So, I have a weird thing about John Green, who is a person, who I am sure is a very nice person, but who I will probably never meet so feels very much like a character. I feel weird talking about John Green–who I will continue to refer to with this myth-scale Full Name Author moniker–because it’s so easy for me to imagine, now, someone referring to the myth-scale Full Name Author persona of Tara Wilson Redd and knowing nothing about me at all. Not that that’s a bad thing, exactly,1 but it definitely is strange when you start to think about it. So, kind of imagine that when I say “John Green” I mean the character John Green who is made up of the public acts of John Green and who at this point is being subjected to the divorce between signifier and signified that makes words sound like they are not even words.2
I like The Fault in Our Stars. Most of his books, I’m honestly kind of meh on, though I bet I would like them now. I remember liking Looking for Alaska, but I think most of his books came out when I was already in college. I actually think I might be part of one of the last generations who didn’t really grow up when YA was a thing. I really, really loved Turtles All The Way Down, but I get when people say it’s not really YA.3 It has the trappings of YA, but in many ways it does feel like an adult trying to transfer a very specific feeling into another person through language. And the “incompleteness” of the mystery that makes it such a good novel makes it very different from a lot of other YA…and I think that’s fine, but I wonder if it would have been sold and marketed as YA if John Green wasn’t a YA author.
But the real reason I have such a thing about John Green isn’t his writing, it’s the fact that he’s an author with OCD, which is a problem I’ve really struggled with,4 and I honestly just really like knowing that out there in the world is a successful author who struggles imperfectly but publicly with something I frankly don’t want to talk about. It certainly didn’t have to be him, it just happens to be him, because he’s so unfathomably famous for an author.
And every once in a while I read something he’s written about mental illness, and it’s weirdly comforting because it’s so rational. Sort of. Like, rational in the way that I understand the reasoning, but it reflects irrational thoughts that have happened and how one struggles with those. Not rational in the sense of “Ah, he has found the one truth, the real truth,” but more like, “Yes, that is a way to think about that,” and it’s nice that someone is thinking about that.
I have a weird thing about John Green because I’ve had a lot of moments where I thought, “Oh, I know of an author who has dealt with something like this. I wonder if he ever said anything.”5 And that feeling of not being unprecedented makes everything feel so delightfully small. Hand-sized. Pocket-sized. You are part of the infinite and secret story of mind, I guess, is what I would say. The strangeness of my own mind isn’t really that strange even if you can’t know the minds of others, and turning down self-obsession and reaching out for the precedents, which are really just stories that make me feel that it’s even possible to be understood, is what always saves me. I think self-obsession in the form of obsessing over your own mind is just another compulsion. I work really hard to turn down the pleasures of “reflection,” of self-obsession disguised as “meditation,” of hermitage, of romanticized depression and occasionally mania. Focusing externally, admittedly often in the form of “on my cat,” is what stops the “inner spiral.”
On the one hand, I suppose it would be preferable for me to have found that precedent among the people I “really” know. But sometimes, it’s just better to have the distance of a story, one that you know is real, but that doesn’t confront you with the pressures of knowing someone.
I like that John Green The Human Story Person exists, is basically all it is. Especially because it felt pretty weird to be in the situation I was in a few years ago, when magically someone flipped a switch and without knowing literally a single other writer or having any idea what publishing would be like, I became A Real Author and was totally unprepared. So, when I felt really bad about that, I would just think, “Well, John Green did it, and it turned out ok. So, it’ll probably be ok.”
And, you know what? It totally is.
- I have complicated feelings about the nature of public life, but that’s way too much for a note. But, like, if you think of one “self”–not even your “true” self, but just one self–as a bunch of internal things like thoughts and feelings, you also have a “self” that is made up of interpersonal relationships and these lines connecting you to other people. And when those relationships are stage managed by a corporation and mediated by social media and deliberately constructed (yes, all people engage in self-presentation, just roll with it), that identity that is my public self starts to scare me by its radical differences from the internal self.
- Try saying any word, like “door” or “trumpet” over and over. It will start to sound weird. This is called semantic satiation. I visualize this as a kind of chopping, where you cleave a word from its meaning with every blow of your vocal axe. But that is in no way relevant to this story.
- I mean, what is genre anyway, but when publishing people say something “isn’t YA” it isn’t really helpful to pull out your Lit 101 challenge to the notion of genre.
- Mental health, generally, but OCD specifically is the label I usually end up spitting out to get the most rapid and useful relief.
- Like I read this piece by John Green at a pretty critical moment and found it really comforting. You should read it.