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Best-selling author John Green '00 returns to Kenyon College to present, "Thoughts on How to Make Things and Why."

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 Introduction and thanks

(audience claps)

John: Hi, thank you. 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 that I spent at Kenyon. (audience laughs) 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 want to 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. (audience laughs)

The great white wall of cow in Paper Towns is from Lentz's lectures on Moby Dick, whether he likes it or not. To the story of the Sufi saint Rabi´a al-Adawiyya whose name I am mispronouncing - uh, 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 that 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 I am in the debt of all of these people, as you students will one day be.

 John's advice

(2:05) So I want to talk broadly about, like, 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'm 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 rested from your body, and many of you probably don't even believe in a human soul, but you will come to believe in it when it is leaving you. (audience laughs)

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 are staring at the ceiling late at night, knowing that you have to wake up in three hours and fifty six minutes to go 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 will feel like screaming, but you'll know that you can't scream because you have room-mates, and also because screaming is not going to help you fall asleep, and you need to fall asleep, because you have to wake up in three hours and fifty five minutes, and you will feel completely impotent and useless, and you will be consumed with 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." (audience laughs)

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. (audience laughs and cheers, clapping)

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 gonna take some time, but then I- I do really value your questions and I wanna take as many questions as we have time for, um, but now- now, the non-advice part.

 Genre writers and high vs low culture

(4:58) 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 cannon, 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 heard that speech are laughing - um, coming to the same - now they're laughing harder - coming to the 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 - um, 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. (audience laughs)

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?"

 Dullness and distraction

(6:41) Alright, 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 'cause you guys have all read it. (audience laughs)

"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 of 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 any more, but now actual TVs and waiting rooms and supermarket check-outs and airport gates and SUV back seats, walkmen, iPods, Blackberries, cellphones 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 like a theoretical way, but in the keeping-myself-from-experiencing-a-psychotic-break kind of way. And for many people, I wanna be clear that 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 find sufficient distractions in 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.

 The point of doing anything

(9:31) Alright, so when I was at Kenyon, I believed - and my professors will vouch for this - that the point of writing, and also 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. (audience laughs)

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 the 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-plus". (audience laughs) And also made me stop giving my stories titles, after I called one "Things remembered, things forgotten". Um... Which- which reminds me that this lecture also has a terrible title! Um... Clearly I have not made that much progress. Still shouldn't be trusted with titles.

 Advanced fiction writing course

(11:38) 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'll be surprised to learn that he was, of course, quite good at math. (audience laughs)

Also, proving everyone wrong turns out to be a terrible meaning to life. Um... 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 wanna have sex with me. (audience laughs) 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 because 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.

 The end of John's Kenyon years

(12:42) 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 the poems were original, some not. And these nights became the most invigorating, intellectual experiences I'd ever have.

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. I mean, maybe art didn't exist to bring fame and glory and wealth to the artist, but instead art could be like... Helpful!

The second important thing was that Pf Kluge invited me over to his house, poured me a drink, and he asked me if I was still writing. I said I was. We talked for a while about audience, about making things for other people as well as for yourself, if I was writing different kinds of stories. I said that I wasn't, really. Not yet. And then he told me that while the stuff that 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?"

 The fleece story

(14:05) Alright, I've never told this story in front of more than about like, eight people. And, fair warning... It's dirty. Um... But I'm now going to tell the fleece story. I'm gonna try. This is hugely embarrassing, just to prepare everyone! But this uh, my only funny Kenyon story. (audience laughs)

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- (audience laughs) -relationship with a young woman who lived far away from me, and um... We were deeply in love, it was the first romantic relationship I'd ever been in. It was really intense. And uh, well, I was deeply in love, I should say. And then one day, we broke up - specifically, she dumped me.

And um... 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 - 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 for 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 (audience laughs) that will introduce you to the idea that it's possible to have a romantic interaction with more than one person, and that will like, 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 um... (audience laughs) 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. (audience laughs)

But I knew that she was the girl who worked at the village market, 'cause I'd bought like, hot dogs from her and stuff. And so I went up to her, and I was like "You're the girl who works at the village market!" And she was like "yeah, you're the guy who buys the hot dogs". And we started to have a nice conversation. We really hit it off. It was awesome. We had a- we were really enjoying talking to each other - she was also quite intoxicated. And we uh...

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 just 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 go up to the- we walk up to the third floor of Old Kenyon, a dorm that again, to emphasize this, I don't- 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... (audience laughter) And... I told you! And so yeah, so all of this is happening, and I am- I need to pee, because I've had a lot to drink, because I'm drunk. And- and I just like, I'd rather get it over with, I just wanna do it, I just wanna get it over with, and so I say to her "I really need to pee, I will be right back".

I run to the bathroom, I pee, I come out - I don't know if you've been to Old Kenyon, but um... When you come out of the bathroom, I can tell you from experience, what you see is an incredibly, astonishingly long hallway (audience laughter) with so many doors! And I- I had no idea which door contained the person I thought was named Amanda. (audience laughs)

So... So I just kind of- I panicked, obviously, but... My strategy was just to just to do a quick- quick run-through of the hallway, just scanning all the whiteboards, uh, dry-erase boards, for any Amandas. I didn't see any, because as it turned out, her name was not Amanda. Um, 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 like, let's just stay in the bathroom for like, five minutes. Maybe she'll come out, she's worried about you, presumably, at some point. Um... And I stay there for, really, what feels to me, like several years. And then finally- you know, my options had been reduced.

And so I go out into the- out of the stall into the proper, full bathroom, and I look around, and there is- there is exactly one thing that can be of use to me, and it's a green fleece vest. North Face forest-green fleece vest. And I wrap myself in this- (audience laughs) green fleece vest, and I run (laughing) over a mile to the new apartments. (audience laughs and claps) That's the fleece vest story!

 John discussing the fleece story

(19:18) Alright, a couple things about that story. First off, it's like... 65% 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'd 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, like, I'd chosen to fictionalize a bunch of details, expressly so that you would like it. Why did my writing voice sound like, distant and impersonal, and like a thing that I was making for some arbitrary judge of writery-ness?

 Sick kids, encouragement and distraction

(20:13) So after I graduated from Kenyon, I lived for several months in Mount Vernon and I worked as a student chaplain at 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. Um, 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 mean, I was like, considering becoming a minster, and I went to Church every Sunday and whatnot. But the religion that 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. I parodied this, in my book, the Fault in our Stars, by having one of the characters' houses plastered with these hippy 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 cliche encouragements were totally unconvincing. I mean, they are 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.

This is a plainly and old-fashionedly 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.

 YA books and escaping oneself

(23:10) Alright, 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 is.

Um, 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 questions 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 in books that aren't afraid to do that as well.

So as I read more and more YA books, I started getting into like, 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 cyber-punk novels and bodice-ripping romances about 17th century England and war 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 my 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.

 Hassan and his story

(26:02) Alright, so after college, I- 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- went through Kuwait, and for six weeks, Hassan didn't hear from his family.

I don't mean to be dismissive of the stress that 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 periodically have um... you know, sort of interventions, where we would say "Hassan, it's time to watch Friends" (audience laughter) and he would say "no, I'm gonna keep watching the war".

The only way to hang out with him was to watch the war with him, which, I don't know if you've ever watched the war on TV, but it's super depressing. And um... 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'!" (audience laughs)

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 unjustly distributed? Is real- 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. 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 are 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 possibility 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 about 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- 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 Malcolm 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 trotted 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 helped welcome me into that grand old conversation, and thanks to all of you for being here tonight. Thank you. (audience claps and cheers) Thanks! Thank you. Thanks again.

 Questions from the audience

(34:02) So now I'm gonna take some of your questions. Um... Make them good! (audience laughs) Uh... I can give you bad- examples of bad questions, if that will help. The worst question is "who the eff is Hank?" (audience laughs) Which is like a nerdfighter in-joke that only like, 30 people in the audience will get. So don't ask that one. Also, I like saying that when I start Q&As because my brother is watching on the internet, and I just hurt his feelings. That makes me happy. (audience laughs and claps)

The hands shall rise as one, with your many fascinating questions. Yep, there's one person back there.

(34:53) Audience member: So you talked about how you see things through your own eyes and only through your own eyes. Um, I was a teenage girl once, and man, you really nailed Hazel. I mean- (John laughs) Tell me, how did you find your way into a teenage girl? (audience laughs) Oh, God! Okay. Hey- and now I've just embarrassed my children, so it's all good. Your voice!

John: No, I understand. Um... So, yeah. So uh, that's a good question. Um... I- you know, look, it's all- it's all fakery in a way, right? I mean, you're always trying to uh- 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 like every second of every day.

Like, whenever you're trying to get someone to uh, make out with you, for instance. You- that is essentially like- the job of empathy. Like, "how do I create in this person the desire to make out with me?" um, is an empathic question. So it's not- this isn't limited to literature at all, but um...

With the Fault in our Stars in particular, I got very, very lucky, and I don't know how. Um, I tried to write that book for almost ten 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 (audience laughs) and like, hooking up with doctors. It was very embarrassing, I hope that- it's just terrible. But um...

You know, I would go back to that story, and I would go back to it and I would go back to it, and um... Then, in 2010, a good friend of mine died of cancer, a young friend. And I went back to the story, I went back to it angry and um... Needing- needing to work. I was talking to some- to a student at dinner tonight, about that feeling when you need to write. Um... When it feels like it's the only thing that can save you from sort of, some physical or psychic pain. Um, and that's how I felt...

And then 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 very specifically writing from Hazel's perspective, pretty much from the moment I wrote that first sentence.

Um... And then you know, like, my wife would tell me that I was getting things wrong or whatever and I was just change them as I went, but... As far as the voice goes, it was- yeah, it was born at that moment. Being really mad and sad and... overwhelmed. Um, so in retrospect, I guess I am grateful for that moment. Other questions? Yes. (pause) (audience laughs) Sorry, I like to make the microphone person do work!

(37:56) Audience member: Um... This might seem like a little bit of a trivial question, but in retrospect, which of the books have you written- that you've written, is your favorite, reading it, now that you're done?

John: Well, I don't read them now.

Audience member: Okay! (laughs)

John: No. 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 would ask me questions and I would just be like (mumbles) "I don't know!" (audience laughs) Um... I mean, I think the Fault in our Stars is probably the best, but that's based mostly on Goodreads ratings...

Audience member: Okay!

John: The average Goodreads rating is highest, so I guess that's- I mean... I- like I- I- writing the Fault in our Stars was the most intense writing experience of my life, other than maybe Looking for Alaska. So, I don't know. One of those two. I'm not that thrilled with any of them, to be totally upfront with you. Um... Yeah.

Audience member: : Okay, fair enough! (audience laughs)

John: That's why you keep working though, right? Is there a microphone person on this side?

Microphone person: Yes, sir!

John: Yeah. I don't know. Pick one of them!

Microphone person: You don't wanna pick?

John: I'll pick. I pick you! I liked your sweater!

Audience member: Thank you.

John: Yeah, you're welcome.

Audience member: Um...

John: Is it cats?

Audience member: It's cats with bow-ties!

John: Oh!

Audience member: So yes.

John: Thanks- thanks for dressing up!

(39:22) Audience member: (laughs, along with the audience) Of course. Um... 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 like gave you meaning? (audience laughs)

John: That I- yeah, that I miss? 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. (audience laughs) Um... That's probably the most- and Gatorade. I was a very passionate consumer of Gatorade. It's cliche to say it, but this was in the days when one couldn't put on weight no matter how much one ate, which have passed.

Yeah, and then market dogs and I- I ate at the deli a lot. I mean, I would eat anywhere. I would eat anything. You have to understand, it's a very different cafeteria uh, that I attended, than the one that you attend today. Um... We had no local, homegrown sushi, or whatever it is you people are eating. (audience laughs) We ate- we ate white bread with butter, and we were glad to have it! (audience laughs) Uh, yes. One of you. You'll have to fight it out.

Microphone guy: Give me a sec.

John: Sorry. I can't see the back, so you should probably just stay up here, I can't- hi!

(40:59) Audience: : Hi. Um, just out of curiosity, do you remember what the first sentence or phrase that you wrote for Hazel's character, was?

John: Yeah. It was the first sentence of the book - uh, "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 fifteen. In your seventeenth year, you're sixteen. I didn't- I didn't know that, but lots of ya'll pointed it out to me! (audience laughs)

So the first line I wrote was "late in the winter of my sixteenth year, uh, my mother decided I was depressed." All that stuff. And there was something about- this is- 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 um... I did have like a quasi-mystical experience of like, almost being able to tap my foot to the writing of that first chapter. The whole- the three days that it was happening, and I wouldn't do anything else and I was really, really excited and um... And that feeling, like um... 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-" I mean, it's almost iambic. Um... And I haven't- 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 laughs)

Audience member: Thank you!

John: Yes?

(42:26) Audience member: I had a question about the YouTube series you did, Crash Course?

John: Mmm hmm?

Audience member: Where'd you get your idea?

John: That's a great question. 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 um... We really loved- occasionally we would make an educational video. Like, I made- I remember I made a three video series about the French revolution, and my brother made one about uh, 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 we had to- you know, and they were expensive, and it was just- it was really hard.

So, we would always- we would often have conversations - "wouldn't it be great if we could make, like, ten-minute educational videos that could be the first ten minutes of a class, or they could be, you know, ten minutes that would get you excited about learning more about ancient Egypt or biology or whatever it is.

Um, and when uh, and then one day, uh Google came to us, and they said "do you have any ideas for educational video series?" and we were like "do we?!" Um... And so we pitched them the idea, they funded it and because it had funding and it was- we were able to, you know, pay people who actually know how to make YouTube videos... Um, you know, to like edit it properly and make animations and everything, like the Thought Bubble segment, then we were able to really like, make this dream that we had, come true, of like, um... Of making these hopefully high-quality educational videos, and then like, distributing them for free around the world.

(44:02) Audience member: ...asking why you said the Mongols so much!

John: Oh, why I say the Mongols so much? Actually, that's another good question. So, there's a mo- in every Crash Course World History episode- the Mongols are a super weird civilization, because they don't meet anyone's def- like, a lot of people's like, definitions of civilization, which makes them really interesting, also, because it makes them so important.

I actually studied the Mongol empire in central Asia when I was at Kenyon. Um... And so it was a- 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 I say "well, except for the Mongols". Um, so yeah, I knew that joke because of Professor Schubel and then I made it 52 times because it was cheap and easy. (audience laughs)

(44:55) You want me to take a selfie with you? I can't- I can't. I'm in the mid- I have to do the Q&A! (audience laughs) You can photoshop me in! Photoshop yourself in right here! (audience laughs and claps) Did that go okay?

Audience member: Yeah!

John: Good. Good. Yes? I'm gonna go toward the back next time - I'm sorry!

(45:28) Audience member: Do you have any advice for like, an aspiring young-adult author at all?

John: Yeah, it's crazy that there's such a thing as aspiring young-adult authors, um, at Kenyon today. We- I- that wasn't even a thing when I was in- at Kenyon. Um... Yeah. 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 uh...

I think I benefited a lot as a writer from reading across genre and uh, and reading- truly reading voraciously, because I think it's the best apprenticeship that writers have. It's the best way we have of figuring out how people have used text to create uh, feelings and stories inside of people's minds. Um, some are big- 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. Um, that's actually really helpful for me in figuring out how to pace a story, or figuring out what matters, um, what matters to people... Because I know what matters to me, but oftentimes that's self indulgent, like when I was writing the children's hospital novel and it was all about this 22-year-old smokin' hot chaplain.

So I think that's- that's what I tried to do. And I continue to try to read as- as broadly as I can. Yes, all the way in the back!

(46:51) Audience member: Hi. Um, I was just wondering what you thought one of the most under-utilized parts of Kenyon is?

John: The most under-utilized part of Kenyon?

Audience: Yeah, like the- I don't know, like a program or an aspect...

John: Church on Sunday morning? (audience laughs and claps) That's- I found that really useful! That's the true answer. Um, I benefited a lot from the Church of the Holy Spirit, and it's right down there! It's just down Middle Path! It's hard- I know it's hard to get up. Um, but it's interesting. And it was useful for me, both as like, a non-religious person and as a religious person, but um...

Oh, there's so much do here, it's- well, there is and there isn't, right?! (audience laughs) But there is! I mean... 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, um... There's very little- there's very little that's um, that's equivalent.

So, I encourage you to just kind of... When you are like, holed up in your winter misery, wrapped in your blanket on Tumblr... Think like, maybe something is happening on this Wednesday night that I could take advantage of. Uh...

Microphone person: I'm sorry - we're gonna take about three more real human questions, and then we're gonna move onto Twitter and some online-

John: Okay, and then the internet's gonna take over!

Microphone person: Yes, sir.

John: Okay. I feel like I should have someone in the back over here. Yes! No, I'm pointing at you, person who just turned around. You can just pick someone, microphone guy.

Microphone person: Did you raise your hand?

Audience member: (laughing) No. (audience laughs)

(48:34) Audience member: Um... Hi John Green!

John: Hi!

Audience member: Um... If you had to teach a course-

John: Hmm. No.

Audience member: -on your books... Even if you don't want to!

John: Yeah.

Audience member: Or you could make a professor do it.

John: Mmm hmm.

Audience member: You can choose a professor. How would you want your books to be approached? Additionally... (audience laughs) What would you title this course? (audience and John laughs, audience claps)

John: "How to go on and why" would be my title for the course. Um... You know, I would- I- I don't wanna say that I object to teaching my books in school, 'cause that sounds- I think that sounds worse than just answering your question, but I- I kind of do. I mean, I... I gue- okay, look. If you're gonna read- like, if you wanna...

Okay, maybe you can take my books and you can use them as a way into a different text, sort of like an inter-textual um... fun times. Um, you know, where Paper Towns is a way into Song of Myself or Moby Dick. You know, Katherines is a way into all of those uh, sort of like Southern- Southern Gothic novels and... Alaska as a way into the great boarding schools of the 19th and 20th century. I guess I could- I could live with that.

You can't read any other cancer books though! Um, but I mean, I guess with Fault in our Stars though, what really- what really like got me going when I was writing it, was thinking about the romantic epic, and the weird obsession that goes back, you know, to the Odyssey in a lot of ways, with what the obstacle must be between um... Between two people who are destined for each other, or whatever.

From- whether it's, you know, Romeo and Juliet or... Um... Or the Odyssey, this idea that everything can be lifted to the status of the epic, all the obstructions that can be lifted to the status of the epic are these- these- first off, they're male things. But they're also, they're like war and politics and family strife, and it's not enough that Romeo and Juliet's parents hate each other - they also- their marriage also has to like, ruin Verona!

You know... And I wanted to argue that like, disease can also be the stuff of epics, and that short lives, um... That are, you know, maybe viewed by the social order as insignificant, can also be uh, matters of epic importance. So... I don't know, maybe reading other, better romantic epics. I don't know. That's a tough question! You're smart! (audience laughs) Yes?

(51:26) Audience member: Um... I was just wondering if you had any other YA authors you really liked and you thought were doing it right, and giving gifts, as you say.

John: Yeah. By the way, I should add that that whole speech was stolen from Lewis Hyde's book, The Gift. Um... (audience laughs) I meant to mention that in the speech! But I forgot. Um... But I squeezed it in here, at the end, so we're good, right? Okay. Um... Uh...

There are a lot of YA authors who I think are doing really interesting stuff, making really great books. Um... I'm a big fan of Markus Zusak, M T Anderson... Walter D Myers, who's been writing books for young adults for like, 40 years now, still, I think, one of the best writers - who wrote Monster and Fallen Angels. Um... Coe Booth, who wrote Tyrell, is I think one of the best- best YA writers working today. A S King wrote books like Ask the Passengers, um.... Really, really great writer.

There's so many! I mean, it's uh... It's actually a really rich time for young adult literature, because the relationship that um, the relationship the market has with YA books has changed so much, and that's led to a sort of flood of talented authors.

But I'm frustrated that a lot of those... I- like I said- or like I hopefully implied in the speech, I don't think any authors- any individual authors suffer from a lack of critical attention, because I don't really think it's the job of the individual author to, you know, to like, elevate discourse on their own. I think that it's sort of, something that happens communally and slowly and with lots and lots of people working together. Of course there are going to be your Shakespeares and your Jane Austens, but like... 99% of the time, the work is done in large collaborations.

Um, but I do get frustrated that um, kind of that great, broad body of young adult literature that's coming out in the last 3-5 years hasn't received as much um... critical attention as I would have liked. And in some cases, like, that critical attention gets narrowly focused on one author, like Markus or myself. And that can be quite- quite destructive for the overall quality of the conversation I think, because then people think it's about individuals, when it's not. And my work isn't- I'm always responding to those writers, as well.

But anyway, those are some of the writers I like, but there are a ton! I should get you a list. All the way in the back! Yes, you're standing.

(54:04) Audience member: Uh... You described Tumblr and Twitter as- you mentioned distraction-

John: Yeah.

Audience member: -and I wanted to know what your stance was um, on your own activity on Twitter and like-

John: I'm on Tumblr?! (laughing) No, I'm just kidding! (audience laughs) Um... Yeah. Right, that's a really good question. I- so I think that um... I think that Tumblr and Twitter uh, I guess I should have phrased this more carefully... I think they can be tools of mere distraction - I was kind of trying to make fun of Franzen's obsession with Twitter, which he's clearly never been on. Um... But uh...

I think they can be tools of distraction, but I also think they can be uh, places of engagement, and I think Kim McMullen earlier tonight used a phrase that I really liked, like, "meeting spaces". I think that they can be meeting spaces, gathering spaces where you can have uh, 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.

Um, and when- when any space online becomes a space for collaboration and sharing, then I'm very pleased with it, because it can be a place 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, you know, share, reblog, recreate culture that I think... is the best of the internet.

Um, 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 doing it. I do it all the time, but I try to be conscious of the fact that I'm doing it.

Microphone person: We're gonna take one more. This person's been very patient.

Audience member: Hi!

John: Hi!

(55:51) Audience member: Most of your books have been written by yourself, and I was just wondering- (audience laughs) -what the experience was like, of writing with other authors, like with Will Grayson, Will Grayson and Let it Snow.

John: 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. Um... On that topic, I met a guy named John Green today! Really nice guy! (audience laughs and claps) But um... And then Let it Snow is this uh, ser- I wrote like a novella that connects to novellas by my friends Maureen Johnson and Lauren Myracle. Um...

It was great! I love collaborating. I mean, the difficult thing about writing is that it can be quite isolating, you know... I basically spend all of my time, you know, with my desk turned away from the window, uh, just, you know... 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 like, keeps me sane... But there are times when you want to be able to collaborate, or when you finish something and you wanna 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- you know, I have a lot of... Social connections in my life? (laughs) Um... 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 staring at the right camcorder? Hello internet! (audience laughs) Oh, is this?

Madeline: I'm the internet.

John: Oh, you're the internet!

Madeline: Yes.

John: Awesome! Can I have- I'm gonna take my iPhone. Thanks.

Madeline: Hi!

John: Hi!

(57:46) Madeline: I'm Madeline. I'm a junior and I'll be representing the Twittersphere. Um... (audience laughs) So they've been tweeting questions with the hashtag "tweetjohngreen" um... First up, @rileynicole would like to know, "does Hazel ever fall in love again?"

John: I don't know! I don't wanna sound like uh, Peter Van Houten, the jerky alcoholic novelist in my- 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. (audience laughs)

Um... But he and I are in agreement that um... What happens outside the text of a book is not for an author to say, and that the author's voice shouldn't be privileged over that of readers, um... Once the book has come out, it belongs to you, and while I'm happy to answer questions about authorial intent and stuff, um... It's 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. Um... Yeah. Sorry. I know people hate that answer, but that is the only answer that I have.

(58:51) Madeline: Alright, next up @razzleberry would like to know "What is/was the most challenging part of your career, and how do/did you overcome it?"

John: Um... I didn't- I didn't over come it. I don't think um... 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're things that I like live with, like that great last line from Brokeback Mountain, um... "If you can't change it, you stand it" or whatever. I probably butchered the line, crap! (audience laughs)

Um, but that idea like, there are things in your life that you can't change, that you stand. Um, and there's a heroism I think, in standing. So I have a pretty bad anxiety disorder that I'm not like- I haven't dealt with or overcome or gotten on the other side of, but that is just part of my life.

(59:41) Madeline: Next up, @ineffablequotes would like to know "what are you currently writing?"

John: Yeah, (laughing) it's a great question. (audience laughs) Um... Currently writing a lot of stuff that they need me to write for the movie! Um... I want- I am writing a novel. I wanna be working more on my novel but... There's just- there's a lot- it's very- usually a book comes out and like two weeks later it goes away and that's extremely sad, and I don't like that experience!

But the- this experience, where a book comes out and like, two years later it's still like "Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey, I'm your book, pay attention to me!" um... is also kind of annoying! (audience and John laughs) Uh... But I am- I am starting to work on something else.

Madeline: Alright. And lastly-

John: First world problems!

(1:00:30) Madeline: Um @julia would like to know, "What is your favorite memory from college?"

John: My favorite memory from college? Oh, man! That's so hard! Alright. Oh, it's so hard! I mean, I gotta lot of good ones! Ohhh. So right- toward the end- senior year- fifth year! Um... The Rogans went out of town for something I think, and uh... 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 up here on this hill where you don't have particularly anything to do...

And so we just spent the day uh, reading. I read a book of letters between Walker Percy and Shelby Foote. I remember my friend Cathy was reading a book of poetry. And we would stop periodically, you know, and we would read to each other, or 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 um...

And we had, you know, 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 um, and then we went back to the living room and read some more and um... And talked and then went to bed, and it's a totally unextraordinary day, uh, but I think like, the wonderful thing about this college is that it puts uh, 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- all come together periodically in really wonderful ways, and then you get these memories that you get to uh, sort of 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.

Madeline: Alright!

John: Thank you guys so much, it's really been a pleasure. (audience claps and cheers) Thank you. (fades to black)