Each month, we ask one distinguished author or illustrator to write an original post that reveals insights about their process and craft. Enjoy!
Inspiration is in the Community
by John Green
Photo provided by Penguin, 2010
Although my books are printed on thinly sliced pieces of tree, they would be utterly impossible without the Internet. Paper Towns (Dutton 2008), for instance, is built around this weird cartographic phenomenon wherein mapmakers intentionally put fake places on their maps. There was some research into this kind of thing before the Internet, but it took the crowd sourcing talents of the web to reveal how widespread the practice really is.
Similarly, the writing of my first novel, Looking for Alaska (Dutton 2005), was dependent on the Internet. The book involves famous people’s last words—a subject about which I would know very little if it weren’t for the dedicated amateurs combing newspaper archives and biographies and then posting their finds to listservs and blog sites.
But to me the Internet is not only a source of information but also a source of inspiration.
At its best, the Internet makes stuff not for glory or profit or fame but because making things for people is valuable and beautiful even if no one ever sees the things you make. I also love the way online communities often welcome others to come in and improve their work. A really good example of this that has absolutely nothing to do with anything I’ve ever written is the Gary Busey Family Photo. (For those blissfully unaware of Busey, he is an American movie actor known for his erratic behavior and troubled personal life.)
The story of the Gary Busey Family Photo (GBFP) begins on January 2nd, 2009, when a user named Paradox86 posted a message to The Something Awful forums. “The theme is simple,” Paradox wrote. “Photoshop celebrities onto the bodies of normal folk.” Users responded with such immediately promising results. Here, a user named Innocent Bones photoshopped Busey into a convention:
…which the aptly named user Mr. Awesome immediately improved:
A few hours later, a user named Millie was inspired to create the first GBFP:
By the way: Yes, I have a point. Twelve hours after posting the GBFP you see above, Millie returned to the Something Awful forum, having spent hours on a new picture. “Had to update my original 3 AM masterpiece,” Millie wrote. “Needed more Busey.”
And there it is. To look at the GBFP is not only to be amused but also to be made aware that every family portrait masks madness and fear and suffering.
The picture only works because Millie spent hours meticulously editing it pixel by pixel so that our eyes would at first blush believe this to be a real family portrait. Why did Millie do this? Surely s/he did not harbor hopes of becoming rich or famous or beloved. Millie made this picture because s/he thought it was funny and that people would like it. (And people have: At least 200,000,000 people have seen it.)
There are many lessons to be drawn from the GBFP. For one thing, it reminds us that all art is collaborative: I may write alone in my basement, but everything I do is informed by the books I’ve read and loved or hated. I could not have written my books without those books, just as Millie could not have created Gary Busey Family Photo without Mr. Awesome’s Busey Convention. (What is now called mash-up culture has been a part of bookmaking for millennia.)
But to me the most important lesson is this: The best stories come from the same place as GBFP. They are books that exist because someone wanted to tell us a story, wanted—as William Faulkner once said—“to create out of the material of the human spirit something which did not exist before.”
This is why I spent three years revising Paper Towns: I wanted to try to get each pixel right in the picture. To this end, I am motivated not only by photoshopped images but also by the novelists whose precision and dedication I have admired over the years from F. Scott Fitzgerald to Toni Morrison to M.T. Anderson.
When I am asked about what inspires me to write, I often feel a chill run through me—not because I’ve been asked the question a thousand times but because I still don’t have a good answer. Inspiration is too delicate and fleeting a beast to pin down, but I know this: I am inspired, every day, by my readers. I am inspired by the depth and clarity of their reading and by their profound engagement with the big questions surrounding the great and terrible burden of human consciousness. And I also know this: I am inspired, every day, by the Gary Busey Family Photo.
This material may not be used without the express written consent of John Green.