Books that Built Us: ‘The Opposite of Loneliness’ by Marina Keegan

Tuesday, April 3, 2018 - 3:18pm

Marina Keegan

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Courtesy of Marina Keegan

As writers, we sometimes need to be reminded of why we do what we do. Why we write.

It can get exhausting — putting all your faith and passion into the ink of a pen which turns to words, words that turn to sentences, sentences that turn into a memoir. And then there’s a reality I confront at least 10 times a day: Why do I do this? Why do I want to do this?

When the writer’s block has made home in the front of my skull with the agonizing reality that people everywhere have stories that they are sitting down and just writing, when I envy and lust after the idea, or perhaps just the thought, of a straightforward path — of business school and medical school and any other more conventional “school” — when I face the fear that maybe, just maybe, nobody will ever walk into a bookstore with my name burning at the tip of their tongue, that’s when I need “The Opposite of Loneliness” by Marina Keegan.

My senior year of high school, I considered my future plan with a head on my shoulders that I sometimes think my parents wished I had back then. I would put the writing and theatre on the back burner, and take a more predictable path: psychology, or perhaps political science. I’d be pre-law, and I would successfully ignore the 3:00 a.m. itches at the tips of my fingers to pick up my notebook and jot down thoughts of an early morning poem.

But then I read “The Opposite of Loneliness” by Marina Keegan, which I found in the Yale University bookstore, tucked into the inner elbow of a city that I once thought was my destiny, but instead was simply not meant to be.

I am envious of my 15 year old self, sitting in my room with my book light and my favorite mug reading the words that have become my constitution, my Hail Mary, paving the way for my future. Little did I know then, that I’d finish it in one warm New Jersey, Sept. evening, walk downstairs to our breakfast table the next morning and declare the same words that Keegan did in her years as an exhausted and passionate undergrad:

I want to be a writer. Like, a real one. With my life.

I can’t quite explain my attraction to “The Opposite of Loneliness,” but in terms of literary affairs, this one is hot, quick and intense. It is everything I’ve ever thought about love, and it is everything I’ve ever thought about pain. It has made me feel in so many capacities, with each read more different than the last. It is also a love that ends in heartbreak.

Keegan died at 23, only days after her graduation from Yale as an undergraduate, and never lived to see the publication of her collection of short stories, poetry and narrative nonfiction. Instead, she caught fame and stature only after tragedy struck behind the wheel, taking her life.

It’s strange and desolate to think that the words that changed my life came from a mind that can no longer imagine, and that the stories that reminded me of my place on this earth came from a heart that no longer beats.

It was “The Opposite of Loneliness” that told me, “I want enough time to be in love with everything … because everything is so beautiful and so short.”

“We can change our minds,” Keegan writes. “We can start over. The notion that it’s too late to do anything is comical. It’s hilarious. We can’t, we must not lose this sense of possibility because in the end it’s all we have.”

And most importantly: “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 lie 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.”

It’s “The Opposite of Loneliness” that has me here — hunched over my laptop in a corner of Ann Arbor with tears in my eyes and a large iced coffee with two splendas next to me, wishing my hands would just write the words I wish I could articulate: I am so goddamned lucky to be here, to be actively pursuing a world of creation and make believe, to be doing the one and only thing my heart has always known it was meant for.

I wish for a day I could sit across from Marina Keegan at a table in a coffee shop, look at her with tears on my cheeks and search desperately for the words I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to find, to thank her for this piece of literature, these stories, this gift — something that gave me a reason to fall head over heels in love with words again after years spent struggling to break away from them. It’s so difficult to wrap my head around the fact that there will never be a way to thank her — not even a fan email that winds up in her junk mail somewhere in cyberspace.

At least then, I could have hope.

I think sometimes we lose or misplace who we are. We get wrapped up in this world of SAT tutors and adolescence and hormones and everything else that leads to the dangerous cocktail that had me doubting the most genuine, authentic me. Pushing away books because they’re fiction and not reality, or putting down my pen because someone somewhere with some irrelevant opinion once told me that art cannot pay the bills. But when I misplaced myself and lied through my teeth to guidance counselors with good intentions and parents with better ones, I thought for a moment that maybe I’d really be a lawyer or a psychologist or a therapist.

“The Opposite of Loneliness” has done more than build me. It has re-built me. It has reconstructed me and reinvigorated me and fed me with a desire to do the only thing I really can. I’m eternally indebted to Marina Keegan for shining a light on life, reaching between the pages of a book and shaking me until I saw the truth: You are a writer. You always will be.

A real one. With your life.