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Jason Wallis

14 Quotes About Writing from John Green

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Jason Wallis

John Green’s led a remarkable life, and he’s never shied away from offering advice to aspiring scribes and storytellers of all ages. Here are fourteen of his best pointers.

1. On Becoming a Writer

“I really think that reading is just as important as writing when you’re trying to be a writer because it’s the only apprenticeship we have, it’s the only way of learning how to write a story.”

— From the first year of the Brotherhood 2.0 project.

2. On Being a Novelist

“We’re professional worriers. You’re constantly imagining things that could go wrong and then writing about them.”

— To fellow novelist Craig Ferguson on The Late Late Show.

3. On Dealing With Writer’s Block

“I just give myself permission to suck. I delete about 90 percent of my first drafts … so it doesn’t really matter much if on a particular day I write beautiful and brilliant prose that will stick in the minds of my readers forever, because there’s a 90 percent chance I’m just gonna delete whatever I write anyway. I find this hugely liberating. I also like to remind myself of something my dad said in [response] to writers’ block: ‘Coal miners don’t get coal miners’ block.’”  

— From his official FAQ page.

4. On Writing About the Dead

“You do not immortalize the lost by writing about them. Language buries, but it does not resurrect.”

— From The Fault In Our Stars.

5. On Dialogue

“[My] interest as a writer is not in reflecting actual human speech, which, of course, does not occur in sentences and is totally undiagrammable…My interest is in trying to reflect the reality of experience—how we feel when we talk to each other, how we feel when we’re engaging with questions that interest us.”

From an interview with The Atlantic.

6. On Symbolism

“[This] is very important to remember when reading or writing or talking or whatever: You are never, ever choosing whether to use symbols. You are choosing which symbols to use.”

—From his Tumblr.

7. On Crafting Characters

“When I think about [characters], I like to think of them in their relationships to each other. In the same way, I think that’s how humans are ultimately defined. We are our relationships to one another. And a lot of what’s interesting about us happens in the context of other people.”

— Excerpt from Stephanie Carmichael’s article on John for her blog, “Misprinted Pages.” 

8. On Writing & Storytelling

“Writing is something you do alone. It’s a profession for introverts who wanna tell you a story but don’t wanna make eye contact while telling it”

— From the video “Thoughts From Places: The Tour.”

9. On Writing & Politics

“Writing fiction is an inherently political activity because people—even imaginary ones—do not live in vacuums… From Twilight to Romeo and Juliet to The Little Mermaid, no work of the imagination is truly apolitical, because the world and our hopes for it are always part of our stories.” 

— Quote from John’s essay “Writers Need to Get Political” submitted to “The Daily Fig."

10. On Writing, Reading, & the Human Experience

“Writing, or at least good writing, is an outgrowth of that urge to use language to communicate complex ideas and experiences between people. And that’s true whether you’re reading Shakespeare or bad vampire fiction—reading is always an act of empathy. It’s always an imagining of what it’s like to be someone else.” 

— From the first episode of “Crash Course: English Literature."

11. On Waxing Nostalgic

“Nostalgia is inevitably a yearning for a past that never existed and when I’m writing, there are no bees to sting me out of my sentimentality. For me at least, fiction is the only way I can even begin to twist my lying memories into something true.” 

— Closing thoughts from John’s video “Looking for Alaska at My High School.”

12. On Writing About People with Serious Illnesses in The Fault in Our Stars

“One of the pitfalls about writing about illness is that it is very easy to imagine people with cancer as either these wise-beyond-their-years creatures or these sad-eyed tragic people. And the truth is, people living with cancer are very much like people who are not living with cancer. They’re every bit as funny and complex and diverse as anyone else.”

— From an interview with The Sydney Morning Herald.

13. On Conclusions

“I never liked writing concluding paragraphs to papers—where you just repeat what you’ve already said with phrases like ‘In summation’, and ‘To conclude’.”

— From Looking for Alaska.

14. On How Books Belong to Their Readers

“What I eventually realized is that the real business of books is not done by awards committees or people who turn trees into paper or editors or agents or even writers. We’re all just facilitators. The real business is done by readers.” 

— From John’s celebratory video commemorating the (almost) fifth-year anniversary of his first novel winning The Printz Award for Excellence in Young Adult Literature.

* * *

Today is John Green Day on mental_floss! See all our John Green stories here.

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How Abraham Lincoln Was Like a Two-Year-Old
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John Green wrote tons of great pieces in his early days as a mental_floss contributor, and the “Not So Different After All” chapter in our book What’s the Difference? might have been our favorite. Here's just one example of John explaining how two seemingly unrelated things were quite similar on closer inspection.

Abraham Lincoln and Two-Year-Olds

Lincoln: Had a “willful, impudent, childish” wife (to quote her biographer)
Two-Year-Olds: Are generally willful, impudent, and childish

Lincoln: Openly wept the first time he heard “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”
Two-Year-Olds: Openly weep for any old reason

Lincoln: Once said of do-nothing General George McClellan: “If McClellan is not using the army, I should like to borrow it for a while.”
Two-Year-Olds: Also constantly want to take stuff away from you

Lincoln: Most famous speech, The Gettysburg Address, contained exactly 272 words
Two-Year-Olds: According to a Harvard University study, the average two-year-old has a vocabulary of exactly 272 words (“civil” and “war” not among them)

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Mangesh Hattikudur on Working With Young John Green
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So, the strange thing about the first time I met John Green—at a Birmingham house party in 2002—is that at the time, I was kind of a bigger deal than he was. Which is not to say that I am, or ever have been, a “big deal.” (For clarification: I’m not/haven’t ever been.) It’s just that, well, that should put things in perspective.

In 2002, John Green was this guy working for Booklist, who said he was going to write a book. I’ve met a lot of people who say they’re going to write a book, and more often than not, they don’t. Meanwhile, I’d lucked into starting a magazine with my college friends. A very small magazine, called mental_floss, that at that time maybe 400 people subscribed to (from what we could tell, the demographic was my mom, the other co-founders’ moms, and 396 of our moms’ friends).

But in the last few months our magazine had gotten some national press. Publishers were talking to us about book deals. We were starting to bring more talent on board, including our editor Neely Harris. And we’d just set up shop in our first real workspace—a former dentist’s office that had free Muzak as one of its perks. (Thinking about it now, I’m not sure the Muzak was supposed to be a perk; I think the previous tenants just forgot to stop the service.)

That night, I was at Neely’s house party, doing a terrible job of trying to mingle, when she pulled me over to meet this high school friend of hers who she warned was weird, but also hilarious and kind of a genius. And then I got the John Green experience. As he fumbled to take out a few pieces of nicotine gum—which I learned that night are maddeningly hard to free from the plastic—John proceeded to keep me captivated. He told me how Booklist had taught him to read quickly, and how he was fast becoming an expert on reviewing books about conjoined twins. He told me he wanted to write young adult books, a genre I’d never heard of, and when I excitedly asked if he meant like Roald Dahl, he politely responded no. He told me about the hippie boarding school he, and Neely, and all these other talented young people like Daniel Alarcon had gone to—where kids could take classes like “Drawing to Music,” and where instead of detentions, a student committee doled out gardening duties as punishment. He told me a hilariously inappropriate story that later ended up in his book Looking for Alaska, which I wasn’t sure was true or not, but I loved hearing anyway. He told me about being a divinity school drop-out (and then he listed other famous drop-outs, like Casanova and Michael Moore). When someone’s cell phone started ringing, he let me know it was probably his because it was a Super Mario Bros. ringtone. And he told me his philosophy on lying—that sometimes he liked to lie a little, just to keep his storytelling skills sharp.

I liked him immediately. The John Green of that night wasn’t the YA rockstar/internet phenom everyone knows now. The 2014 model is more confident, not a Nicorette chewer, a better speaker, and more likely to beat me in a footrace, among other things. But he was basically the same guy you see today—a whip-smart storyteller who couldn’t have been funnier or nicer. Neely suggested that with John’s interest in religious studies, we should ask him to write the cover story for our next issue, Saints and Sinners, which he did. And once I read his writing, I just kept booking him for projects.

Over the next few years, he continued to dazzle us. He helped me write and brainstorm the magazine’s front of book and cover stories. He pulled incredibly talented people into the fold, including Ransom Riggs and Hank Green. When Harper Collins asked us to churn out four mental_floss books in a single year, he hit every deadline. He sat in a room, with a box of Cheez-Its, and he knocked the books out. At the time, he was also writing An Abundance of Katherines, which made the feat even more impressive.

In those years, I edited John’s work for mental_floss. And while we discussed business on phone calls and admired each other’s terrible jokes, we rarely met in person. But he’s always been encouraging. Once, when I was going through a rough patch, he reminded me how good we have it. The words aren’t quite right, but he said something like, “We’re lucky. People actually take time out of their days to write us and tell us that we made their favorite something. Their favorite book. Their favorite magazine. What other line of work do you get that sort of affirmation?” It might sound vain, or corny, but it’s true. I’ve been incredibly lucky—to stumble into a job I love; to have found a fanbase that gives us so much support; to get to keep learning for a living. And of course, one of the best parts of my job is all the talented people I get to work with. From the beginning, we all expected John’s star to rise. We just knew it would happen. And when it did, we couldn’t help but root for his success. But when he was working here, teaching us how to write better and inspiring us to think bigger, it was also just nice to be in the same orbit.

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