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Why a Young Writer's Words Live on After Her Tragic Death
What Makes Great Writing #020 - Featuring Yale Graduate and Prolific Writer Marina Keegan
It's a shame that early death is such good marketing.
Captured by the tragedy, we forget the accomplishments. Kurt Cobain's lyrics are replaced by his freshly fired shotgun. Back to Black is inseparable from Amy Winehouse’s ascending beehive and crack intake. Poe’s genius gets swamped by a vision of his staggering collapse in an alley.
These artists arguably died of their own actions. Suicides of various lengths.
Then, there’s Marina Keegan - a budding writer who rode off with her boyfriend after brunch and never came back.
That car crash is detailed in Marina’s posthumous collection of writing: The Opposite of Loneliness. After her death and its publication, nearly every news outlet – from the Boston Globe to Mashable to POPSUGAR — heaped praise on the book. It became an instant New York Times Bestseller.
If you've heard of Marina, it's likely from her viral commencement speech. Today, we are looking at a lesser-known essay called Why We Care About Whales. Watch how she transforms a potentially dull topic, then pivots into a personal story (a level of nuance many artless online writers appear to be incapable of, or — worse — indifferent to).
Let’s dig in.
When the moon gets bored, it kills whales. Blue whales and fin whales and humpback, sperm and orca whales: centrifugal forces don't discriminate.
We start with a personification here (giving human attributes to a non-human thing). Moons don't get bored, nor do they kill. Our moon is a chunk of rock, incapable of murder. Marina violates all these facts in exchange for a great opening line.
The congeries (list) of whales that follows both anchors us in the topics, and gives Marina credibility. Who can name that many types of whales? Only an expert. And like Neil Gaiman did in Ocean at the End of the Lane, Marina deploys multiple conjunctions here* before transitioning to the serial comma for an odd but effective rhythm.
Also, I dare you to find a more thrilling sentence that uses "centrifugal forces" as its subject.
*Marina’s book taught me this is called polysyndeton.
(3 paragraphs later)
The death is slow. As mammals of the Cetacea order, whales are conscious breathers. Inhalation is a choice, an occasional rise to the ocean surface. Although their ancestors lived on land, constant oxygen exposure overwhelms today's creatures.
Our solemn opener is a parataxic (short) declarative sentence, the brevity of its structure reflecting the gravity of its content. Marina then slides back into expert mode, telling you something you probably didn't know about whales – their scientific order.
There is an alliteration (repeated consonant sounds) and some assonance (repeated vowel sounds) hiding in the last sentence, but you miss that for the unfair content: death by oxygen is ironic and unfair.
Beached whales become frantic, captives to their hyperventilation. Most die of dehydration. The salty air shrinks their oily pores, capturing their moisture. Deprived of the buoyancy of water provides, whales can literally crush themselves to death. Some collapse before they dry out – their lungs suffocating under their massive bodies – or drown when high tides cover their blowholes, filling them slowly while they are too weak to move. The average whale can't last more than twenty four hours on land.
“At once compassionate and dispassionate.” That’s how literary critic and teacher Francis Prose describes Anton Chekov’s work. Marina’s paragraph here also fits that description. Her compassion necessitates these awful details. No flinching.
We’ve got the alliteration in “die of dehydration,” the parallel structure with the adjective noun-combo in the third sentence: “salty air… oily pores”. (Marissa Errico did this well in her NYT essay too).
And although Stephen King says adverbs damn writers to hell (or something like that), Marina deploys two crippling ones here for emphasis.
“whales can literally crush themselves.”
“high tides cover their blowholes, filling them slowly while…”
In their final moments, they begin belching and erupting in violent thrashing. Finally, their jaws open slowly – not all the way, but just enough that the characteristic illusion of a perpetual smile disappears. This means it's over. I know this because I watched as 23 whale mouths unhinged. As 23 pairs of whale eyes glazed over.
Transitions confound even the most experienced writers. How do you seamlessly shift the reader’s mind to a new idea?
Marina’s solution: a tense shift into first person.
This is the equivalent of a narrator stepping out from behind the scenes (much like Jesse Plemon’s character does in Vice). It’s only at this point we discover Marina’s real credibility: she watched whales die. The personal pronoun “I” is sharp corner, turning our attention from whales as a whole to Marina herself.
Marina, who will go on to rescue some of the whales in this story. Marina, who will be refused from Yale greek life and instead spend her time writing and writing and writing. Marina, who heard her dad say “you should be a lawyer instead.”
Thank God she ignored him.
Much love as always <3
-Todd B from Tennessee
P.S. If you need a good cry, watch this: Marina reading her own poetry.
P.P.S. You can read the entirety of Why We Care About Whales on the Yale Daily News Website.