (For the record, I am not a brain surgeon.)
We’re not talking about scales here of the sort represented in the video above, of course. I can still remember being a teen, after all — especially certain specific moments of intense embarrassment my brain likes to relive for me in vivid Technicolor® all too often. But in a way, merely presuming I can write with any relevance for an audience whose experience of the world is so different from my own feels like a species of arrogance, like shouting across one of those cosmic voids and expecting to be heard.
For me, the answer is to not worry about relevance. Instead, I worry about writing stories that are true. Oh, sure, they’re “made-up” in the sense that they’re not factual in the way non-fiction must be. But non-fiction can be rigorously factual and still present a distorted view of reality. Fiction may do that too, but at its best, fiction can reveal deep truths. As a writer, that’s what I aspire to achieve.
Big words, those. Translating that ideal into a readable tale (even if it’s only read by me) is the trick.
In practical terms, that means respecting my audience. It means I read a lot, and listen a lot to people who both write for and make up my audience — acts which are their own reward in addition to helping me be a better. It means I work very hard to check my assumptions and prejudices, and to try to reflect real people in the characters I create — not specific real people, but the truth of the life experiences and values real people have.
Now, whether I succeed or not isn’t up to me, of course. But if I’ve done my job well enough, relevance takes care of itself. If I’ve been true to my audience, then maybe I’ll have the chance be heard across that great gulf. The years and the distance then may become irrelevant.