I just finished an English Literature degree. I’m used to reading words by dead people. But so many of the authors I wrote essays on were the kind of famous that makes people stories in themselves, their deaths no more real to me than their fiction.
I could not fictionalise Marina Keegan. She died in a car accident in 2012, five days after she graduated from Yale University. She was twenty-two. She wrote an essay a few days before that went viral after her death. Seeing her writing touch so many people, her parents and her teachers gathered her best essays and fiction into a book named after that viral essay: The Opposite of Loneliness.
Initially the grief that this book is wrapped in makes it difficult to experience Marina’s writing for what it is. In her essays she mentions the future a lot – as all twenty-two year olds do (I would know) – and it’s jarring.
I’m one of those people who worries about dying a lot. Reading the book made me anxious.
But Marina’s writing is so good, I found myself forgetting about the grief and the death and my own anxieties. I suppose because not many of us get published, I don’t feel that I get to read much in the way of writing by people in their early twenties, like me. Utterly bewildered by life (happy free confused and lonely at the same time), like me. It was kind of like listening to 1989 for the first time and marvelling at how Taylor got dating in your twenties down so perfectly. Actually Marina does too, in Cold Pastoral, a story about a girl whose sort-of-but-not-really-boyfriend passes away, suddenly. She’s faced with grieving for a boy she was considering breaking up with, someone who was kind of boring her until he permanently idealised himself by dying. We all want what we can’t have. I really felt that sense of being a tourist in someone else’s life – the places and customs that glide past you, barely significant to someone who doesn’t plan on staying long.
My favourite of Marina’s essays was Even Artichokes Have Doubts, about how high proportions of Yale students go on to work in the consulting or finance industries. It’s not finance or consulting that are the problem, it’s the dreams that working for them replaces. Rather than starting their non-profit, or making their films or writing their songs, Marina saw the people around her instead signing up to be a part of a machine that served nobody. She saw the world losing out on the gifts her friends could share if they were only brave enough.
And here lies the conundrum of the nearly-graduate art student. Do I commit to my art and work a crappy job, or do I commit to a decent job with decent money that isn’t what I want? I think this quote in Marina’s essay, from Kevin Hicks, former dean of Berkeley College sums the whole argument up pretty perfectly:
“The question is: where do you need to be with yourself such that when the time comes to ‘cast your whole vote’, you’re reasonably confident you’re not being either fear-based or ego-driven in your choice… that the journey you’re on is really yours, and not someone else’s? If you think about your first few jobs after Yale in this way – holistically and in terms of your growth as a person rather than as ladder rungs to a specific material outcome – you’re less likely to wake up at age forty married to a stranger.”
Now that is advice to carry into the future. In the book, Marina mentions a few times that she wants to be a writer. But from what I can tell she already was one. It made me think that perhaps we are already what we want to be, but that in the real, non-university world of 9 to 5 and money and responsibility, we find ourselves forgetting. Re-reading The Opposite of Loneliness will be how I remember, I think.