07/10/2012 10:34 am ET Updated Sep 09, 2012

Past Participle

Unlike many other stylishly disillusioned college graduates, I know exactly what I want to do with my life. I have never doubted my decision to avoid consulting jobs, or finance jobs, or even those ambiguous "marketing and administration" jobs that require "extensive" knowledge of Microsoft Office and "a lot of enthusiasm!" I have never feared "the real world" or even felt the need to use the phrase "the real world" without accompanying scare quotes or skeptically raised eyebrows. Trollish commenters who consider themselves older and wiser than I are welcome to continue smiling knowingly and muttering to themselves about 401(k)s -- I don't care. After throwing my mortarboard into the air, I was overwhelmed not with a sense of I-shouldn't-have-majored-in-English anxiety, but of purpose. Finally, I thought, I have time to become a writer.

Less than a week later, my best friend called me with news: One of our classmates, Marina Keegan, was dead.

That's how he said it: "Have you heard about Marina? She's dead." Fellow former English majors will notice his use of the past participle; it suggests a shift from a recently shocking occurrence to an undeniably tragic state of being. Although I'd never really known someone who died -- let alone someone my age who died -- what it meant took awhile to sink in. This person does not exist anymore.

The injustice of such an untimely death did not go unnoticed. Marina was eulogized in every publication from the Yale Daily News to the Los Angeles Times, the amount of potential present in a car that had crashed into a guardrail and rolled over "at least twice" lamented by hundreds of thousands of people. She had written great plays, stories, op-eds; she had just graduated magna cum laude; she had secured an editorial assistant position at a publication so venerated our creative writing professors might as well have told us, "This is what you aspire to." It's a huge loss, and one that had me in completely unexpected tears several hours after I found out about it. Strange, because I only knew her in the way I knew a lot of people at Yale: recognize her on the street and quickly closed-mouth-smile. Resent her whenever she published something I couldn't deny was good.

More than a month has passed, and I'm still waiting for someone to articulate why I find myself drifting from the 12 half-finished Word documents on my desktop to Facebook and typing "Marina Keegan" into the search bar. All the eulogies and well-wishings and shocked statements of grief on her wall say the same thing: Marina had so much potential, Marina was a beautiful person, Marina's death shows us how we should live. I want someone to have written something true and authentic and original, something that will accurately capture why we -- people who didn't know Marina particularly well, or at all -- feel so strongly about her death. As many-a Jezebel commenter pointed out, people die every day. Why is this so upsetting, so nationally recognized as tragedy? I guess I should recognize that Facebook isn't really the best place to find answers to these questions (or really any questions), but the seemingly endless scroll of Rest in peace's and Prayers for her family and friends's and The world is worse off without her optimism/talent/activism/energy/smile's disappoints me nevertheless. (It isn't that people haven't tried to do her justice; one of the more recent mourners called her an "irreplaceable demiurge," which I am not ashamed to say I had to look up: "A concept from the Platonic, Neopythagorean, Middle Platonic, and Neoplatonic schools of philosophy for an artisan-like figure responsible for the fashioning and maintenance of the physical universe." Er, kay.)

Not much can make me doubt that writing is what I want to do -- not the rejection, not the Ramen noodles, not the physical pain I experience when I have to cut what seems like the world's greatest sentence from a piece. Still, it's teeth-grittingly hard -- the gap between what you want to say and your ability to say it well only closes with years of practice, I'm often sympathetically told. But what do you do if you run out of years to practice?

Marina was a good writer, but she was almost certainly not as good as she would have been if she had kept on living. People who never met Marina responded to her death because it is a symbol, eerily at odds with her now-famous last column for the Yale Daily News, way too much like something in the novel she might have grown up to write. Her unwitting last words were spent reminding us that we have plenty of time to do what we want, even if what we want is just to be able to figure that out. "We are so young, we are so young," she wrote, devastatingly, unavoidably wrong.

Even before this happened, much of my life was spent in fear of an untimely death. Beautiful marble staircases make me imagine cracking my head open. At the suggestion of in-flight turbulence, I begin frantically considering which loved ones I would deem worthy of $4.99/minute Airfone good-byes. Changing lanes on the highway sends me into a sweaty-palmed panic attack. I feel compelled to write about Marina and her death because I am constantly thinking about and trying not to think about my own mortality. Because I am, strangely, ludicrously, what-the-hell-am-I-talking-about-ly, trying to imagine how I would feel if I died. Had Marina known her progress as a writer would stop short just as she was about to have enough time to become one, I'm sure she would have been really, really mad. Meanwhile, at the ripe old age of almost-22, I am terrified of running out of time to sneak something into The New Yorker. It's a quarter-life crisis that is both totally ridiculous and completely valid.

Read other Quarter-life Crisis posts here and on The Good Men Project.