Thursday, 12 March 2015

Marina Keegan

From the introduction to The Opposite of Loneliness written by Keegan's creative writing lecturer 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 email from

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 ad 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 laud, she would have overreacted, with plenty of pregnant pauses and over enunciated consonants, so you'd know it was hyperbole) and 100% 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 interested stuff in my life.

In my class, which she took in the spring of her junior year, she drew on those 32 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 and Nichols School, in classes taught by Harry Thomas and Brian Staveley.)

Many of my students sound 40 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 21 and sounded 21: a brainy 21, a 21 who knew her way around the English language, a 21 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, Watch it! (Polysyndeton is the use of multiple conjunctions. "A and B and C" instead of "A, B and C."

* Don't overdo the anaphora. (Anaphora is the repetition of initial words or phrases)

* 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 spellcheck 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 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 took you only a minute to write that sentence!


High on their posthumous pedestals, the dead become hard to see. Grief, deference, and the homogenising 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 email-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 theatre 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 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 email:

I'm so sorry about the delay in writing to you! The fact of the matter is I've taken ill after wearing excessively think 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 email: "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 realising 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 organise Occupy Yale, taking the train to New York every Thursday to intern at the Paris Review, lining up a post graduation 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 email 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 55th 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 have 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 22 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 sene 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 14. The race - in Wellfleet Harbor, on the outer end of Cape Cod - was for a class of solo 14-foot dinghies called Lasers. The junior sailors, 15 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 100 pounds. A heavy sailor slows a boat just as a heavy jockey slows a racehorse.

But the day wasn't calm. There were 40-knot winds and 3-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 76 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 15 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)


  1. I love this, thank you. I'm (well, probably still young to you), but I've had a very hard life, in comparison to Marina Keegans'. Child abuse so bad I ended up with all sorts of adult illnesses. Depression due to death threats. Victim of attempted pedophilia. But I am also like Marina, and have recently rediscovered what it feels like to be young, passionate and ready to take on the world. So maybe I'll take up where she left off, living with that sense of passion and wonder and urge to hurl myself out there.

  2. I wish you had left a name with that. I'm sorry that you went through so much at such an early age. Good luck on your journey. Because of what you have endured thus far...I think you're ready to take on the world. Do stop by from time to time here. I share things that are supposed to lift the spirits. Some light for dark times...