“[Manguso] has written the memoir we didn’t realize we needed.” The New Yorker
In Ongoingness, Sarah Manguso continues to define the contours of the contemporary essay. In it, she confronts a meticulous diary that she has kept for twenty-five years. “I wanted to end each day with a record of everything that had ever happened,” she explains. But this simple statement belies a terror that she might forget something, that she might miss something important. Maintaining that diary, now eight hundred thousand words, had become, until recently, a kind of spiritual practice.
Then Manguso became pregnant and had a child, and these two Copernican events generated an amnesia that put her into a different relationship with the need to document herself amid ongoing time.
Ongoingness is a spare, meditative work that stands in stark contrast to the volubility of the diaryit is a haunting account of mortality and impermanence, of how we struggle to find clarity in the chaos of time that rushes around and over and through us.
“Bold, elegant, and honest . . . Ongoingness reads variously as an addict’s testimony, a confession, a celebration, an elegy.” The Paris Review
“Manguso captures the central challenge of memory, of attentiveness to life . . . A spectacularly and unsummarizably rewarding read.” Maria Popova, Brain Pickings
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About the Author
Sarah Manguso is the author of three memoirs, Ongoingness, The Guardians, and The Two Kinds of Decay; a story collection; and two poetry collections. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, where she teaches at St. Mary’s College.
Read an Excerpt
The End of a Diary
By Sarah Manguso
Graywolf PressCopyright © 2015 Sarah Manguso
All rights reserved.
I started keeping a diary twenty-five years ago. It's eight hundred thousand words long.
I didn't want to lose anything. That was my main problem. I couldn't face the end of a day without a record of everything that had ever happened.
I wrote about myself so I wouldn't become paralyzed by rumination—so I could stop thinking about what had happened and be done with it.
More than that, I wrote so I could say I was truly paying attention. Experience in itself wasn't enough. The diary was my defense against waking up at the end of my life and realizing I'd missed it.
Imagining life without the diary, even one week without it, spurred a panic that I might as well be dead.
The trouble was that I failed to record so much.
I'd write about a few moments, but the surrounding time—there was so much of it! So much apparent nothing I ignored, that I treated as empty time between the memorable moments.
Despite my continuous effort—in public, in private, in the middle of the night, and in moving vehicles—I knew I couldn't replicate my whole life in language. I knew that most of it would follow my body into oblivion.
From the beginning, I knew the diary wasn't working, but I couldn't stop writing. I couldn't think of any other way to avoid getting lost in time.
I tried to record each moment, but time isn't made of moments; it contains moments. There is more to it than moments.
So I tried to pay close attention to what seemed like empty time. I made my writing students sit silently for twenty, thirty, forty minutes. Then we all wrote about the almost nothing that had happened. I was always running between the classroom and the photocopier so we could read, right away, about the almost nothing that had just happened.
I wanted to comprehend my own position in time so I could use my evolving self as completely and as usefully as possible. I didn't want to go lurching around, half-awake, unaware of the work I owed the world, work I didn't want to live without doing.
To write a diary is to make a series of choices about what to omit, what to forget.
A memorable sandwich, an unmemorable flight of stairs. A memorable bit of conversation surrounded by chatter that no one records.
Why do people keep diaries? Prisoners, explorers, regents—of course. But there are so many others, nobly addressing the entire future.
I was one of the others, but I wasn't writing to anyone.
Inside the cover of one notebook I copied some lines of poetry as a love letter to my future self:
When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep ...
Hypergraphia, the overwhelming urge to write. Graphomania, the obsessive impulse to write. Look up the famous cases if you're interested. Nothing about them ever helped me with my problem.
Like many girls I was given a diary. The book bore pictures of teddy bears on every page. I wrote in it every now and then out of a sense of duty.
When I was nine I brought the diary to the beach where I went with my parents every summer. My mother reminded me to write in it each night. I didn't enjoy the task and remember her dictating lines like In the old town center, the shops keep their doors open for all to see.
I didn't need a diary then. I wasn't yet aware of how much I was forgetting.
I meet people who consider diary keeping as virtuous as daily exercise or prayer or charity. I've tried for years, they say. I start a diary every January. Or I don't have the discipline. They imagine I have willpower or strength of character. It would be harder for me not to write it, I try to explain. It doesn't feel like (in one friend's words) a big fat piece of homework. I write the diary instead of taking exercise, performing remunerative work, or volunteering my time to the unlucky. It's a vice.
I started keeping the diary in earnest when I started finding myself in moments that were too full.
At an art opening in the late eighties, I held a plastic cup of wine and stood in front of a painting next to a friend I loved. It was all too much.
I stayed partly contained in the moment until that night, when I wrote down everything that had happened and everything I remembered thinking while it had happened and everything I thought while recording what I remembered had happened.
It wasn't the first time I'd had to do that, but as I wrote about the art opening I realized my self-documentation would have to become a daily (more than daily?) practice.
Today was very full, but the problem isn't today. It's tomorrow. I'd be able to recover from today if it weren't for tomorrow. There should be extra days, buffer days, between the real days.
If I allowed myself to drift through nondocumented time for more than a day, I feared, I'd be swept up, no longer able to remember the purpose of continuing.
Twenty-five years later the practice is an essential component of my daily hygiene. I'd sooner go unbathed.
The first volume, a yellow spiral-bound notebook, was disguised as my math notebook, the word Trigonometry printed in black on the cover, and on every notebook thereafter, I wrote the name of my current math course. During my first semester of college, I created a digital document called Differential Equations. During my second semester, not enrolled in linear algebra as planned (I got a C+ in differential equations), I opened a new file, Differential Equations 1993. Every year since then I've opened a new one, hiding everything I thought was important in a file named after a branch of higher math, where, as only a C+ student would, I thought no one would ever look for it.
I still write in little notebooks in diners and on trains, and, after a vigorous editing on the page, I transcribe the remains into Differential Equations 2014.
One afternoon I declined a ride from one city to another with a friend who didn't survive his twenties. I didn't think I'd survive the afternoon without spending four hours on the bus back to college thinking and writing about what had happened during my trip. My memory was too full. It was an emergency. I had to empty the reservoir right away.
Nothing had happened, but I still needed four hours to get it into the notebook.
I revised my diary during the day, days later, and sometimes years later, with absolute certainty I never wanted anyone to read it.
Everyone I've told finds the idea of my revisions perverse, but if I didn't get things down right, the diary would have been a piece of waste instead of an authentic record of my life. I wrote it to stand for me utterly.
What if I narrate the same memories aloud each night in the same words? What if the memories degrade a bit more each night anyway? What if the recitation becomes rote but functionally useless?
Because I can't reliably answer that question, for twenty years, every day, I wrote down what happened. After I finish writing this sentence I'll do it again.
I'll open the document, scroll down to the end, think to myself that I should write a macro to open the document at the end (which is never the end) instead of the beginning, then look at the keyboard. Then I'll type the date in numerals and points. Underneath, I'll type something in words. Then I'll close the file. I'll reopen it at least once on most days.
I often prefer writers' diaries to their work written intentionally for publication. It's as if I want the information without the obstacles of style or form. But of course all writing possesses style and form, and in good writing they aren't obstacles.
Another friend said, I want to write sentences that seem as if no one wrote them. The goal being the creation of a pure delivery system, without the distraction of a style. The goal being a form no one notices, the creation of what seems like pure feeling, not of what seems like a vehicle for a feeling. Language as pure experience, pure memory. I too wanted to achieve that impossible effect.
The first time anyone else read the diary was 1992. On the day I moved into my freshman college dormitory, I reached into the big box of sweaters and diaries and found ... sweaters.
We didn't think you'd be needing those, said my father. My two new roommates and their parents were there. I didn't say anything. At that time, my diary was mostly about hating my mother.
Two years later, I lent my laptop to my boyfriend, who needed to write five papers in one night, and in the morning, he returned the computer with a little Word icon right in the middle of my otherwise empty desktop. Please Read Me, Sarah, he'd called it. The document began: I just read your diary. All 75 pages of it ... I don't remember how it went other than that he not only failed to apologize but represented the act as a gesture of compassion, since I so clearly needed his expert help in evolving into a better person.
He'd just learned, among other things, that I could barely feel him inside me.
After college, I lived in an apartment with four roommates, one of whom I sometimes curled up and slept with. One morning I saw he'd opened the document along with all the letters I'd ever written him; his name was in the file names. After an initial denial he admitted he'd opened the files but, in a fit of remorse, closed them before reading them.
I could have protected the document with a password or padlocked or hidden the computer, but I didn't care enough to inconvenience myself. The diary wasn't a trove of secrets; it was, simply, everything. I might as well have hidden myself from view. I still don't care whether anyone reads it.
Shortly after the turn of the millennium, I read the diary from beginning to end. Finding nothing of consequence in 1996, I threw the year away.
I'd already shredded the volumes I wrote in high school—not to keep them from others but to keep them from myself. So it seems I didn't want to remember everything.
I wanted to remember what I could bear to remember and convince myself it was all there was.
A few years after I threw 1996 away, another friend asked if he could try to hypnotize me.
He wanted to know why I was still thinking about someone I'd gone to bed with just once, months earlier, and barely seen again.
So did I. I lay down.
My friend swung a pendant from a string above my face, then asked me to close my eyes.
Why won't you give up this imaginary problem?
The answer, suddenly accessible to me for the first time, surprised me: Because I don't want to.
I wrote it in the diary.
I don't remember the chronology of those I embraced past the first five. I'd have to consult the diary.
I kept seeking and finding the exquisite moment. By the eighth, I'd already be seeking the ninth and tenth.
Around the thirteenth, it finally got to me. Finally, even I had to notice I'd become intolerant of waiting. My forward momentum barely stopped for the length of the touch.
I thought my momentum led to the next person, but in fact it only led away from the last person.
My behavior was an attempt to stop time before it swept me up. It was an attempt to stay safe, free to detach before life and time became too intertwined for me to write down, as a detached observer, what had happened.
Once I understood what I was doing, with each commitment I wakened slightly more from my dream of pure potential.
It was a failure of my imagination that made me keep leaving people. All I could see in the world were beginnings and endings: moments to survive, record, and, once recorded, safely forget.
I knew I was getting somewhere when I began losing interest in the beginnings and the ends of things.
Short tragic love stories that had once interested me no longer did.
What interested me was the kind of love to which the person dedicates herself for so long, she no longer remembers quite how it began.
When I first saw the portrait of a sixteenth-century court page, I fell instantly into a deep and enduring love.
The page was in love with a girl that the duke had chosen for one of his cousins. When the duke learned of the page's courtship, he forbade them to meet again, but after three years he gave in and offered them twenty-four hours to marry. They were married immediately and had eight children.
The wonderful thing about genetics, another friend said, is that you can in fact sort of be with him. She's right—if you ever meet my husband you might notice a resemblance.
During the first few years of my marriage I was highly susceptible to the previous day. I was convinced the marriage would soon be over, but it wasn't over. The problem was my inability to experience it as ongoing.
Another friend wrote, Marriage isn't like having a boyfriend or girlfriend but a little more so any more than gold is helium but a little more so. The inner shell of electrons fills and then the next one goes into the next shell, changing everything.
Marriage isn't a fixed experience. It's a continuous one. It changes form but is still always there, a rivulet under a frozen stream. Now, when I feel a break in the continuity of till death do us part, I think to myself, Get back in the river.
In my diary I recorded what had changed since the previous day, but sometimes I wondered: What if I recorded only what hadn't changed? Weather still fair. Cat still sweet. Cook oats in same pot. Continue reading same book. Make bed in same way, put on same blue jeans, water garden in same order ... Would that be a better, truer record?
Living in a dream of the future is considered a character flaw. Living in the past, bathed in nostalgia, is also considered a character flaw. Living in the present moment is hailed as spiritually admirable, but truly ignoring the lessons of history or failing to plan for tomorrow are considered character flaws.
I still needed to record the present moment before I could enter the next one, but I wanted to know how to inhabit time in a way that wasn't a character flaw.
Remember the lessons of the past. Imagine the possibilities of the future. And attend to the present, the only part of time that doesn't require the use of memory.
Sensory memory lasts about two hundred to five hundred milliseconds after perception. Then it starts to degrade.
Working memory, or short-term memory, allows recall for a period of several seconds to a minute.
Long-term memory can store larger quantities of information for a longer duration, potentially until the end of life. It may be divided into procedural memory, used in learning motor skills, and declarative memory, used in conscious recall.
Declarative memory may be further subdivided into what scientists call semantic memory, which concerns facts taken independent of context, and episodic memory, which concerns personal experiences that occurred at a particular time and place.
Autobiographical memory is generally viewed as equivalent to episodic memory.
I record these facts dutifully, as if they dignify this writing with something more real than my memories—as if they reveal.
The least contaminated memory might exist in the brain of a patient with amnesia—in the brain of someone who cannot contaminate it by remembering it. With each recollection, the memory of it further degrades. The memory and maybe the fact of every kiss start disappearing the moment the two mouths part.
If I considered the act of procreation as essential to the world's general ongoingness, I could almost accept it as an obligation of being alive.
I believed that parturition would honor the force that, in the nineteenth century, joined my earliest ancestors I know by name, and the forces joining anonymous procreators for centuries and centuries before that, and so on back to the beginning, to the first sexually differentiated animals.
And then, someday, maybe, someone will have needed me to produce one of their ancestors, and that fact of my parturition, that fact and my name, will be the last anyone remembers of me. All the rest of me will be gone, no longer anyone's burden.
When my grandfather got old, he started emptying the apartment he shared with my demented grandmother. Or maybe these events happened coincidentally.
Excerpted from Ongoingness by Sarah Manguso. Copyright © 2015 Sarah Manguso. Excerpted by permission of Graywolf Press.
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