We talk a lot about innate things humans seem to want to do over and over again. Whether it's the need for speed or more basic pursuits we tend to fall into repeating patterns of behavior. Storytelling, it turns out, is no different . Going hand-in-hand with that is the desire to effect other lives and somehow prove that, yes, we were here. I don't know if that was going through John Green's mind when he wrote The Fault in Our Stars but it's easy to see how that book touches that theme. With largely positive reviews in both written and motion picture form, the story of two kids spending the last moments of their lives together clearly resonates with people, to the point where it gains extra poignancy when life imitates art. John Green himself experienced this firsthand when he (literally) bumped into a young cancer patient while writing TFiOS, inspiring him to help parents Lori and Wayne Earl collect the journals of their late daughter Esther Grace (along with her surviving fiction drafts) into a new book, This Star Won't Go Out: The Life and Words of Esther Grace Earl.
Topshot from the web banner of the This Star Won't Go Out Foundation, the organization created by Lori and Wayne Earl to memorialize their daughter and provide financial assistance to families facing terminal illness (proceeds from sales of TSWGO helps support this organization). Visit their website here.
TSWGO isn't a "real-life" retelling of any "true" story behind TFiOS, something John Green explicitly states in the book's forward. It is but one story (formed from many smaller ones) in one girl's life. Really, TSWGO only happens to be about Esther Grace Earl - it just as easily could've been one of thousands of other young, terminally-ill cancer patients like herself. At the same time as her piles of journal entries paint a picture of a "normal," typical American teenager, they present a very unique portrait of a very specific, very unique point of life in a sea of many, and reminds us that each and every star up there is unique and special, and that as an entire sky of constellations we all have something to add to make this universe beautiful.
To Tell Our Stories is to Touch the Stars
If I had to pick one theme or one lesson about storytelling that I learned from reading TSWGO, it's that telling our stories really does matter. One of the goodbye letters from one of Esther's friends asks the question if the world can change from a single keystroke. I don't know if it does, but in memorializing her thoughts on paper, and in her parents collecting and publishing them, Esther has at least ensured that her life stories and memories can at least spread beyond her circle of friends and family and repeat through thousands of teen (and older, and younger) readers with some endurance.
Confronting mortality is a major theme of the book as well - given the subject nature, the book pretty much tells you this inevitability practically right up front on its very cover. As such, it's perhaps equally inevitable that the message behind "living life to the fullest" pops up as well - in all honesty this snippet has almost become a cliche in its own right. Live life to the fullest how? That's something that will always be up to the interpretation of the person effected. I think a major component of TSWGO's success is going beyond that tired bromide into how one's life goes beyond what you merely do with it. It's not just a story about Esther: it's a story about a family coping and loving; a bunch of friends coming together to try to change the world, or at least something; the power of mass rapid communication coming together to try to make that change happen, or at least, throw something fun and awesome together in true Nerdfighters style. These stories would have been shared either way - they would've been experienced in the moment with other people, sometimes a small handful, sometimes a few hundred, sometimes just with a mom and dad. Through TSWGO, these stories can be shared with thousands or even hundreds of thousands of others for years if not decades to come. Some of these stories are about the immortal love of family, romances that are theoretical and will never happen, everlasting friendships that persist past death. Some of these stories are just about a bunch of people having a fun time and trying to push the spectre of death as far into the background as possible.
TSWGO taught me that any of these stories is just as valid as the others.
A Single Star Unique, A Constellation Grand
I'd be willing to wager that there's too much individuality vs. collectivism conflict going on, if not in the wider ideological arena of storytelling (which all stories participate in, regardless of conscious creator intent) then most certainly in the Beltway-based political arena. Esther's story reminds the reader that the individuality vs. collectivism conflict doesn't need to exist, that they can go hand-in-hand and just as much as we need our alone and private moments, we need our friends, family and whole communities there with us when we need something to fall on.
Sometimes, our immediate family isn't enough. Much of the book is dedicated to the small group of intimate friends Esther built while deep in the throes of experimental treatment. Calling themselves "Catitude" (since then becoming the founding members of Eff Yeah Nerdfighters) these half a dozen or so girls forged bonds over instant messaging and Skype (portions of which are recreated in TSWGO). As John Green writes in his forward,
I dislike the phrase 'Internet friends,' because it implies that people you know online aren't really your friends, that somehow the friendship is less real or meaningful to you because it happens through Skype or text messages. The measure of a friendship is not its physicality but its significance.
"Catitude" wasn't just an inner circle of Esther's closest friends helping her ride out the cancer - it was a springboard to bigger things. Much like Hank and John Green's vlogbrothers, their social media exploits and YouTube messages caught the attention of others - perhaps it's only natural John Green himself would be one of them. Social interaction can snowball into something bigger and more wonderful if you let it, and if you're surrounded by good and fun-loving people: YouTube videos lead to LeakyCon and not only meeting John Green in person but Harry and the Potters; to Boston area cruises with complete strangers also suffering from terminal illness; to random outings with familiar faces, but in places they'd never thought they'd visit.
Yes, individuality does matter. TSWGO shows that. Yes, it does take a village. TSWGO also shows that. It's just one of many contradictory components that, when added together, makes for a singular and beautiful human experience.
A Beautiful Contradiction
And perhaps that's a fair way to describe a life well-lived - a series of stories and experiences that when examined individually seem to contradict each other but when put together in a whole creates an amazingly complex, organic and dynamic construct that thrives on its uneven moments, on both those times when you need to be alone when you're at your bottom and when you're at your greatest high with thousands of other people.
As the clear end approaches, the medications Esther takes start hijacking her emotions. She describes herself as being "shitty" and writes in her journal:
I feel so useless because I don't know. It would make no difference if I died. What I mean is not that I'm suicidal....
This is juxtaposed with a Thank You letter she writes to her friends, the Catitude, the Green brothers and Nerdfighters everywhere.
Cancer, chemotherapy, experimental treatments, you name it - none of this suddenly turns people into infallible Earthen angels. Esther feels a lot of shitty moments, and she should have, because frankly going through experimental and painful treatment on Death's bed is a pretty shitty experience. Nothing can cover it up. But that doesn't mean you can't try, and try is indeed what Esther and her friends and family and throngs of kind-hearted and awesome strangers do. And upon that failure, that mountain of attempts at trying, and those shitty moments when those attempts fail, all combine to make a full and beautiful human experience.
This Star Won't Go Out isn't a quirky John Green romance/adventure, it doesn't have a happy ending, and it's exactly as depressing as you might expect it to be. There's no attempt to cover it up, no attempt to save you from spoilers, and everything stated above is what John Green himself states in the book's forward (in one fashion or another). There's no attempt to cover up the fact that it's largely a collection of random, stream-of-conscious musings from a dying teenage girl combined with a bunch of letters, status updates and blog posts from said girl's family and friends, either. TSWGO really is a "what you see is what you get" kind of book. But it's also a book full of stories - stories that need to be told, retold and shared. Stories that remind us that we all have our own stories, and are experiencing and living through stories, worthy of being told, retold, and shared, too.
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