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John Green explains why he is thankful for the power that stories have to release us from the prison of ourselves, to broaded our perspective, and to let us break out of our default viewpoints.

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Hi. Thank you, guys.

Oh god! Oh my god! Like, I only have seven minutes, so I gotta tell this story very quickly. But one time I was in San Francisco, and it was one of those, like, school visits where four people knew who I was – it was like 2008 – and like 850 people didn't know who I was. But the four people who did know who I was were so excited, and the all had on, like, handmade t-shirts, Nerdfighter t-shirts.

But there were, like, 796 kids who were like, "Well, I guess I don't have to go to English class today." And so I had to, like, win them over, and it's super hard to win over a crowd like that. And I was so scared, but they really liked me. They were laughing at everything I said. It was so enjoyable. Everything was going perfectly.

And then at the end my incredibly, like, moving performance, I said, "Are there any questions?" And like 800 hands shot up, and I was like, "I am a genius!" And I pointed at someone, and they said, "Are you aware that your fly is down?" And it wasn't just, like... It wasn't down, it was, like, open. Like, in all of my excitement and enthusiasm, it had just gotten more and more... It was just a nightmare.

And I walked out, and I always very subtly do this when I walk out. And this is the first time in my whole life since that day in San Francisco when I've been like, "Oh no!"

Oh man. So, I am a great fan of, like, pop fiction, popular fiction, or what's sometimes called genre fiction. I like fiction that people like. I like writing it and I like reading it and I am a great defender of it. I like romance novels, and I like The Babysitters Club, and I like series books, and I like fantasy, and I like sci-fi, and I like mysteries.

And wherever there are people saying, "You know, those kinds of books are just read by teenagers, and teenagers are stupid," or "Those kinds of books are just read by lonely old men, and lonely old men are pathetic"... Wherever those books are, those are the books for me. I try to look on Twitter to see what books people are really mad about, because I usually... I often like them.

I want to defend, I guess, today, popular fiction, or what's often called escapist fiction, against the criticism that there is something wrong with escapism.

So, I am stuck inside of this body. You likely have a similar problem. I have no way of confirming that you have the problem, but I am stuck inside of just this one body that I've had since I was a baby and that I, at least, as far as I can tell, will always have until I'm dead. And then I won't have it anymore, and I suspect I will be nostalgic for it.

So, a weird thing about my body is that actually 90% of the cells in my body are not me. They are microbes. Yeah, woo! And another weird thing about this body that I'm stuck inside of is that it has a brain, which I, like, process or identify as a mind, that has thoughts. It, like, makes thoughts all the time. I am sometimes in control of these thoughts, but I am often not.

And that is a very strange thing to say, the statement "I am not in control of my thoughts." Like, imagine a popular pop song called "I Can't Stop Thinking About You." Well, that's a very odd thing to say. Why? Why can't you stop thinking about something when you are the thinker of the thing? Like, how is it that I am not in control of this thing that I call mine when it comes to my thoughts but I'm also not in control of this thing that I call mine when it comes to my body, because my can can, like, fail and reject "me" in all kinds of ways.

The more I think about what it means to be me, the more I think that it kind of just means the thing that I... that people associate with my prison, with, like, what I'm stuck inside of, you know? And I don't know about you...

So, I also have this... This is a little personal; I apologize. But it is Mental Health Awareness Day. I also have this mental illness called Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. That was a weird thing to cheer for. Oh, I guess you were cheering for Mental Health Awareness Day, not for my personal sickness. [laughter] I'm like, "I don't like it." [laughter]

And I have these obsessive thought spirals, which I think, like, most of us have, where we find it very difficult to, like, stop focusing on one topic. So for instance, if I walk away from my car and I start to think that it might not have been locked, it becomes extremely difficult for me, progressively more difficult for me not to go back to the car and lock it. And often I will then leave the car and I will be like, "But are we sure that we locked it?" And then the use of the royal we, implying that inside of me there are these, like, warring forces that are both being identified as me, even though they kind of definitionally can't both be me at the same time.

And I will go back and try to lock it again and et cetera, until it is suitably locked. And it seems crazy, I know. Well, it technically is crazy, but, like, the reason it seems crazy is because you are not stuck inside of the obsessive thought spiral which you will do anything to end, even if it means you have to lock your car 14 or 15 times, because the pleasure of having that obsessive thought spiral end or go away is worth whatever number of times it takes to do the thing, because you don't feel like you're in control of your thoughts. 

So, this prison that I feel like I am inside of all of the time, only having access to this one body, only having access to this one consciousness, only having access to a brain that is wired in my particular suboptimal way, as opposed to the suboptimal ways that I'm sure all of your brains are wired... It is absolutely exhausting and infuriating.

And the more I let myself be stuck inside of it, the less I am able to acknowledge and celebrate the humanity of others, and the more those who are distant from me feel fundamentally other, the more the problems of people who may live far away or live in circumstances that are different from mine feel like they are, quote unquote, not my problems. Again, as if there is such a thing as "me".

So, fiction, for me, stories, for me, are the only way out of that. They are the only way out of this prison that I am stuck inside of. I can live inside the lives of someone else for a while when I'm writing or when I'm reading, or even when I'm listening to Night Vale. I can live inside different bodies and different consciousnesses. Not completely, I know, but at least in a little way. At least in a little way, you can break out, and that is this incredible gift.

It is also, however – the last thing I want to say – this incredible responsibility. Becuase we're gonna... We're here to celebrate stories this weekend, and it's awesome, and it's so exciting. And I don't know about you, but I'm having so much fun. But the thing that we must be careful of is that, of course, because stories have that power, that escapist power, we have to be careful how we use them, right? Like, with great power comes great responsibility.

And stories can be used evilly. Stories can be used to make others seem less human. Stories can be used to deny access or to deny power or to deny agency to others. And so, as we continue through this wonderful day, I would say, I love stories because they let me out of this prison of myself, and also that we have to be careful and excited... both excited about stories but also careful to try to tell good ones well.

Thank you guys so much. You rule. Bye.