Looking for John Green

With the film adaptation of The Fault In Our Stars already jerking tears out of  audiences in the United States, it seems like a good time to address my most prominent—and least dangerous—addiction: crying. I don’t necessarily enjoy crying, but I find it very hard to give up; it would almost be like a non-lethal heroin addiction, except for the fact that that is A Very Tragic Thing and my weepiness is merely a response to minorly tragic events.The most negative thing about my crying problem is my tendency to do it in public. I have learned to sob very quietly in movie theaters; unless someone looked at me during the boathouse scene—which should have taken place somewhere else entirely, but that’s a discussion for another day—of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2, they probably had no idea that I was having trouble breathing. That was a surprisingly mild reaction, given that I cried for two hours straight after watching Old Yeller, and am still known to bawl hysterically when someone says “He can’t see without his glasses.

Sometimes, a movie that seems happy and lighthearted will rip out my heart and stomp on it; that’s unavoidable. But, for the most part, I avoid sad movies. I refuse to watch or read Marley & Me, because dog movies are always sad. Always. If I need a crying fix, I put on a terrifically sad episode of Doctor Who and curl up into a fetal position. It’s like an emotional laxative; if I’m so stressed out that I want to cry and, paradoxically, can’t, I can safely relieve my constipation by starting to cry about something unrelated.

My eruptions of liquid feels are not limited to films and television, however. Books have been a major tear-trigger over the course of my life. When I finished reading A Day No Pigs Would Die, I held my mother in contempt for assigning it, and my lunch might as well have been raw sewage. It didn’t take long to learn that I should never trust John Steinbeck.

In my developing years, a preoccupation with death and the macabre had me seeking out unpleasant stories. I don’t think I cried as much back then, but this was before puberty. The Choose Your Own Adventure series offered plenty of bloody and disturbing romps; I remember one in particular where You wound up in a cage, waiting to be baked into a meat pie, which would be served to an evil prince. It was riveting, and it worried my mother.

Still, my morbid fascination wasn’t entirely focused on deliciously grotesque ways of dying, and Lurlene McDaniel became a favorite author somewhere around sixth grade. Although a large portion of George R. R. Martin’s fame can be attributed to his habit of brutally offing major characters—particularly at festive events, such as weddings—McDaniel always gets ignored by lists of Authors Who Kill Everyone You Love, but even her Goodreads biography notes that, “[s]he is well known for writing about characters struggling with chronic and terminal illnesses, such as cancer, diabetes, and organ failure;” it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the woman is going to be engaging in some—very tasteful and heartstring-tugging—killing.

After puberty, the deaths of human characters became infinitely more emotional for me. I stopped choosing my own adventures. I began to avoid sad books the same as films, because what teenager wants to be embarrassed by displays of emotion? Besides, with a doomed and manipulative relationship on my plate I didn’t want for tear-jerking material.

Sometime after the relationship and the aftermath of my first heartbreak were over, I happened upon John Green‘s debut novel, Looking for Alaska. I’m fairly certain I picked it out as a prize in the Summer Reading Program, but who knows at this point? It had a strange title and a hipsterish cover; it looked interesting.

There are many things I appreciate about Green’s writing, Looking for Alaska in particular. He employs, at least in his early novels, thematic repetitions and anecdotes that strongly evoke Chuck Palahniuk’s work. Although his novels are targeted toward a young adult audience, reading Green never feels like settling for something dumbed-down or shoddily-written.

The problem, of course, is that Looking for Alaska is so damned good it sucked me in. Shields down. Shots fired. At the end, I was in a strange ether field of agony and bliss; I was sobbing, yet smiling. It was so sad, but in a great way, because the ride had been fantastic. The eponymous Alaska had become one of those terribly flawed role models that I can’t help but want to become.

Not long after I finished the book, the Spartanburg County Public Libraries hosted a John Green signing at the—then annual, now defunct—Jamboread. I was working that day, but I slipped Alaska into my purse and made a mental note to stop by his table after my shift. Somehow, though, in all the hustle and bustle of the day, I forgot. I walked past posters without noticing the reminder. For all I know, I walked past Green himself.

It wasn’t until later that night, when I was sitting at a house party, surrounded by people who didn’t really like me, that I realized my mistake. I cried. Publicly. I hugged my knees to my chest, and whenever someone asked me what was wrong I didn’t have the reflex to lie for social protection. Most of the people who overheard snickered, but some at least had the decency to fake sympathy out of pity. And I was pitiful. I was a soggy mess, as a matter of fact.

I’ve never really gotten over it. Some days, I see a copy of Looking for Alaska in a bookstore or library, and I feel knots forming in my gut and throat. Telling myself that I’m lucky to have met the people I have only helps so much. John Green will always be the one who got away.

Have you ever met, or missed, an influential writer? Let’s talk about it! Leave a comment below.