This past summer I took a creative writing class, during which my professor told us that fiction about college is often unsuccessful because publishers and audiences often regard college experiences as somewhat childish or ordinary. Everyone gets their heart broken, everyone experiences the fear and thrill that comes with newfound independence, everyone changes and grows when surrounded by new and different people and ideas and everyone (more or less) makes it out on the other side, or so the thinking goes.
I had made a few attempts at writing fiction myself, which were mostly so embarrassingly autobiographical that I had already found rereading them practically unbearable, and hearing my professor say this made the constant knot of self-consciousness in my stomach become tighter. And then it occurred to me that this is much the way I thought about young adult fiction in high school. I had eschewed reading YA books or writing anything of my own growing up because I didn’t want to feel or be seen as immature or angsty, although I was both of those things. As the new school year starts, I’ve been thinking a lot about how incoming college students are in a tricky middle ground—they’re not quite children and they’re not quite adults, but they are still stuck with the condescension that they’re the former and the expectations that they’re the latter. And they’re stuck in this middle ground surrounded by people who will take every opportunity to invalidate their experience.
There’s a book by an author who was a college student that outright rejected this view on youth and writing. “The Opposite of Loneliness” by Marina Keegan, is a collection of essays and stories that Keegan wrote while she was in college. In the introduction, Keegan’s English professor writes, “Many of my students sound forty years old. They are articulate but derivative, their own voices muffled by their desire to skip over their current age and experience, which they fear trivial, and land on some version of polished adulthood without passing go. Marina was twenty-one and sounded twenty-one: a brainy twenty-one, a twenty-one who knew her way around the English language, a twenty-one who understood that there were few better subjects than being young and uncertain and starry-eyed and frustrated and hopeful.”
Keegan’s writing often centers on college students. In the span of a single story she will intrigue you with her language use, make you cringe, laugh and cry. Besides the pieces published in this collection, Keegan had written and acted in several plays, interned at The New Yorker, been a political organizer and had written many other pieces before she graduated magna cum laude from Yale in 2012. Five days after her graduation, she was killed in a car accident. Her friends, family and professors collected the most finished drafts of her writing they could find and published them.
The title essay of the book, “The Opposite of Loneliness,” was published in the graduation issue of the Yale Daily News. In it, Keegan described the feeling she had about college and the future: “It’s not quite love and it’s not quite community; it’s just this feeling that there are people, an abundance of people, who are in this together. This elusive, indefinable, opposite of loneliness. This feeling I feel right now.”
This is a feeling that most freshmen will find during their time here. But probably not right away. For all the people who are elated bonding over illicit shots of cheap vodka in a dorm room, there is another person who is probably feeling alienated because they don’t drink. For all the people bound together by their passion for political activism, there are people whose experiences haven’t prepared them for the discussions their peers are engaging in. For all the groups of people pulling all-nighters in College Library, there’s someone sitting by themselves, and not because they need to focus.
So yes, there is togetherness, there is isolation, there is love and heartbreak, there is friendship and betrayal, there is success and failure. And perhaps we don’t always handle these things with great maturity; perhaps they’re ordinary and par for the course. But don’t let anyone tell you that that makes these experiences trivial. Be open to new experiences and new ideas. Engage with your time here. And perhaps even write about it. I’m not going to pretend like these are the most important years of your life, but I think you’ll want to remember them, and maybe even share them one day.
Have you read any good literature that doesn’t shy away from a youthful tone? Let our new lit columnist Aaron know at firstname.lastname@example.org.