By Anne Fadiman.
I first saw Marina Keegan on November 10, 2010. I was hosting the novelist Mark Helprin at a master’s tea at Yale, during which he said that making it as a writer today was virtually impossible.
A student stood up. Thin. Beautiful. Long, reddish-brown hair. Long legs. Flagrantly short skirt. Nimbus of angry energy. She asked Helprin if he really meant that. There was a collective intake of breath in the room. It was what everyone else had been thinking but no one else had been brave (or brazen) enough to say.
That night, I got an e-mail from marina.keegan@ yale.edu: Hello! I don’t think you know me, but I was the student who asked the question . . . Hearing a famous writer tell me that the industry is dying and that we should probably do something else was sad. Perhaps I just expected him to be more encouraging of those hoping to stop the death of literature.
“To stop the death of literature”: Marina was being simultaneously self-mocking (if she’d said that line aloud, she would have overacted, with plenty of pregnant pauses and overenunciated consonants, so you’d know it was hyperbole) and 100 percent serious.
She applied to my class on first-person writing a few weeks later. Her application began: About three years ago, I started a list. It began in a marbled notebook but has since evolved inside the walls of my word processor. Interesting stuff. That’s what I call it. I’ll admit it’s become a bit of an addiction. I add to it in class, in the library, before bed, and on trains. It has everything from descriptions of a waiter’s hand gestures, to my cab driver’s eyes, to strange things that happen to me or a way to phrase something. I have 32 single-spaced pages of interesting stuff in my life.
In my class, which she took in the spring of her junior year, she drew on those thirty-two pages of interesting stuff to write a series of essays that her classmates, in their written critiques, festooned with awestruck adjectives: beautiful, vivid, vibrant, visual, fresh, direct, lyrical, compelling, evocative, precise, confident, honest, startling. (Three of the pieces in this book are from that class. Others are from Yale writing classes taught by John Crowley and Cathy Shufro; some are from student periodicals; and three — “Baggage Claim,” “Sclerotherapy,” and “I Kill for Money” — were written during Marina’s junior and senior years at the Buckingham Browne & Nichols School, in classes taught by Harry Thomas and Brian Staveley.)
Many of my students sound forty years old. They are articulate but derivative, their own voices muffled by their desire to skip over their current age and experience, which they fear trivial, and land on some version of polished adulthood without passing Go.
Marina was twenty-one and sounded twenty-one: a brainy twenty-one, a twenty-one who knew her way around the English language, a twenty-one who understood that there were few better subjects than being young and uncertain and starry-eyed and frustrated and hopeful. When she read her work aloud around our seminar table, it would make us snort with laughter, and then it would turn on a dime and break our hearts.
I always ask my students to append to their final essay a list of “Personal Pitfalls”— the aspects of their writing they wish to work on in the future. These were some of Marina’s: • Too much polysyndeton. 1 Watch it! • Don’t overdo the anaphora. 2 • Be careful of weird strange phrases and their prepositions. • Be careful of parallels. • Make your titles good! Don’t just choose them at the last minute! Avoid alliteration! • Make sure modifiers make sense. • Add more real stories when talking about general ideas. • Make sure to spell-check homophones like “it’s” and “its” by searching the document before finishing. • Don’t use too many adverbs in one sentence. • Similes must actually be capable of doing their thing. You can’t “curl up like a spoon.” • Unusual phrases work better at the end of paragraphs. • I lay an egg, I laid an egg, I have laid an egg. I lie, I lay, I have lain. • Topic indecision—just get over it! • Make sure tenses are consistent. • Don’t use two prepositions in a row. • Don’t get too attached to things. It only took you a minute to write that sentence! • THERE CAN ALWAYS BE A BETTER THING!
* * *
High on their posthumous pedestals, the dead become hard to see. Grief, deference, and the homogenizing effects of adulation blur the details, flatten the bumps, sand off the sharp corners. Marina was brilliant, kind, and idealistic; I hope I never forget that she was also fierce, edgy, and provocative. A little wild. More than a little contrarian. If you wanted a smooth ride, Marina wasn’t your vehicle.
When we met for an hour-long conference to edit her first essay together, we got through three and a half lines. She resisted my suggestions because she didn’t want to sound like me; she wanted to sound like herself.
In class, she had strong opinions about the writers we read. She hated Lucy Grealy even though most of her classmates loved her, and loved Joyce Maynard even though most of her classmates hated her. She both admired and envied other talented young writers.
When I posted exemplary essays by two students from a previous class, she wrote, “AHHHH ALICE’S ESSAY IS SO GOOD OH MY GOD . . . . ELISA’S IS SO GOOD TOO! oh my gosh. No i won’t get dampened . . .
”She frequently lost her keys and her cell phone, sometimes for days, sometimes inside her bag, an infinitely capacious, ink-stained tote (you might have expected someone as entropic as Marina to choose a bag with a zipper, but, as in all else, openness was her hallmark); she was given to procrastination and the all-nighters that inevitably followed; she was frustrated by deadlines, bureaucracies, obtuse politicians, the gap between theory and practice, her roommates’ habit of using a knife to cut bread and then dipping it in the Nutella jar, and her own tendency to forget things, all of which inspired the all-purpose e-mail-and-text expletive “GAH!”
The summer between her junior and senior years, everything went so well for Marina that she had few occasions to say GAH. She had once papered her bedroom wall with New Yorker covers; now she was interning in the New Yorker’s fiction department, combing its slush pile for hidden gems, and getting published on its book blog. One of her plays was selected for a staged reading at a major theater festival, and she wrote much of another by, as she put it, “clocking in 3 hours (no excuses) every day.”
During that summer Marina also found time to write to her friends and teachers. Having just read an essay in which I’d mentioned the excuses that the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, an inveterate procrastinator, had made for his tardy correspondence, she began one e-mail: I’m so sorry about the delay in writing to you! The fact of the matter is I’ve taken ill after wearing excessively thin breeches in bad weather—not to mention because of my toothache, insomnia, gout, cough, boils, inflamed eyes, swollen testicles, and raging epistolophobia. And ended it: And above all, be at peace with yourself, and a double Blessing to me, who am, my dear Professor, anxiously, Your fond Student (She explained in a postscript to a later e-mail: “Since reading those Coleridge letters I’ve become obsessed with these types of signatures. They’re just so GOOD. Like, that moment with the comma before the line break. I love that moment. COLERIDGE! Thank you.”) But she couldn’t wait to get back to college:
I’m realizing how much I love Yale. With my minutes before sleep preoccupied with The Future for the first time in a while, I’m beginning to regard Yale with a kind of premature nostalgia. I WANT TO TAKE EVERY CLASS IN THE CATALOGUE. I WANT TO SEE EVERY BUILDING. I WANT TO SPEND TIME WITH ALL MY FRIENDS.
And she did, pretty much, flying through her senior year with every pore open, collecting prizes, working as Harold Bloom’s research assistant, acting in two plays and writing a third, serving as president of the Yale College Democrats, helping to organize Occupy Yale, taking the train to New York every Thursday to intern at the Paris Review, lining up a postgraduation job at the New Yorker, writing during every spare minute, falling in love.
When a friend who had graduated the previous year asked her permission to show some of her work to his students in Peru, she responded, “Yes to everything!”
* * *
Five days after Marina graduated magna cum laude, I got an e-mail from another student of mine: Anne, sorry to bother you this late, but there’s some terrible news that I don’t know if you’ve heard—please call me. Marina’s boyfriend had been driving her from brunch with her grandmother near Boston to her family’s summer house on Cape Cod to celebrate her father’s fifty-fifth birthday. Her parents were waiting with lobsters and, because Marina had Celiac Disease and couldn’t digest wheat, a homemade gluten-free strawberry shortcake.
Her boyfriend, who was neither speeding nor drinking, fell asleep at the wheel. The car hit a guardrail and rolled over twice. Marina was killed. Her boyfriend was unhurt. Marina’s parents invited him to their house the next day and embraced him. They wrote the state police to ask that no charges of vehicular homicide be brought because “it would break [Marina’s] heart to know her boyfriend would have to suffer more than he already is.”
When he went to court, the Keegans accompanied him. The charges were dropped. At Marina’s memorial service, I had never seen so many young people cry—not just cry, but shake so hard I feared their ribs would break. Within a week, “The Opposite of Loneliness,” an essay that had appeared in the graduation issue of the Yale Daily News, had been read by more than a million people.
“We’re so young. We’re so young,” Marina had written. “We’re twenty-two years old. We have so much time.”When a young person dies, much of the tragedy lies in her promise: what she would have done. But Marina left what she had already done: an entire body of writing, far more than could fit between these covers.
As her parents and friends and I gathered her work, trying to find the most recent version of every story and essay, we knew that none of it was in exactly the form she would have wanted to publish. She was a demon reviser, rewriting and rewriting and rewriting even when everyone else thought something was done. (THERE CAN ALWAYS BE A BETTER THING.)
We knew we couldn’t rewrite her work; only she could have done that. Still, every time I reread these nine stories and nine essays, they sound exactly like her, and I don’t want to change a word. Marina wouldn’t want to be remembered because she’s dead. She would want to be remembered because she’s good.
* * *
I have seen too many young writers give up because they couldn’t handle the repeated failures their profession threw at them. They had talent, but they lacked determination and resilience. Marina had all three, and that’s why I am certain she would have succeeded.
She once wrote me on the night that Yale’s secret societies—senior social clubs, including Skull and Bones, Scroll and Key, and Book and Snake, that meet in windowless buildings called tombs—tapped their new members. She had not been chosen. “I’m in our WaO room right now actually,” she began. (“WaO”was the acronym for our writing class, Writing about Oneself. Marina joked that the following year its students should continue to meet for DaO, Drinking about Oneself.) I ended up getting a bit screwed over on the secret society front so I’ve vowed to spend the 12 hours a week writing a novel. (Tonight is tap.) If I was willing to devote that much time chatting in a tomb I should be willing to devote it to writing! 6–12 sundays and thursdays. Might call it BOOK and BOOK. 🙂
She had devoted less than two hours to disappointment before she moved on. If she’d been tapped by Book and Snake, this book would not exist. After Marina’s death, her father told me about a sailing race she’d entered when she was fourteen. The race—in Well-fleet Harbor, on the outer end of Cape Cod—was for a class of solo fourteen-foot dinghies called Lasers. The junior sailors, fifteen and under, were to start at the same time as the adults. Marina was hoping for a calm day. She thought she could beat everyone, including the adults, both because she was an expert sailor and because she weighed less than a hundred pounds. A heavy sailor slows a boat just as a heavy jockey slows a racehorse.
But the day wasn’t calm. There were forty-knot winds and three-foot waves. Before the race started, the entire junior division dropped out, along with all the women—except Marina. In weather like that, lightness is not an asset. Especially when the boat is heading upwind, keeping it stable is almost impossible.
Marina capsized more times than her parents could count. Each time, the boat tipped onto its side and she was thrown into the water. She had to swim the bow into the wind, climb onto the centerboard, stand on it while holding onto the gunwale, lean backward, pull hard enough to lift seventy-six square feet of wet sail out of the water, climb back into the boat, and readjust the sail, all with the wind howling and the waves crashing into and over her. Marina’s original goal had been to win. Her new goal was to finish. Several of the men gave up, but Marina continued. In perfect weather, the race would have taken her fifteen minutes. It took her almost an hour. She came in second to last, to incredulous applause. She was soaking wet, her hair was bedraggled, and her hands were bloody from gripping the lines.
* * *
A few hours after Marina was told that making it as a writer today was virtually impossible, she arrived late to a meeting of her spoken-word poetry group at Yale. A friend of hers recalls that her face was flushed and her eyes were like sharp, wet stones. “I’ve decided I’m going to be a writer,” she said. “Like, a real one. With my life.”
Anne Fadiman, November 12, 2013
‘Opposite of Loneliness’ by Marina Keegan
The piece below was written by Marina Keegan for a special edition of the Yale Daily News distributed at the class of 2012’s commencement exercises last week. Keegan died in a car accident on Saturday. She was 22.
We don’t have a word for the opposite of loneliness, but if we did, I could say that’s what I want in life. What I’m grateful and thankful to have found at Yale, and what I’m scared of losing when we wake up tomorrow and leave this place.
It’s not quite love and it’s not quite community; it’s just this feeling that there are people, an abundance of people, who are in this together. Who are on your team. When the check is paid and you stay at the table. When it’s four a.m. and no one goes to bed. That night with the guitar. That night we can’t remember. That time we did, we went, we saw, we laughed, we felt. The hats.
Yale is full of tiny circles we pull around ourselves. A cappella groups, sports teams, houses, societies, clubs. These tiny groups that make us feel loved and safe and part of something even on our loneliest nights when we stumble home to our computers — partner-less, tired, awake. We won’t have those next year. We won’t live on the same block as all our friends. We won’t have a bunch of group-texts.
This scares me. More than finding the right job or city or spouse — I’m scared of losing this web we’re in. This elusive, indefinable, opposite of loneliness. This feeling I feel right now.
But let us get one thing straight: the best years of our lives are not behind us. They’re part of us and they are set for repetition as we grow up and move to New York and away from New York and wish we did or didn’t live in New York. I plan on having parties when I’m 30. I plan on having fun when I’m old. Any notion of THE BEST years comes from clichéd “should haves…” “if I’d…” “wish I’d…”
Of course, there are things we wished we did: our readings, that boy across the hall. We’re our own hardest critics and it’s easy to let ourselves down. Sleeping too late. Procrastinating. Cutting corners. More than once I’ve looked back on my High School self and thought: how did I do that? How did I work so hard? Our private insecurities follow us and will always follow us.
But the thing is, we’re all like that. Nobody wakes up when they want to. Nobody did all of their reading (except maybe the crazy people who win the prizes…) We have these impossibly high standards and we’ll probably never live up to our perfect fantasies of our future selves. But I feel like that’s okay.
We’re so young. We’re so young. We’re twenty-two years old. We have so much time. There’s this sentiment I sometimes sense, creeping in our collective conscious as we lay alone after a party, or pack up our books when we give in and go out – that it is somehow too late. That others are somehow ahead. More accomplished, more specialized. More on the path to somehow saving the world, somehow creating or inventing or improving. That it’s too late now to BEGIN a beginning and we must settle for continuance, for commencement.
When we came to Yale, there was this sense of possibility. This immense and indefinable potential energy – and it’s easy to feel like that’s slipped away. We never had to choose and suddenly we’ve had to. Some of us have focused ourselves. Some of us know exactly what we want and are on the path to get it; already going to med school, working at the perfect NGO, doing research. To you I say both congratulations and you suck.
For most of us, however, we’re somewhat lost in this sea of liberal arts. Not quite sure what road we’re on and whether we should have taken it. If only I had majored in biology…if only I’d gotten involved in journalism as a freshman…if only I’d thought to apply for this or for that…
What we have to remember is that we can still do anything. We can change our minds. We can start over. Get a post-bac or try writing for the first time. The notion that it’s too late to do anything is comical. It’s hilarious. We’re graduating college. We’re so young. We can’t, we MUST not lose this sense of possibility because in the end, it’s all we have.
In the heart of a winter Friday night my freshman year, I was dazed and confused when I got a call from my friends to meet them at EST EST EST. Dazedly and confusedly, I began trudging to SSS, probably the point on campus farthest away. Remarkably, it wasn’t until I arrived at the door that I questioned how and why exactly my friends were partying in Yale’s administrative building. Of course, they weren’t. But it was cold and my ID somehow worked so I went inside SSS to pull out my phone. It was quiet, the old wood creaking and the snow barely visible outside the stained glass. And I sat down. And I looked up. At this giant room I was in. At this place where thousands of people had sat before me. And alone, at night, in the middle of a New Haven storm, I felt so remarkably, unbelievably safe.
We don’t have a word for the opposite of loneliness, but if we did, I’d say that’s how I feel at Yale. How I feel right now. Here. With all of you. In love, impressed, humbled, scared. And we don’t have to lose that.
We’re in this together, 2012. Let’s make something happen to this world.
The Opposite of Loneliness, Essays and Stories.
by Marina Keegan
get it at Amazon.com