Photo: Jorge Santiago

Beginnings, Ends, and In-Betweens: An Interview With Sarah Manguso

Over the years, I’ve resolved repeatedly to keep a journal. I’ll start and stop, get into a groove and then fall out of it. Along the way I’ve accumulated piles of lovely notebooks, as if perfect paper will make this kind of writing easier, the practice more enjoyable. I’ve tried writing at different times of day, tested out promising new routines, tried composing entries longhand and typed. It’s always a struggle, but I keep trying because recording how I spend my days seems like a good habit—something I’ll be glad I did.

For memoirist and poet Sarah Manguso, keeping a diary was a compulsion. For some 25 years, attending to her diary—writing detailed updates and fine-tuning each entry—was central to her way of being in the world. In her new book, Ongoingness: The End of a Diary, Manguso describes the habit as the opposite of an innocuous daily practice: In her experience, diary-keeping is a vice.

To keep the diary was to defend against memory loss; the prospect of forgetting seemed to Manguso a fate worse than death. But her fixation on capturing every detail didn’t feel quite right either. “From the beginning, I knew the diary wasn’t working, but I couldn’t stop writing,” she reflects. Ongoingness dissects Manguso’s understanding of her diary, a mammoth 800,000-word document that looms over the book, casting its shadow from just offstage. After wrestling with the place of that source material in a book premised on it, Manguso decided she could only imagine the memoir including the entire diary, or none of it. The book’s form makes her choice clear: Ongoingness is less than 100 pages long, the sentences offset by ample empty space.

That starkness is in keeping with an approach to writing Manguso described to me as “controlled disclosure.” This short work is intimate but just shy of raw, the prose penetrating but restrained. Manguso’s observations come off as disciplined, carefully synthesized and presented for almost scientific inspection by herself as much as by her readers.

The author of two earlier memoirs centered on experiences of mortality (The Two Kinds of Decay, published in 2008, was about illness; 2012’s The Guardians took on the suicide of a close friend), here Manguso reflects on finality, transience, awareness, and lost time with a sober, practiced eye. She probes what we know and take for granted about beginnings and endings, and at the experience of “ongoingness” that fills the yawning space between them, not always comfortably.

Manguso finds refuge in continuity, and with it, a way out of her dependence on self-documentation. Having a baby fundamentally changes her relationship to her diary. She discovers that it’s okay not to capture every detail, that forgetting things is not, in fact, a crisis. Read against an abundance of sharp-eyed essays in which new mothers parse the anxieties brought on by early parenthood, Manguso’s account of how pregnancy and parenthood transformed her sense of self is unexpectedly serene.

“I used to exist against the continuity of time. Then I became the baby’s continuity, a background of ongoing time for him to live against,” she writes. “My body, my life, became the landscape of my son’s life. I am no longer merely a thing living in the world; I am a world.”

Ongoingness is a wise book, sometimes self-consciously so. Manguso presents some of her wisdom conclusively, as the hard-won product of intense self-scrutiny. But there’s also a pleasingly unsettled aspect about the book. There are loopholes. The process of figuring out life and parenthood and marriage and writing is, well, ongoing.

I’m interested in the process of writing this book, in contrast to the process of writing its subject: the diary. Can you talk a bit about the difference? Was it something you were conscious of as you were working on it?

The book actually started out as an essay about procrastinating, and about the anxiety that I felt before, during and after I wrote the diary. That was basically an anxiety that I felt at all times, about not being able to process my experience sufficiently so that I didn’t feel that I was just wasting my life. I worked on that essay for a couple of years: There was plenty of research in it; I read about memory science, I read about the famous cases of graphomania and hypergraphia, and then about two years in, my son was born and my experience of time began to change. And the book began to change.

Inevitably, the book became an essay about the end of my anxiety and really, to quote the subtitle, the end of the diary. I still keep the diary, but it does not resemble the text that it was for the first 25 years or so. I record some things, but I don’t do it with the kind of verbose worry that I used to. The emotional trajectory of writing the book and writing the diary is the same: They both began in great anxiety, and they both ended in a kind of relaxation of that anxiety. That trajectory is a cliché, but I cannot tell a lie. That cliché happened.

So the diary was synonymous with your anxiety, and both of those things wound down around the same time. Can you talk more about the beginning of that end?

If I were to go back and try to locate it, I think the end of the anxiety would happen around the birth of my son. It definitely began during the pregnancy, when I realized that I just was not capable of having the particular memories that I had been: I had aphasia, I would get lost in the town where I’d lived for 15 years. There’s a friend of mine who is quite functional in daily life, but during pregnancy she would routinely find things like her hairbrush in the freezer. I always share that, and I always immediately say that there’s a social imperative for women to not represent pregnancy as a time when you just get the feeling that you’re no longer capable of intelligence. I was teaching at NYU, I was functioning, but the self-documentation incentive became something that I was just not able to do in as complete a way as I had up to that point.

There is an end to a way of writing: That way of writing was absolutely the reason for the beginning of the diary, that intense anxiety that I would forget something—I just couldn’t deal with the poignancy of that memory loss. And I guess that anxiety has just been subsiding by degrees over the years, and it feels absolutely gone now.

In the book you point out, “To write a diary is to make a series of choices about what to omit, what to forget.” That’s true of non-diary writing, too, certainly. How does that impulse of what to keep in, what to leave out, work differently when you’re writing for only yourself, versus writing for an audience?

To me it doesn’t. Lydia Davis calls it a guiding intelligence: There’s this combination of intelligence and instinct by which I guess I determine in some way—not entirely intellectually, not entirely intuitively—what to put in and what to keep out. I’m not aware that I’m really composing prose differently in my diary from the way that I compose it for publication. I go back and revise the diary constantly, and it’s very pleasurable for me to try to perfect this account.

Has the change in your relationship to the diary changed your sense of what counts as memorable?

I’ve come to disagree with the entire premise of the question about what is memorable. Memory scientists have determined that highly emotional experiences are more memorable because they, in some way, in being recorded, involve the limbic system, which is this evolutionarily older part of the brain. So the high emotional arc is literally more memorable. But does that mean I should only write about the really unusual things? Because what have always interested me are the moments that contain almost nothing. I have this ongoing romance with moments that appear empty, during which almost nothing happens. I have a kind of perverse assignment that I still give all of my writing classes, my poets and my essayists. I sit them down in a classroom and I have them sit for 30 or 40 minutes, and then we write about what happened. And I find that in almost all cases, they come up with things that are so much more interesting than the subjects that they’ve decided to write about up until that point in class.

I think some of my best work comes from looking at something so small in size or duration or emotional registry you can barely see it. Proust certainly made a great work about the account of things that were almost nothing. It’s not what people, contemporarily, say is plot-driven. I’ve never really been interested in plot, reading it or writing it. And I have a terrible time following plots too, which is deeply frustrating to say. But I’ve come to realize that I’m not the only person with this problem.

Living with so much technology and constant connectivity, there’s a lot of worry that we don’t have the space to be bored and let our minds wander, to perceive emptiness and what’s in it. Do you struggle to create that space?

I don’t do social media—I’ve never been on Facebook and I’ve never been on Twitter. And I understand that those are things that never stop. I guess if you wanted to resist boredom or quiet contemplation, you could just sort of unendingly do that on social media. I know that the book has been misread at least once as a statement of my superiority to other people who do those things, and that’s not at all what I’m saying. I’m just trying to accurately depict my essential, existential problem, which is that I know that if I did Facebook or Twitter I would just be completely swallowed up in them. Reading about the sort of nonevents of other people’s days is very seductive.

After the birth of your son you stopped being so worried about losing memories. That was really interesting to me because what I often hear is that when you become a parent, time speeds up, and the days are hard to hang on to, that your child grows up unnervingly fast. For you there seems to have been something almost soothing about this.

I do take a million pictures. [Laughs] With my smartphone I can just take pictures of literally every moment of every day and put them in cloud and keep them forever. I don’t do that, but I have enough that I feel that my son’s life is being sufficiently documented. And I do also write down bits and pieces in sentences as well. That feeling that the kid is slipping away: I don’t know, my kid is three. I haven’t really felt that with the profundity that I know is coming. But I can anticipate that happening for sure.

Do those photos of your son feel like a kind of a diary? And the things that you write down about him—do you feel like his life, his story, is an extension of yours in the way that you’re documenting it?

I don’t think in stories, I never have. I know that everybody does, that we do think in stories, that’s like a physiological necessity. I guess I’m interested in parts of stories, but this whole idea of having a narrative arc with a beginning a middle and an end, that just never really worked on me. Many of the observations I make in a day are about my son, and they go right in the diary.

I guess I could if I looked back with an eye toward observing the number of sentences that are specifically about me versus specifically about my son, the proportion is probably getting smaller: if I’m the numerator and my son is the denominator in that ratio. I don’t really have any kind of ancient awareness of it happening, I’ve just been doing it. It’s a zero anxiety experience for me now. I still write it every day, though. My anxiety’s just sort of gone to other areas of my life, distributed.

In the book, you land on this sense of ongoingness as a better way to understand life and time and isolated moments. It’s not prescriptive, but it is framed as progress. Early in the book, you write that you “wanted to know how to inhabit time in a way that wasn’t a character flaw.” Do you think that now you know how?

That premise is no longer relevant, I guess. I no longer worry that the way that I inhabit time is a character flaw. I’m not conscious of it day to day, but I do know and am continually grateful for the fact that this low-level anxiety is no longer part of my daily existence. So I didn’t really solve the problem so much as it just faded from my list of problems that I needed to solve. I solved it by just deciding to not do the assignment.

I think of myself as more of an explainer than an artist. The idea of just constructing a piece of art is utterly uninteresting to me. I’m not trying to make a beautiful thing to share with people—they’re really like functional objects, my books, byproducts of my trying to solve some existential problem. But well, I guess we don’t get to choose the way in which our work is received. It’s just a privilege that it’s received at all.

There’s a finality to some of what you say in the book that feels almost premature: You say you’re “qualitatively old,” and maybe that’s true, but you’re not objectively old.

It’s true, my older friends have mentioned that passage to me and sort of gently said, “well, you know, I’m 65,” or “oh, I’m 78, don’t think it’s all over.” But it was the best way that I could find to describe the sensation and the experience that I feel now, as opposed to the way that I used to. Maybe I could have been less general in my description of being qualitatively old versus increasingly older each year. But it does feel like a kind of plateau. I’m sure there are further plateaus, as people are helpfully and usefully reminding me.

You just reminded me of this question that I was asked in an interview a few days ago. It was essentially: You said one thing in The Two Kinds of Decay, and you said this other thing in Ongoingness, and they contradict each other—how do you reconcile that? My point was, I had to write Ongoingness because I had this whole different problem to solve from the problem that I wrote The Two Kinds of Decay in order to solve. I started writing Ongoingness to solve a different problem. I expect there will be more problems down the road that I will find it necessary to write about. I don’t think of Ongoingness as my final word on anything.

 Read more essays in On Repeat, a column curated by Eryn Loeb.

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