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The literary afterlife of a published Yale star

We don't have a word for the opposite of creativity, not really. Sure, it could be uncreative. But that doesn't do the trick. It's a state of mind, something you can't quite put your finger on; a sense of complacency about the way things are – or, more bluntly, the way you have allowed things to become. The opposite of creativity has something to do with acceptance of the status quo, of what you have and are willing to risk, of who you are and what you want to accomplish. Maybe it's your job. Maybe it's your marriage.

The opposite of creativity might have started with a silent decision you made, when you pushed aside all those idealistic dreams of what you thought you could be and started to become what made sense, what would pay the bills and a mortgage; what fulfilled the expected social script.

Whatever it is, the opposite of creativity is partly why we're besotted with The Opposite of Loneliness, a collection of essays and stories by Marina Keegan. She was a student at Yale – beautiful, talented, urgent in her understanding of the beauty of life and the need to make a difference.

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And, yes, you read that right – was: Her book is published posthumously. Five days after graduating from Yale in May, 2012, she was killed in a car accident. For the commencement issue of the Yale Daily News, she had written an essay, entitled The Opposite of Loneliness. It begins: "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."

It, too, is something indefinable, a feeling, and for her it had to do with being young with dreams for how the world could be, how it should be. She was an activist, president of the Yale Young Democrats and involved in the school's Occupy Wall Street movement. "More than finding the right job or city or spouse, I'm scared of losing this web we're in," she wrote in her title essay. She encouraged her classmates to remember that they have years ahead of them. "We're so young. We can't, we MUST not lose this sense of possibility because in the end, it's all we have."

Death is the new black these days, a fashionable choice of subject. Books about it – and what comes after – are among the most popular on bestseller lists. It is an event like no other, complicated in its variations – sometimes welcome, other times a great tragedy, one that can be full of fear or grace, violence or poetry. When it robs us of young people, death keeps them alive in a way, forever young. We are left to imagine a wrinkled Princess Diana as a grandmother, or Anne Frank as a distinguished writer, or James Dean as a celebrated, veteran actor.

And when death arrives perfectly as it did for Kenneth Felumlee, who died earlier this week within 15 hours of his wife, Helen, both in their early nineties and reportedly inseparable through 70 years of marriage, we're moved by its mysterious beauty.

Ironically, the heartbreak of Keegan's lost possibility lay in a certainty. She was a writer, a gifted one, and she didn't need to worry about the right job. She had a plum one lined up: In the fall, she was to start a full-time job as an editorial assistant at The New Yorker. She had worked there as an intern the summer before. She wrote poetry, plays, journalism and short fiction. National Public Radio had produced a story of hers. She had contributed to The New York Times. Independents, a musical she wrote while at Yale about a group of recent college grads who set out on an 18th-century tall ship to avoid the pressures of adult responsibilities, had been chosen for inclusion in the New York International Fringe Festival in the summer of 2012, where it won an award as well as a New York Times Critics Award. Another play written at Yale, Utility Monster, an examination of charity and ethics, was staged in a theatre on Cape Cod, where her family had a home.

That's where she was headed in a car, a 1997 black Lexus driven by her boyfriend, Michael Gocksch. He was not speeding. He had not been drinking alcohol. Both were wearing seat belts. He fell asleep at the wheel. The car hit the guardrail, spun across the road, hit the opposite one, and rolled twice. He was uninjured. Keegan, who was reclined in her seat, died at the scene. The family insisted no charges be laid.

Perhaps predictably, some have embellished the promise of someone so talented who died too young. Some reports said she graduated summa cum laude when in fact it was magna. And who knows if her musical would have won those awards had she survived the crash. (At her home on Cape Cod, she had planned to meet with the lyricist and producer of the work on revisions.) The Opposite of Loneliness is a collection of wonderful, youthful writing but it's also clear that it was only published because she had died. An English major at Yale, Keegan had railed against the suggestion that the disarray of the publishing world made it virtually impossible to make it as a writer. She refused to accept the death of literature. But, the truth is, her untimely death won her a publishing deal for writing that, had she lived, she might have been considered unworthy juvenilia.

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Keegan's light is the opposite of what the boomer generation has become – which makes the acuteness of her loss that much sharper. She is our lost selves, a voice of a new generation that urged others to find meaning and purpose and not give in to the materialistic imperative. She wrote a piece for The New York Times about the aggressive recruiting by investment banks on campus. "Standing outside a freshman dorm, I couldn't find a single student aspiring to be a banker – but at commencement this May, there's a 50-per-cent chance I'll be sitting next to one. This strikes me as incredibly sad," she wrote.

Do you remember what you felt like at your commencement, when maybe you were thin and beautiful and wore skirts that were short? Watch Keegan on YouTube as she performs some of her poetry at Yale. She is, indeed, a "nimbus of angry energy," as her English professor, Anne Fadiman, writes in the introduction to the book. "I want enough time to be in love with everything," Keegan says, reading her poem, Bygones, her arms gesticulating, the sharp, poetic fragments at odds with her long-haired J. Crew vibe. "… And I cry because everything is so beautiful and so short."

She feared the opposite of creativity, the death of possibility. And then tragically, she came to symbolize it, reminding us that even when we have the chance to live, we can commit the same act of violence upon ourselves.

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About the Author
Life columnist

Sarah Hampson is an award-winning journalist whose work started appearing in The Globe and Mail in 1998, when she was invited to write a column. Since 1993, when she began her career in journalism, she had been writing for all of Canada's major magazines, including Toronto Life, Saturday Night (now defunct), Chatelaine, Report on Business and Canadian Art, among others. More


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