John Green’s Turtles All the Way Down

“What a treacherous thing to believe that a person is more than a person.” -John Green

In contrast to my post yesterday, wherein I talked about a man who believed you had to walk the line of sanity to be successful, today I’m going to talk about a guy who doesn’t believe that at all.

Last night, I attended the last stop of the Turtles All the Way Down book tour. Turtles All the Way Down is John Green’s latest book, a beautifully accurate portrayal of mental illness in all its terrifying glory, high school, friendship, and love. If you don’t know by now that John Green is my modern hero, you don’t know me very well. That’s okay. I will tell you all about it.

John Green is the author of Looking for Alaska, the winner of the 2006 Michael L. Printz award. Two of his books have been adapted into film, including The Fault in Our Stars. He is one half of the Vlog Brothers, who have produced the culture of nerdfighteria, a community that focuses on making the world better through many causes. The idea is, of course, to “don’t forget to be awesome”, or DFTBA.

The Turtles All the Way Down show went like this: John read a passage of his new book (which I had already finished reading by this time), Dr. Turtleman (who is actually just Hank Green [John’s brother] dressed in a turtle suit) gave a presentation about tuataras, John answered readers’ questions, John and Hank did a live podcast on stage wherein they answered more of fans’ questions, Hank played a couple of his songs, and then John and Hank both sang a song about making it through this year, by John Green’s favorite band, The Mountain Goats.

It was all basically the best thing that’s ever happened to me, because between the lines of these performances, John took to the stage to talk about mental health; specifically, his life with OCD. As a schizophrenic who has only once got on a stage to talk about her disorder, I know how incredibly scary it is to do something like that. In the midst of this, John Green said something that I’ll never forget. He said, as creative people, there is this romantic idea that we must walk the line of comfort and ultimately, sanity, to create something worth anything. John admitted that he has bought into this idea before—there was a time that he went off his medication to achieve this, a time he describes as a very difficult time for he and the people who love him—but that this whole romantic idea is basically bullshit. This really stuck with me because just yesterday I was thinking how much of a genius Hunter S. Thompson was when he took himself to this edge to write things nothing like anyone has ever read before. I myself have gone to this so-called edge, sans medication, staying up all night to write when I had to work in the morning. The product was good, better than a lot of things I have written, but is it really worth it? Is the aftermath of walking the edge of sanity really worth that one piece of good writing, even if it ends up being your own personal masterpiece? In my case that aftermath can last months; I’m still in the aftermath of my last edge-walking, which was in December of last year. The end is in sight, but that’s a year. A year of recuperation for one piece of creativity. That recuperation, for me, includes new medications, doctor’s visits every week, lots of sleep, an extended period of time with zero creativity, the subsequent feeling of failure, and the general feeling of unwell-ness more than half the time it takes to get back to yourself. Looking back now, I can’t even remember what I wrote that was so important. I’m sure it wasn’t the same for Hunter S. Thompson, but maybe it was. The guy did a lot of drugs before he died by suicide. Maybe he couldn’t remember what was so important to walk the edge for, maybe he could. But for me, I think the key is producing more consistent creative content while practicing self-care. When I’m crossing that line I may produce something that is better, but the cost is much more, and in the aftermath I’m not going to be writing anything. I think, in the end, John Green realized that too.

I know that there are people who still think Young Adult Fiction is not worth reading, or it is somehow less than literary fiction, or it’s a guilty pleasure, or the people who are reading it are not expanding their consciousness or whatever, but I think those people should learn that enlightenment simply comes from the perspectives of people who are not you, and if you have that attitude towards literature, or just, life, in general, you are seriously missing out on so much that you could learn and use to develop and grow as an individual.

“When adults say, “Teenagers think they are invincible” with that sly, stupid smile on their faces, they don’t know how right they are. We need never be hopeless, because we can never be irreparably broken. We think that we are invincible because we are. We cannot be born, and we cannot die. Like all energy, we can only change shapes and sizes and manifestations. They forget that when they get old. They get scared of losing and failing. But that part of us greater than the sum of our parts cannot begin and cannot end, and so it cannot fail.” –John Green

The Turtles All the Way Down experience was one I will not likely forget, and one that empowered me to think creatively about the creative. I will cherish it for many moons to come.

Allie Burke is a writer and mental health advocate. You can find her literary novel Paper Souls here.


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