Kenyon College: John Green – Thoughts on How To Make Things and Why

Kenyon College: John Green – Thoughts on How To Make Things and Why

It’s so nice to be here with you tonight in this place where I have so many wonderful memories of my five, yes five, years I spent at Kenyon. I also have a lot of terrible memories, but it’s even sort of nice to be among them because they’ve mostly lost their edges now and they seem survivable in the way that things only can once you’ve survived them. I wanna thank all of you for being here tonight, but I especially want to thank the faculty for making this evening possible and especially the professors who are here tonight who I had during my time at Kenyon. People like Professor Rogan, Kluge, Lentz, McMullen, Mankoff, Schubel, Adler, Dean-Otting, Rhodes, Olshanskaya, Professor Davidson, among many others. These people didn’t just teach me the difference between Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism or when to use an en dash. They can lay claim to much of whatever is good in my work. The old man in “Looking for Alaska” is mostly Professor Rogan, except when he says, “You may be smart but I’ve been smart longer,” which is something that Kluge said to me. The “great white wall of cow” in “Paper Towns” is from Lentz’s lectures on “Moby Dick,” whether he likes it or not. The story of the Sufi Saint Rābiʿa al-ʿAdawiyya whose name I’m mispronouncing — Professor Schubel just told me how to pronounce it, but I don’t remember. Anyway. That story in “Looking for Alaska” comes from Professor Schubel. The Buddhist stuff about everything coming together, that comes together falling apart, from “Looking for Alaska,” is from Professor Adler. Adele Davidson made me love Shakespeare, which gave me the title to “The Fault in Our Stars” and if Ellen Mankoff hadn’t taught me to love books through “Paradise Lost,” and “Sula” and “Jane Eyre,” I wouldn’t have ever written any. I could go on but suffice it to say that I am in the debt of all of these people, as you students will one day be. So I wanna talk broadly about being alive, and whether there’s a point to it, and whether the point is derived or constructed, and why we even bother to make things, but first I want to give you some advice. I am twice as old as some of you now, and I am gripped by the nostalgia that accompanies returning to the scene of one’s youth, and so there is no way that I am going to make it through this evening without a bit of advice-giving. So. Many of you are going to leave this place, and you’re going to have one to five difficult years of adjusting to the so-called “real world,” with its bills and its jobs, and you will describe swaths of your life as “soul-sucking.” Not because you’re being hyperbolic, but because it literally and actually feels as if your soul is being wrested from your body. And many of you probably don’t even believe in a human soul, but you but you will come to believe in it when it is leaving you. And it will feel like all of the debts that you have accrued since infancy are suddenly coming due, and if you’re anything like me, there’s going to come a dark time when you’re staring at the ceiling late at night knowing that you have to wake up in three hours and fifty-six minutes to go to your job, assuming that you’re lucky enough to have found a job, and you will be thinking about how totally unqualified you are for adulthood. And you’ll feel like screaming, but you know that you can’t scream because you have roommates and also because screaming is not going to help you fall asleep, and you need to fall asleep because you need to wake up in three hours and fifty-five minutes, and you will feel impotent and useless, and you will be consumed by the terrifying fact that the universe doesn’t give a shit about you, and now, you have to go to work in three hours and fifty-four minutes. And in that moment of abject hopelessness, you may think, “I should go to law school.” I have driven here today all day through the snow from Indianapolis to tell you one thing: you do not have to go to law school. You can — you can go to law school, and many of you will, and you can have a wonderfully fulfilling life as a lawyer, as my best friend from Kenyon does — she’s a guardian ad litem in Chicago. But you don’t have to go to law school. Professor Lentz told me this just before I graduated from Kenyon, and those words served as a warm fire through the cold nights of my early twenties, and so I want to pass them along to you. You don’t. Have. To go. To law school. That is the end of the advice portion of the program. The rest of the program is going to take some time, but then I do really value your questions, and I want to take as many questions as we have time for. But now the non-advice part. So I’m a writer of genre fiction, or pop-fiction, or pulp novels, or whatever you wanna call them. Writers of such books often feel critically neglected, and when they’re invited to speak at colleges, they take the opportunity to rail against the rigidity of the canon and argue that “low culture” is the new “high culture” and so on. And then, writers like Jonathan Franzen rain on everyone’s graduation parade by coming to those same colleges — the few people who’ve heard that speech are laughing — coming to those same — now they’re laughing harder. Coming to those same colleges and delivering very serious sermons that defend “high culture” as the last barrier against the onslaught of mindless scrolling through Twitter and Tumblr feeds, and I assume that these dudes, they are almost always dudes, will continue to snipe at each other over who should have the attention of the academy until the end of literature because they have been doing it since the beginning of literature. I am not going to play the role of the genre writer here in speaking to you. I do hope that my books stand up to critical reading, but I believe without reservation that you should be reading “Song of Solomon” and “Jane Eyre” and “Paradise Lost” and “Moby Dick” in your English classes and not “The Fault in Our Stars” because those books are better. That said, I think the question beneath the high culture low culture debate is a really interesting one, because I think it’s ultimately about what the meaning of human life is, and what we’re supposed to do with consciousness. Like when we fight about what we should read or what deserves to be read closely, what we’re really fighting about is why we should read and write in the first place, which is a branch of the great and terrible question beneath all others: why should we even bother doing anything? Okay, this is a quote from David Foster Wallace’s book, “The Pale King.” He gave a really great speech at Kenyon, but I’m not gonna quote that because you guys have all read it. “The really interesting question is why dullness proves to be such a powerful impediment to attention. Why we recoil from the dull. Maybe it’s because dullness is intrinsically painful; maybe that’s where phrases like ‘deadly dull’ or ‘excruciatingly dull’ come from. But there might be more to it. Maybe dullness is associated with psychic pain because something that’s dull or opaque fails to provide enough stimulation to distract people from some other, deeper type of pain that is always there, if only in an ambient low-level way, and which most of us spend nearly all our time and energy trying to distract ourselves from feeling, or at least from feeling directly, or with our full attention. Surely something must lie behind not just Muzak in dull or tedious places anymore but now actual TVs in waiting rooms, supermarkets’ checkouts, and airport gates, and SUV back seats. Walkmen, iPods, BlackBerries, cell phones that attach to your head. This terror of silence with nothing diverting to do. I can’t think anyone really believes that today’s so-called ‘information society’ is really about information. Everyone knows it’s about something else, way down.” I think for me at least that “something else way down,” that deeper omnipresent pain that I try to distract myself from feeling, might be the pain of meaninglessness. I think we have to distract ourselves from the terrifying possibility that our selves are without value — that the vast interior lives that we lead are going to die entirely with us and be extinguished, and that our brief, miraculous decades of consciousness won’t have been for anything. For me at least there’s a horrifying depravity to meaninglessness, and it scares the crap out of me. So, okay, then I have to find meaning, and the question of why I should write or read or get out of bed in the morning or do anything becomes very important, not just in a theoretical way, but in a “keeping myself from experiencing a psychotic break” kind of way. And for many people, I want to be clear, reading a novel is mere distraction, and I think that’s great. But in a world of, like, Angry Birds and Flappy Bird and whatever you guys are doing on the internet, it seems to me that novels are much less useful as tools of mere diversion than they used to be. Actually opens up an opportunity for books. Because increasingly, at least among people who can easily find sufficient distractions and gaming or video, a book, even a pulp novel, must do something more than merely divert attention in order to be successful with an audience. All right, so when I was at Kenyon, I believed, and my professors will vouch for this, that the point of writing, and the point of doing literally anything was to leave a mark upon the world that would last for all time and also in the process to get people to wanna hook up with me. This was my way out of the horror of meaninglessness. Through my work, some abstract idea of I was going to last forever. Now in retrospect, obviously, this was not a terribly well-considered position, but my idea was that I could ensure my immortality by making great things that would be eternal, and since math was hard, and I sucked at painting, I figured that writing was, like, this arena for me to make this permanent mark upon the universe. I hope that you know that this is a terrible life strategy for several reasons. First, you can’t make something that lasts forever because there is no forever, at least not of the worldly variety, like humans are temporary, both as individuals and as a species and leaving a mark is something that dogs do to fire hydrants, not something that individual humans do to the universe. Secondly, the relentless pursuit of capital G Greatness makes for terrible, terrible writing because you aren’t focused on making something as a gift for people, you’re focused on convincing people that you are a genius. I do not need to be convinced of someone else’s genius. It is not a fun or interesting reading experience for me. So needless to say, I was a pretty poor writer when I was at Kenyon. Professor Kluge, who taught me in the “Intro to Fiction” class, called me “solid B+” and also made me stop giving my stories titles after I called one “Things Remembered, Things Forgotten.” Which reminds me that this lecture also has a terrible title. So clearly I have not made that much progress. Still shouldn’t be trusted with titles. So then the next year I applied to the “Advanced Fiction Writing” course at Kenyon and I didn’t get in. And I was devastated. I mean, for years I was intensely resentful about this. So I had a new reason to make things. I would prove everyone wrong. I would be like Einstein failing math. By the way, Einstein did not fail math. You would be surprised to learn that he was, of course, quite quite good at math. Also, proving everyone wrong turns out to be a terrible meaning to life. Although for me at least, it was slightly better than what it replaced, which was wanting to prove to everyone that I was a genius so that they would want to have sex with me. The benefit of resentment for me was that it was at least fuel. It burned dirty, but it did burn. Now, of course I recognize that the reason I didn’t get into the “Advanced Fiction Writing” class at Kenyon was that I submitted a bad story, but realizing that took a measure of self-awareness that I didn’t have at twenty or even at twenty-five. So anyway, near the end of my Kenyon years, a couple of important things happened. First, I started getting invited to Professor Rogan’s poetry nights, at which about a dozen people, some students, some professors would gather in the Rogan family living room and read poems to each other. Some of these poems were original, some not, and these nights became the most invigorating intellectual experiences I’d ever had. I slowly realized that the people in that room weren’t trying to impress each other. They were trying to share something with each other. They were making gifts for me. Finding or writing poems that they thought I might like, that they thought might matter to me, and then sharing them with me. This was a revelation. Maybe art didn’t exist to bring fame and glory and wealth to the artist, but instead art could be, like, helpful. And the second important thing was that P. F. Kluge invited me over to his house, poured me a drink, and he asked me if I was still writing and I said I was. We talked for a while about audience, about making things for other people as well as for yourself, and if I was writing different kinds of stories, and I said that I wasn’t really, not yet. And then he told me that while the stuff I turned in in class wasn’t particularly interesting, he liked the stories that I told during breaks. The story that I told, like, before class. “Like the fleece story,” he said. “Why don’t I ever read anything from you like the fleece story?” All right, I’ve never told this story in front of more than about eight people. And fair warning, it’s dirty. But I am now going to tell the fleece story. I’m gonna try. This is hugely embarrassing. Just to prepare everyone. But this is my only funny Kenyon story. So I was in a long-term relationship my first couple years at Kenyon with a girl who lived far away — I’m gonna try not to look at any young people in the audience, only old people. Okay. I was in a relationship with a young woman who lived far away from me and we were deeply in love, it was the first romantic relationship I’d ever been in, it was really intense, and, well, I was deeply in love, I should say. And then one day we broke up. Specifically, she dumped me. And I was destroyed. I mean, I can’t possibly exaggerate how devastated I was I was just — it was awful. And this went on for weeks of, you know, everything I would do all day long would remind me of my intense, undying love for this person. And this was very annoying to my friends, of course, and several of my friends said, “You know, what you need to do is, you need to go to a party. You need to have a few drinks. You need to meet someone. You need to have a brief relationship that will introduce you to the idea that it’s possible to have a romantic interaction with more than one person, and that will ease you out of this,” et cetera. So I did. I went to a fraternity party. It was in the basement of Old Kenyon, which becomes relevant shortly, and I was — I had a lot to drink, and there was a girl at the party and this is also important — I thought that her name was Amanda. But I knew that she was the girl who worked at the Village Market ’cause I had bought, like, hodogs from her and stuff and so I went up to her and was like, “You’re the girl who works at the Village Market” and she was like, “Yeah, you’re the guy who buys the hotdogs.” And we started to have a nice conversation, we really hit it off, it was awesome. We were really enjoying talking to each other. She was also quite intoxicated. She said, “Do you wanna dance?” and I said “yes” because I figured, you know, that was my best chance, and we were dancing and we kept drinking and we kept talking and we really liked each other and we started to kiss and then she said, “Do you wanna go up to my room” and I said, “Yes!” So we walk up to the third floor of Old Kenyon, a dorm that, again, to emphasize this, I don’t know very well. And we go to her room. And we’re making out and everything’s going well and we disrobe and — [audience laughter] I told you! And so yeah, so all of this is happening, and I, um, I need to pee because I’ve had a lot to drink because I’m drunk And I’d just, I’d rather just get it over with. I just wanna do it, I wanna get it over with and so I say to her, “I really need to pee. I will be right back.” And I run to the bathroom, I pee and I come out, and I dunno if you’ve been to Old Kenyon, but when you come out of the bathroom, I can tell you from experience, what you see is an incredibly, astonishingly long hallway with so many doors! And I had no idea which door contained the person I thought was named Amanda. So I just kinda — I, I panicked obviously, but my strategy was just to do a quick, quick run through of the hallway, just scanning all the whiteboards, dry erase boards, for any Amandas. I didn’t see any because as it turned out, her name was not Amanda. So I run down the hallway looking for Amandas, I run back looking for Amandas, no Amandas, no like, “Welcome to Amanda and Jane’s room!” None of that. So I go back to the bathroom, really panicking. I figure let’s just stay in the bathroom for, like, five minutes she’ll come out, she’ll be worried about you, presumably, at some point, and I stay there for what really feels to me like several years And finally, and you know, like, my options have been reduced. And so I go out of the stall into the proper full bathroom, and I look around, and there is exactly one thing that can be of use to me and it’s a green fleece vest. A North Face forest green fleece vest. And I wrap myself in this green fleece vest, and I run over a mile to the New Apartments. That’s the fleece vest story. All right. Couple things about that story. First off, it’s like, sixty-five percent true. Secondly, most of the really good parts didn’t actually happen to me, they happened to one of my friends. Sorry. But if I had told the true story, it wouldn’t have been as good. It wouldn’t have been as funny. I made up a bunch of things. I cast myself as the idiot, because I figured that that would make you like the story more than if I’d cast my friend as the idiot. And Kluge wanted to know why he didn’t read stories like the fleece story, which I was obviously creating with an eye toward audience. In fact, I’d chosen to fictionalize a bunch of details expressly so that you would like it. Why did my writing voice sound distant and impersonal, like a thing that I was making for some arbitrary judge of writerly-ness? So after I graduated from Kenyon, I lived for several months in Mount Vernon, and I worked as a student chaplain in the Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, which is where this story stops being funny at all. While there, I saw many sick kids and I saw them suffer for no reason, I saw them die for no reason. I was reminded again and again of something that Professor Rogan said to me once, that it is a law that parents must not live to bury their children, and that someone should enforce it. I had by then become a really religious person. I was considering becoming a minister, and I went to church every Sunday and whatnot. But the religion I found at the hospital was very different from what I encountered at the Church of the Holy Spirit, or in my religion classes. At the hospital, people would say — and I heard this literally every day — that God has a plan, that everything happens for a reason, that heaven needed an angel. And I parodied this in “The Fault in Our Stars” by having one of the character’s houses plastered with these pithy sentiments. “In the darkest days, the Lord puts the best people in your life.” “Without pain, how would we know joy?” et cetera. And in the book, the characters call these “encouragements.” For me at least, those cliché encouragements were totally unconvincing. I mean, they’re good ideas, but amid the reality of human horror, as I realized that children have always died, that the death of children is as natural as it is unjust, the notion of a plan was revolting to me. The universe, I felt, either is completely disinterested in people, or else it acts precisely as if it were. Way down deep, in what Robert Penn Warren called “the darkness which is you,” that cheap hope of encouragements offered me no comfort. What we need are better encouragements, ones that aren’t bullshit. Ones that hold up to scrutiny. And this, I think, is why we tell stories and read them: to light the way down deep darkness which is you. It’s all well and good to have distraction in your life and I don’t deny its importance — take your comfort where you can find it. Angry Birds, Muzak, the righteous indignation of cable news, but the free market is really good, like, incredibly good at making distractions for us. Distraction is lucrative. It’s easy to fund by advertising and it’s relatively easy to make. So I don’t feel the need to provide more distraction, really, because I think we have plenty. In my work both in my books and in the online projects and communities that I’ve tried to develop with my brother Hank, I’ve tried to make stuff for people that won’t be mere distraction, but will instead be encouragements — not the kind that fall apart when you take them way down deep into the darkness which is you, but the kind that can be useful even then. And this is a plainly and old fashioned-ly moralistic way of imagining the making of things, but I do believe in it. I believe that fiction can help. And if that’s what makes me inevitably a genre writer, that’s okay. All right, so after college, I decided not to go to divinity school, and instead found a job working as an assistant in Chicago at a book review magazine in the children’s book section. I had no interest in children’s books, but it just so happened that I got this job in the year 2000, which was a crazy time in the world of young adult fiction because a couple dozen hugely important books in the little pond of my work had just come out, like “Speak” and “Monster” and M.T. Anderson’s “Burger Wuss,” which doesn’t sound like a serious literary novel, but it is. And I started reading these books, and the best of them were like “Catcher in the Rye” or something. They were coming of age novels, but they had all kinds of interesting things to say about contemporary life, and plus they tackled big and interesting question of being a person head on, without any irony. And this really appealed to me. As a writer and as a reader, I’ve always valued symbol and metaphor because they can give form and nuance to incredibly complex ideas, but I also like to sit around and talk about the meaning of life directly with people, and I like characters and books that aren’t afraid to do that, as well. So as I read more and more YA books, I started getting into genre books of every variety. One of the weird things about YA fiction back then was that all these genres, like sci-fi and fantasy and realistic fiction and mystery and romance, they were all shelved together, so I found myself reading cyberpunk novels and bodice-ripping romances about 17th-Century England and noir thrillers. And all of them gave me gifts. Well, not all of them. Some of them gave me gifts. For one thing, there was the ability, which I don’t think can be underappreciated, of escaping oneself. Like it seems to me that the number one problem that we face as human beings is that we’re stuck inside of ourselves, like, I’m going to spend my whole life seeing the world through my eyes, this is the only body I’ll ever have, the only consciousness I’ll ever have, and I’ll never really know what it’s like to be you. I will always see you in the context of myself. But when I read “Sula,” I have a way into someone else’s life — a life very different from mine. I get to imagine Sula’s world with far more complexity than I can imagine the real life of anyone I know, even someone who’s very close to me, because through the act of reading, I live inside someone else’s story. Reading and writing in that sense can be paths to empathy and it allows for two-way traffic, like, through story, I can imagine others more generously and complexly. I can glimpse the richness of their inner lives, but that also gives me the hope that others can glimpse the richness of mine, which makes me feel less alone and less shameful and less revolting. There is real light in that. And maybe it’s true. Maybe the universe doesn’t give a shit about you. But through empathy, we can care about each other and we are also of the universe. All right, so after college, one of my best friends was this guy, Hassan. I was living with a bunch of Kenyon kids and this guy, Hassan. And he was from Kuwait, and in 2003, I don’t know if you heard about this, but America invaded Iraq and it went through Kuwait and for six weeks, Hassan didn’t hear from his family. I don’t mean to be dismissive of the stress he went under for those six weeks, but he controlled the only television in the house, and he insisted that we watch cable news 24 hours a day because he was obsessed with the war and its progress. And we you know would like periodically have, sort of, interventions where we would say like, “Hassan, it’s time to watch ‘Friends,'” and he would say, “No, I’m gonna keep watching the war.” So the only way to hang out with him was to watch the war with him, which, I dunno if you’ve ever watched a war on TV, but it’s super depressing. And one day I’m sitting next to Hassan, and it’s one of those situations where the news feed is coming in and the anchor who’s talking over the news feed is watching it for the first time, and we are also watching it for the first time but because the anchor has a microphone, he’s an expert. And they’re panning across this house in Baghdad that has a huge hole in the facade, and over it is plywood, and on that plywood is scrawled in black spray paint very angry-looking Arabic graffiti. And the news anchor’s talking about the anger on the Arab street and blah blah blah. And my friend Hassan starts to laugh. And I said, “What’s so funny?” And he said, “The graffiti.” And I said, “What’s funny about it?” And he said, “It says, ‘happy birthday, sir, despite the circumstances.'” How do we get to a place, as individuals, as a community, where we consider the “happy birthday, sir, despite the circumstances” possibility? How do we get to a place where we don’t make that assumption about the other? Where we consider the fact that it’s possible — in fact, in some cases, it’s likely — that it’s a “happy birthday, sir, despite the circumstances” situation? I think story is a way into that empathy. I also think that story is a way into ideas. Fiction can give form to ideas that help me to grapple with them much more meaningfully than I can without story. I mean, “what makes for a heroic life?” That’s an abstract question. I don’t know how to begin to think about it. But then, I meet Captain Ahab. And what I’ve found is that pop fiction, at least the best of it, can do some of the same stuff. It can be a way into questions that are important: why is suffering unevenly distributed? Is the real heroic journey from weakness to strength, or the journey from strength to weakness? Is it possible to look at the human condition both honestly and hopefully? Pop fiction tends to address those questions much more directly than literary fiction, and often, that means less nuance. Less complexity. But one of the reasons I’ve always liked writing for and about teenagers is that they’re asking those questions directly. They don’t have conversations about the meaning of life through the lens of their mortgage rates. They question life’s meaning and it feels to them worthy of discussion in its own — on its own merits. But most importantly, pop fiction also has the power to crack us open and to let the light get in way down deep. And I could never have succeeded at doing that for readers until I accepted myself as the kind of writer who works in and values genre. So whenever a properly good writer, like Michael Chabon, say, or Joyce Carol Oates, writes a mystery or a romance or whatever, reviewers always say that the author is “upending the conventions of the genre.” And I don’t really find that to be the case usually, like I think Michael Chabon just wrote a really good mystery with “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union.” Most conventions of the genre, I think, turn out to be really useful. Like, when I was writing “Looking for Alaska,” I wanted to write a boarding school novel, with pranks, and the cool kids at war with the freaks, and sneaking around campus in the middle of the night, et cetera. But then, there were also conventions of the genre that were really problematic to me, like the one in which the boy, it’s always a boy, we’ll just call him “Holden” for the sake of clarity, the boy, Holden, flutters about essentializing women and the only person who ever gets hurt by his total failure to see women as actual human beings is Holden himself, when in fact, this habit that men have of imagining the women they admire as flawless goddesses, whose problems cannot possibly be as real or as important as boy problems, that problem turns out to be as bad for women, or arguably worse, as it is for the Holdens of the world. So okay. You try to show that in your boarding school novel. That’s not upending the conventions of a genre, it’s trying to make an honest, human story that isn’t bullshit. I was thinking a lot about genre when I was writing my book, “The Fault in Our Stars.” It’s a cancer book, but it’s one that’s hyper-aware of cancer books. And there’s a lot that I like about cancer books, but here’s what bothers me. There’s almost always a sick person who suffers nobly and bravely and in the process of dying so beautifully and heroically, the healthy people around that sick person learn important lessons like how to be grateful for every day, or, in the case of American literature’s most famous cancer love story, the lesson that love means never having to say you’re sorry. That is ridiculous. Love means constantly having to say you’re sorry. Anyway, what troubles me about this convention is that it imagines sick people exist and suffer so that healthy people can learn lessons. It essentializes the lives of the sick. It imagines them as less complete and real and full as the rest of us. In fact, the meaning of any life is complicated and messy, and it’s about more than learning lessons. In 2006, the writer Malcom Gladwell made a huge stir when he argued that a young adult novel that plagiarized the young adult novelist Megan McCafferty wasn’t really plagiarism because, and I’m gonna quote him here, “This is teen literature. It’s genre fiction. These are novels based on novels based on novels, in which every convention of character and plot has been trodden out a thousand times before.” Now, this is a ridiculous defense of plagiarism. Obviously, Gladwell later apologized, but he wasn’t entirely wrong. My novels are novels based upon novels based upon novels. Most novels are. But they change in the retelling, just as the story about the vest does. Novels change to stay relevant. Their hope gets less flimsy because the flimsy stuff stops being useful. This is a very slow process. Millions of writers and readers are working together across generations to make stories that can be a light in the way down darkness which is you. Writing and reading isn’t about a singular mind emerging from isolation to create unprecedented art. It’s a massive collaboration, spanning millennia, and it embraces and includes all of us. I know that it won’t last forever. I know that we’re all going to die, and that all of those novels upon novels upon novels will be rendered irrelevant with our extinction, and that the universe will go on just fine without us, but not today. Not today. Today, we have the opportunity to honor those who came before us by making art as they did: as a gift, and by continuing the ancient conversations about how to go on and why. I want to again thank the many people at Kenyon who welcomed me into that grand old conversation, and thanks to all of you for being here tonight. Thank you. [applause] Thanks again. So, now I’m going to take some of your questions. Make them good. I can give you examples of bad questions, if that will help. The worst question is, “who the F is Hank?” Which is, like, a nerdfighter in-joke that only 30 people in the audience will get. So don’t ask that one. Also I like saying that whenever I start Q&As because my brother is watching on the internet, and I just hurt his feelings and it makes me happy. The hands shall rise as one with your many fascinating questions. [Audience member]: So, you talked about how you see things through your own eyes, and only through your own eyes. I was a teenage girl once, and man, you really nailed Hazel. Tell me, how did you find your way into a teenage girl? Oh God… okay… And now I’ve just embarrassed my children, so it’s all good. [John Green]: No, no, I understand. Um… That’s a good question. Um… Look, it’s all fakery in a way, right? I mean, you’re always trying to imagine what it’s like to be someone other than you. You don’t just do this when you’re writing, by the way. You do it every second of every day. You do it whenever you’re trying to get someone to make out with you, for instance. That is essentially, like, the job of empathy. Like, “How do I create in this person the desire to make out with me?” is an empathic question, so this isn’t limited to literature at all, but with “The Fault in Our Stars” in particular, I got very very lucky, and I don’t know how. I tried to write that book for almost 10 years. Ever since I worked as a chaplain, I would go back, I was trying to work on what I called the “Children’s Hospital Story,” although in all of its previous incarnations, it starred this 22-year-old hospital chaplain, who was, like, surprisingly handsome and, like, hooking up with doctors. It was very embarrassing. I hope that — it was just terrible. But you know, I would go back to that story and go back to it and go back to it and then, in 2010, a good friend of mine died of cancer, a young friend, and I went back to the story, and I went back to it angry and needing to work. I was talking to a student at dinner tonight about that feeling when you need to write, when it feels like it’s the only thing that can save you from some sort of physical or psychic pain. And that’s how I felt. And I never felt like I was writing from a girl’s perspective. I never worried about writing from a girl’s perspective. I felt like I was writing from Hazel’s perspective pretty much from the moment I wrote that first sentence. And then, you know, my wife would tell me that I was getting things wrong or whatever, and I’d just change them as I went, but as far as the voice goes, it was born of that moment. Being really mad and sad and overwhelmed. So in retrospect, I guess I’m grateful for that moment. Other questions? Sorry… I like to make the microphone person do work. [Audience member]: This might seem like a little bit of a trivial question, but in retrospect, which of the books that you’ve written is your favorite, reading it now that you’re done? [John Green]: Mmm. Well, I don’t read them now Just the other day, I went to a book club — it was like, a mother-daughter book club and they’d read “Looking for Alaska,” which came out in 2005 and on many occasions they’d ask me questions, and I’d just be like, “I dunno.” I mean, I think “The Fault in Our Stars” is probably the best but that’s based mostly on Goodreads ratings… The average Goodreads rating is highest, so I guess that’s… I mean, I… Writing “The Fault In Our Stars” was the most intense writing other than maybe “Looking for Alaska,” so, I dunno, one of those two. I’m not that thrilled with any of them, to be totally up front with you. That’s why you keep working, though, right? Is there a microphone person on this side? Yeah? I dunno, Pick one of them! I pick you! I liked your sweater. Is it cats? [Audience member]: It’s cats with bow ties. [John Green]: Oh! Thanks for dressing up. [Audience member]: Of course. So, you briefly mentioned market dogs in your story, and I was wondering if there were any other snack foods, or just like, compared to your experience at Kenyon and then your experience after Kenyon, if there were any snack foods that you felt gave you meaning. [John Green]: That I miss? I mean, I ate a bagel with cream cheese every morning at the bookstore, “every morning” like 11:10 in the morning. That was probably the most — and Gatorade. I was a very passionate consumer of Gatorade. It’s cliché to say, but this was in the days when one couldn’t put on weight no matter how much one ate, which have passed. And then market dogs, and I ate at the Deli a lot. I mean, I would eat anywhere. I would eat anything. You have to understand, it was a very different cafeteria that I attended than the one you attend today. We had no local, home grown… sushi, or whatever it is you people are eating. We ate white bread with butter and we were glad to have it. Yes, one of you. You’ll have to fight it out. I can’t see the back, so you could probably just stay up here. Hi! [Audience member:] Hi! Just out of curiosity, do you remember what the first sentence or phrase that you wrote for Hazel’s character was? [John Green:] Yeah, it was the first sentence of the book. “Late in the winter of my—” at the time, it was “sixteenth year.” I didn’t realize that in your sixteenth year, you’re actually 15 and in your seventeenth year, you’re 16. I didn’t know that, but. Lots of you have pointed it out to me! So, the first line I wrote was, “Late in the winter of my sixteenth year, my mother decided I was depressed.” All that stuff. And there was something about — this borders on the supernatural, and I hate it when writers do that, when they act like there’s a little God or whatever it is whispering into their ear the secrets of the universe, or whatever. That’s not true. The little God is inside every human brain. But I did have a quasi-mystical experience of almost being able to tap my foot to the writing of that first chapter, the whole three days it was happening, and I wouldn’t do anything else, and I was really, really excited, and that feeling like — you have it when you read a great book, like when you read “Gatsby,” you know, “In my younger and more vulnerable years, my father gave me some advice—” It’s almost iambic. And I haven’t ever experienced that feeling writing before, and it was very fun, so thank you for reminding me of that. And now I’m mad that I haven’t had it since. [Audience member:] I had a question about the YouTube series you did, “Crash Course.” Where’d you get your idea? [John Green]: That’s a great quesiton. So, when we were starting, so, my brother and I had been making YouTube videos for, like, almost five years by the time we started “Crash Course.” And we really loved — occasionally, we would make an educational video. Like, I remember I made a three-video series about the French Revolution, and my brother made one about how the heart works. And they were really fun to make but they were also really labor-intensive. Like, they took weeks and weeks to make and they were expensive, and it was just really hard. So we would always have conversations, “wouldn’t it be great if we could make 10-minute educational videos that could be the first 10 minutes of a class, or they would be 10 minutes that could get you excited about learning more about Ancient Egypt or biology or whatever it is.” And then one day, Google came to us and they said, “Do you have any ideas for an educational video series?” And we were like, “Do we?!” And so we pitched them the idea, and they funded it and because it had funding, we were able to pay people who actually know how to make YouTube videos, to edit it properly and make animations and everything, like the “Thought Bubble” segment. Then we were able to really make this dream that we’d had come true of making these hopefully high-quality educational videos, and then distributing them for free around the world. [Audience member]: I was also asking why you said “The Mongols” so much. [John Green:] Oh, why’d I say, “The Mongols” so much. That’s another good question. So, in every “Crash Course World History” episode, The Mongols are a super weird civilization because they don’t meet anyone’s — a lot of people’s “definitions of civilization,” which makes them really interesting also because it makes them super important. I actually studied the Mongol Empire in Central Asia when I was at Kenyon. And so it was an easy joke, is the answer to your question. In every episode, I make a generalization about human civilization and then I pause and then I say, “Well, except for the Mongols.” So, yeah, I knew that joke because of Professor Schubel, and then I made it 52 times because it was cheap and easy. You want me to take a selfie with you? I can’t, I have to do the Q&A. You can Photoshop me in! Photoshop yourself in right here. Did that go okay? Good. [Audience member:] Do you have any advice for an aspiring young adult author at all? [John Green:] Yeah, it’s crazy that there’s such a thing as aspiring young adult authors at Kenyon today. That wasn’t even a thing when I was at Kenyon. Um, write… write a lot, but my main advice is to read broadly, like read a lot of young adult books, but also read other stuff. Read — I think I benefited a lot as a writer from reading across genre and truly reading voraciously, because I think it’s the best apprenticeship that we writers have. It’s the best way of figuring out how people have used text to create feelings and stories inside of people’s minds. So I’m a big believer in that. And the other thing that I would say in the realm of the fleece story is tell stories to people and pay attention to when they get bored. That’s actually really helpful for me in figuring out how to pace a story and figuring out what matters to people because I know what matters to me, but often times that’s self-indulgent like when I was writing the children’s hospital novel and it was all about this 22-year-old smoking hot chaplain. So I think that’s what I try to do. And I continue to try to read as broadly as I can. [Audience member:] Hi! I was just wondering what you thought one of the most under-utilized parts of Kenyon is. [John Green:] The most under-utilized part of Kenyon? The church on Sunday morning. I found that really useful. That’s the true answer. I benefited a lot from the Church of the Holy Spirit. And it’s right down there — it’s right down Middle Path. I know it’s hard to get up. But it’s interesting — it was useful for me, both as a non-religious person and a religious person. And there’s so much to do here — well. There is and there isn’t, right? But there is! It’s astonishing, actually, the cultural opportunities that are available to you in the context of even a very large city, like Indianapolis, where I live. There’s very little that’s equivalent. So I encourage you to kind of, when you’re holed up in your winter misery, wrapped in your blanket on Tumblr, think, “Maybe something is happening on this Wednesday night that I could take advantage of.” [Announcer:] We’re gonna take about three more real human questions, and then we’re gonna move onto Twitter and some online. [John Green:] Okay, then the internet’s gonna take over. I feel like I should have someone in the back over here. No, I’m pointing at you, person who just turned around. You can just pick someone, microphone guy. [Audience member:] Uh, hi, John Green! [John Green:] Hi! [Audience member:] If you had to teach a course on your books, even if you don’t want to, or you could make a professor do it, you could choose a professor, how would you want your books to be approached? Additionally, what would you title this course? [John Green:] “How To Go On and Why” would be my title for the course. You know, I would — I don’t wanna say that I object to teaching my books in school, because I think that sounds worse than just answering your question, but I kind of do. I mean, I I get — okay, look, if you’re gonna read — okay. Maybe you can take my books and you can use them as a way into a different text? Sort of like an intertextual fun times? You know, where “Paper Towns” is a way into “Song of Myself” or “Moby Dick” and “Catherines” is a way into all of those sort of Southern Gothic novels and “Alaska” as a way into the great boarding school novels of the 19th and 20th century. I guess I could live with that. You can’t read any other cancer books, though. But I guess with “Fault in Our Stars,” what really got me going when I was writing it was thinking about the romantic epic and the weird obsession that goes back to the “Odyssey” in a lot of ways with what the obstacle must be between two people who are destined for each other, or whatever, whether it’s “Romeo and Juliet” or “The Odyssey.” This idea that everything that can be lifted to the status of the epic, all the obstructions that can be lifted to the status of the epic, are these — first off, they’re male things but they’re also war and politics and family strife. And it’s not enough that Romeo and Juliet’s parents hate each other. Their marriage also has to, like, ruin Verona. And I wanted to argue that disease can also be the stuff of epics, and that short lives that are maybe viewed by the social order as insignificant can also be matters of epic importance. So maybe reading other better romantic epics. I don’t know, that’s a tough question. You’re smart. [Audience member:] I was just wondering if you had any other YA authors you really liked, and you thought were doing it right, giving gifts, as you say. [John Green:] Yeah, I should add that that whole speech was stolen from Lewis Hyde’s book, “The Gift.” I meant to mention that in the speech, but I forgot. But I squeezed it in here at the end, so we’re good, right? ‘Kay. There are lots of YA authors who I think are doing really interesting stuff and making really great books. I’m a big fan of Marcus Zusak, M.T. Anderson, Walter Dean Myers, who’s been writing books for young adults for, like, forty years now is still one of the best writers. He wrote “Monster” and “Fallen Angels.” Coe Booth, who wrote “Tyrell,” is one of the best YA writers working today. A.S. King, who wrote books like “Ask the Passengers,” a really, really great writer. There’s so many. It’s actually a really rich time for young adult literature because the relationship that, the relationship the market has with YA books has changed so much, and that’s led to a flood of talented authors. But I’m frustrated that a lot of those — like I said, or like I hopefully implied in the speech, I don’t think any author, or any individual author, suffer from lack of critical attention, because I don’t think it’s the job of the individual author to elevate discourse on their own. I think that it’s something that happens communally and slowly and with lots and lots of people working together, and of course there are gonna be your Shakespeares and your Jane Austens, but like 99 percent of the time, the work is done in large collaborations. But, I do get frustrated that that great, broad body of young adult literature that’s coming out in the last 3-5 years hasn’t received as much critical attention as I would have liked, and in some cases, that critical attention gets narrowly focused on one author, like Marcus or myself, and that can be quite destructive for the overall quality of the conversation, I think, because then people think it’s about individuals when it’s not. My work isn’t. I’m always responding to those writers, as well. Anyway, those are some of the writers I like, but there are a ton. I should get you a list. [Audience member:] You described Tumblr and Twitter as, you mentioned “distraction.” And I wanted to know what your stance was on your own activity on Twitter, and you know. [John Green:] I’m on Tumblr? No, just kidding. Right, that’s a really good question. So I think that Tumblr and Twitter are — I guess I should’ve phrased this more carefully. I think they can be tools of mere distraction. I was trying to make fun of Franzen’s obsession with Twitter, which he’s clearly never been on. I think they can be tools of distraction, but I also think they can be places of engagement, and I think — Kim McMullen earlier tonight used a phrase that I really liked: meeting spaces. I think they can be meeting spaces, gathering spaces where you can have conversations that just wouldn’t be possible in real life because there aren’t that many people who are interested in Doctor Who or there aren’t that many people who are interested in Liverpool Football Club, or whatever it is that you’re really passionate about. And when any space online becomes a space for collaboration or sharing, then I’m very pleased with it because then it can become a space for engagement, not distraction. I think that’s what Tumblr is at its best. And what I love about Tumblr is that it encourages that mash-up culture — that share, re-blog, recreate culture that I think is the best of the internet. But when you use it as a feed that you scroll through to distract yourself from the way deep down pain of being alive, that’s okay, but you should know that you’re dong it. I do it all the time but I try to be conscious of the fact that I’m doing it. [Audience member:] Hi! Most of your books have been written by yourself And I was just wondering… what the experience was like writing with other authors like with “Will Grayson, Will Grayson” and “Let It Snow.” [John Green:] Yeah, so I collaborated on this novel, “Will Grayson, Will Grayson” where my friend David Levithan wrote from the perspective of one guy named Will Grayson in the Chicago suburbs and I wrote from the perspective of another guy named Will Grayson. On that topic, I met a guy named John Green today. Really nice guy. And then “Let It Snow” is this series — I wrote, like, a novella that connects to novellas by my friends Maureen Johnson and Lauren Miracle. It was great! I love collaborating. The difficult thing about writing is that it can be quite isolating. You know, I basically spend all of my time with my desk turned away from the window just staring at the screen, and it’s a very interior experience. I like that, I value that, I don’t wanna lose that. It’s a big part of what keeps me sane But there are times when you want to be able to collaborate or when you finish something, you want to share it with someone excitedly and have them respond to it. And that was the experience of writing both “Will Grayson” and “Let It Snow,” and it was really fun. I think right now, I have a lot of… social connections in my life? So it’s nice to be able to work on my own, but I will definitely collaborate again, I’m sure. How about the internet, do they have any questions? Hello, internet. Am I starring at the right camcorder? Hello, internet! [Madeleine:] I’m the internet. [John Green:] Oh, you’re the internet! Awesome! [Madeleine:] Hi, I’m Madeleine. [John Green:] Hi! [Madeleine:] I’m a junior and I will be representing the Twittersphere. So they’ve been tweeting questions with the hashtag #TweetJohnGreen First up, @rileynicole would like to know, “Does Hazel ever fall in love again?” [John Green:] I dunno. I don’t wanna sound like Peter Van Houten, the jerky, alcoholic novelist in my novel. By the way, when a novelist creates an author inside of a novel, the novelist always agrees with that author on all the key points. But he and I are in agreement that what happens outside the text of a book is not for an author to say, and the author’s voice should not be privileged over that of readers. Once the book has come out, it belongs to you and while I’m happy to answer questions about authorial intent and stuff, it is your book and not mine, and I don’t want any opinion that I have, should I have one, which I don’t, to be privileged. Yeah. Sorry. I know people hate that answer, but that is the only answer that I have. [Madeleine:] All right. Next up, @arazzleberry would like to know, “What is/was the most challenging part of your career and how do/did you overcome it?” [John Green:] I didn’t overcome it. I don’t think challenges are like, often at least, the biggest challenges for me are not things that I get on the other side of. They are things that I live with, like that great last line from “Brokeback Mountain,” “If you can’t change it, you stand it?” Or whatever… I probably butchered the line. Crap. But that idea, like, there are things in your life that you can’t change, that you stand. And there’s a heroism, I think, in standing things. So I have a pretty bad anxiety order that I’m not — that I haven’t dealt with, or overcome, or gotten on the other side of, but that is just part of my life. [Madeleine:] Next up, @ineffablequotes would like to know, “What are you currently writing?” [John Green:] Yeah, that’s a great question… I’m currently writing a lot of stuff that they need me to write for the movie. I am writing a novel. I wanna be working more on my novel but there’s just a lot… It’s very — usually, a book comes out and two weeks later it goes away and that’s extremely sad and I don’t like that experience. But this experience, where a book comes out and two years later it’s still like, “Hey! Hey! Hey! I’m your book! Pay attention to me!” Is also kind of annoying. But I am starting to work on something else. [Madeleine:] All right, and lastly @juliaaa [sp] would like to know, what is your favorite memory from college? [John Green:] My favorite memory from college? Oh, man, that’s so hard! All right. I mean — it’s so hard! I’ve got a lot of good ones! So right toward the end, senior year, fifth year, the Rogans went out of town for something, I think, and I was house-sitting for them with a couple friends and for some reason we had this Saturday — you know, sometimes you have these magical Saturdays appear on this hill where you don’t have particularly anything to do. And so we just spent the day reading. I read a book of letters between Walker Percy and Shelby Foot I remember my friend Cathy [sp] was reading a book of poetry. And we would stop periodically and read to each other, if things interested us, and we’d have little conversations and then we’d return to reading and that night we all made dinner together. You know, terrible, barely edible dinner in the Rogan house using, I’m sure, ingredients that we did not have permission to use, and we had one of those great, magical conversations over dinner where you know it’s a wonderful conversation while you’re having it and you know that you’ll remember it. And then we went back to the living room and read some more and talked and went to bed and it’s a totally unextraodinary day. But I think the wonderful thing about this college is that it puts — you know, you have people in your life and you have spaces in your life and you have books in your life and those things all come together periodically in really wonderful ways and then you get these memories that you get to treasure, that you do hold with you through the rest of your life. So. It’s a small day, but that’s my best memory of Kenyon. Thank you guys so much. It’s really been a pleasure.

78 Replies to “Kenyon College: John Green – Thoughts on How To Make Things and Why”

  1. I have been experiencing a bit of an existential crisis all week, following my 22nd birthday last weekend. I haven't really been able to eat or sleep and my friends don't seem to understand why I'm having a "mid-life crisis at 22." This really really helped. Thank you, John. 

  2. deeply moved, I was planning on watching it for 10 mins and going to bed but I've been grabbed by and it just wouldn't let me go until the end. What a fantastic speech (John Green's speeches don't feel like speeches, they feel more like a friend talking to you)… 

  3. I love the entire segment preceding this quote, but one of my favorite portions of that segment is: "Maybe it's true: maybe the universe doesn't give a shit about you. But through empathy, we can care about each other, and we are also of the universe."

  4. Maybe if John Green had made this speech sooner Dan Howell/Danisnotonfire would have learnt that you do not have to go to law school!

  5. Seriously did he reach inside my brain and recite my thoughts in a well-ordered and eloquent fashion? I think I might be falling in love with John Green…

  6. How does some 40-something father of two American guy write and hold a speech that is so very, and possibly pivotaly, relevant to my here-and-now situation, thousands of miles away?
    It baffles me, it intrigues me, and all of a sudden my own, personal darkness isn't as personal and as dark as it was before.
    Thank you John Green. From the bottom of my deep, dark heart.

  7. "but for the sake of clarity we'll just call him Holden" fave omg only half an hour in but this speech is by far my favourite thing of the day!

  8. Meaninglessness is okay. Really. Seeing it is the first step to understanding it's actually all about creating your own meaning. 

  9. I love when we get to see that John is just the shy guy who doesn't really want to look up. And a lot more. Good Job John. Just good job at making me feel again. 

  10. I know you're not trying to prove you're a genius, but I honestly spent every moment of that being like "why is john so goddamn smart." Great speech, natural and raw and thought-provoking as always!

  11. I'm not a person who is profane by nature, but this speech was so powerful that I don't care when John drops curse words. I love that.

  12. Everytime John does a speech in front of a considerable amount of people, I feel a little proud. We all know that it is not his favorite thing to do, but he does it anyway and is awesome at it

  13. That speech was…I mean, I thought it was really good, but I did not realize how much I had engaged in it until I saw, after watching, that it had been over an hour. Time flies when you're watching John Green talk.

  14. I was there for that speech, it was fantastic Im a huge fan, I really enjoyed seeing the parallel between this speech and the insight I derived from this and the speech given by David Foster wallice in the same spot, and also my name is also John!

  15. I read up on that Einstein-failing-math thing. His first college had a compulsory math test, which he "failed", and years and years later some reporter? autobiographer? or some such found that test and marveled at the inneptitude of the genius. You know? Like pulling him down in math somehow raised the scales of his genius in the realm of physics or something.
    One problem, though.
    The entrance test was for a college in Switzerland. It was therefore in French. Einstein did not speak French. He passed the test, but the grade was terrible, of course. The fact that he understood so much about math that he could solve problems put to him in a different language with a passing grade should give you some idea of the true genius of the man.

  16. This is what I listen to when I experience an early mid-life crisis…. Your words make me happy….sooooooo happy!!!!!!!

  17. Its good to finally hear someone talking about how I actually experience things. Why doesn't everyone do this?

  18. John really is a consummate storyteller. Really, it's almost aggravating how intuitively he hooks his audiences, draws them in, and just relentlessly indulges our appetite for more. One day, he will have the luckiest grand-kids in the damn world. Can you imagine having this guy to tell you what the past was like?

  19. I love the way how John Green delivers a speech, is the EXACT way (pace, tone, VOICE) I read TFIOS <3 
    I want to write an intellectual comment about how John Green's tone of voice is so evident in the way he writes his books, or how he is so similar to the characters he creates, how the messages in between the lines of his novels are (and will forever be) relative no matter your age, background or life experience … I just don't know where to start. 
    All I can say is this human being is quite extraordinary 😀

  20. I can not tell you the number of encouragements you have provided me @John Green – particularly in recent times when I have had to go way down deep into the darkness of myself, and of others.

  21. is there a transcript or the whole speech posted/saved on some site…?i would love to have it. if anyone has some useful info , feel free to let me know , i d appreciate it! 🙂 thanks

  22. I absolutely love John Green, I have always admired his writing and his sense of humor. What I love about John Green is that he is so genuine and relatable. His speech is engaging and personal. It really hits home and accurately depicts your early 20s experience.  

  23. An example of what John was talking about in minute 51 is Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes. It tells the story of the short yet significant life of a young girl living in Japan during the droping of the atomic bomb at the end of WWII. Sadako may only have lived to 12(9 years after the bomb was dropped she was diagnosed with leukemia, radiation sickness from the atom bomb, and she died a year later on October 25, 1955), yet her life made a big impact on the Japanese celebration of Peace Day Now she is honored, along with all the children who died from leukemia, in Hiroshima's Peace Park. I definitely recomend this to all readers who injoy an intense and moving book.

  24. I watched this entire speech while trying to learn my GCSE French assessment for tomorrow…fuck you John

  25. We are all supposed to die in the order in which we were born… First in, first out. I will work on enforcing this law my entire life.

  26. This man has the most inspirational, thought-provoking, truthful words I've ever heard – both in his books and his speeches. We NEED more people like him in the world, becoming leaders, movers, and makers. I aspire to be even a fraction of what he is and what he does.


  27. This man is amazing. His emotional intelligence and intelligent quotients are off the charts as seen by his ability to allow others to feel comftrable and respect them as well as his ability to understand and answer and grasp these ideas so clearly. I think that he has a strong motivation as well. Somewhere it comes from. Where I do not know.

  28. "How did you find your way into a teenage girl?"
    John immediately starts playing with his wedding ring…

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