Alice Mao

In high school, I spent a lot of time both jealous of and enraptured with my friend. You know the type: similar to you in many ways, but different in every way that counts; charismatic, funny, confident and cool. So goddamn cool. Even though we both got into the same college, won similar awards and joined similar clubs, she always did those things before me, and did them better. She greeted everything with intention and a sparkle I could never emulate. Beyond being the object of my jealousy, she was my greatest role model. We stayed friends.

This friend died. Also, she was not my friend — I never met her. But the rest is true, and I did read her book. Two years ago, during the summer of my junior year, right as I was starting the undertaking of applying to college, I encountered, and soon devoured, the posthumously published collection of short stories and essays “The Opposite of Loneliness,” written by Marina Keegan ’12. Like many readers, I was towed through the book partly because I was a Yale hopeful, but mostly because of its central paradox: that Marina, the incarnation of potential and brilliance, incoming New Yorker staffer, writer of the sentence “the notion that it’s too late to do anything is comical,” was also a 22-year-old who died five days after graduation.

Because of Marina, I finished applying to Yale. The eponymous essay made it clear it would be crazy not to attend a college where I could feel the opposite of loneliness at graduation — and I could not find a school with a better community for me than at Yale.

Also because of Marina, I had something to do this summer.

When The Opposite of Loneliness LLC interviewed me over the phone for an internship, I had no idea that the hollow, collected voice on the other line belonged to Marina’s mom until “my daughter” slid into the conversation. This surprising intimacy was characteristic of the rest of my time working this job — and ultimately the most enriching part.

I became Marina Keegan’s archivist. To build two websites with Tracy (one for “The Opposite of Loneliness” and one for Marina Keegan), compile Marina’s biography and run her social media accounts, I had to untangle collections of her photos, journal entries and unpublished writing. Cramped up at home with nowhere else to go — on my bed, in my bed, on the floor and one time in my shower when I needed a new work surface — I’d sift through hundreds of files sent as individual emails from Tracy. My plunge into Marina’s privacy felt personal, sometimes sad — borderline invasive at times — and a lot like looking through my siblings’ rooms when they’re not home.

Earlier I said that Marina Keegan was not my friend. Well, I take it back. Even though I never met her and never can, these past six months have made it clear that she affects you like a friend — specifically, the kind of friend whose personality and zest for life are so appealing that you subconsciously model your own character after them. I think that’s why organizing her paper trail made me feel like a stalker — because she’s one of us. And the incredible thing about Marina and “us” is that this “us” doesn’t just include Yale students, or even college students. She excels at being a friend for a lot of people.

I didn’t consciously think of Marina as any sort of companion when I first read her work, or anytime before I became an intern promoting it. And why would I? An author isn’t usually a friend. I don’t read a text to feel buddy-buddy with its writer. Like most, I’m roped into books for stories, ideas; writers often seem secondary to what they’ve written. Rarely does my self-image authorize me to consider myself on an equal plane — a basic condition for friendship — with an author.

But Marina is different from other writers. Organizing the details of her life has repeatedly shown me that there is so much to learn from Marina beyond what’s in her book. And there’s so much to learn from her book in light of her life — certainly more than in her death.

It’s true: We know about Marina because she died. That’s what drove her parents to publish her writings from college classes, Yale Daily News articles and high school assignments. And that’s how many, including myself, were first convinced the work was “interesting” enough to put down 15 dollars at Barnes & Noble on a 22-year-old’s writing.

As Marina would say, here’s the thing. Normally, we wouldn’t buy the work of anyone in the making. We seek talent that is already made, sufficiently acclaimed and baked into enough conventions of value to be worthy of our attention. It’s rare that we put a 22-year-old writer who uses exclamation marks and all caps to emphasize a point next to Walt Whitman on the bookshelf. Indeed, reviews of “The Opposite of Loneliness” call her writing “heartbreaking evidence of what could have been,” with “a literary voice still in development” that makes you “wonder what she might have achieved.” But HEY! I think the wonder and vibrancy and naivete that hemorrhage from Marina’s writing are infectious — and have little to do with the writing she would have made in her 30s, 40s, 50s. We can’t have more Marina, but what we have is good in itself. And it makes me think we need more naivete published.

Here’s the other thing: Marina was a very special human. I used to forget about the human part. Coming to Yale, where most are not only special, but also actively maintaining an image of specialness, it felt perfectly customary for me to forget that Marina’s more similar to us than not. This summer, sorting through remembrances from friends and journal entries in which she wrote about her own insecurities, jealousies and fears made it clear that she is more than the person we can understand from her book. She was obsessed with “Harry Potter” and “Lord of the Rings”; she was a terrible speller; she had unrequited crushes; she felt like a misfit when it came to acting; she got a tattoo at 16; she didn’t get the NPR job she wanted after graduation; she practically lived in the Saybrook Library. She confused SSS for Est Est Est. A lot of us have done these things. The experiences themselves weren’t unique, but Marina was exceptional in her articulation of common experience in imaginative fiction and debilitatingly resonant essays.

At first, when reading these materials, I was even more mournful of Marina’s potential than when I had initially read her work. The vulnerability in her archives only made her talent more apparent, and her mortality all the more tragic. But now, I find myself less sad when I read Marina’s work. Sometimes, I forget I’m not reading a classmate’s work and find myself subconsciously, selfishly jealous. This is not because I’ve grown selfish and insensitive to death (I think). It’s because of Marina’s mother, whose approach to remembrance has something to teach everyone. I find Tracy so impressive because she has created a brand for “The Opposite of Loneliness” built entirely on hope. She’s the type of person most people still under parental guidance yearn for in mothers: She encourages unhinged aspiration and makes young voices like mine feel valued. It makes sense that she’s her daughter’s mother.

While writing this essay, I’ve revisited “Song for the Special,” because I’ve always thought of it as the paragon of the Marina Paradox. So many lines in the essay — a rumination on whether we can ever be ‘special’ — slice a contradiction between Marina’s hopes and the reality of her death. But one hope has at least been fulfilled: “I want what I think and who I am captured in an anthology of indulgence I can comfortingly tuck into a shelf in some labyrinthine library.” Marina was both special and especially human, and I am so thankful that what she thinks, who she is, has been gifted to all of us.