Here’s the question at the heart of Sarah Manguso’s “Ongoingness: The End of a Diary” (Graywolf: 98 pp., $20): How does a writer record his or her experiences and live them at the same time?
Sitting in the stillness of her Silver Lake living room, wearing a black dress identical to “too many other dresses” in her closet, Manguso discusses that issue with an air of self-containment, speaking quietly, sparely, stopping on occasion to choose a word. It’s a style that mirrors her writing — not just “Ongoingness” but also her previous memoirs “The Guardians” (2012) and “The Two Kinds of Decay” (2008) as well as her 2007 short-story collection “Hard to Admit and Harder to Escape.”
And yet “Ongoingness” speaks as well to a conflicting sensibility, what the author calls “a particular anxiety,” for it grows out of a diary she has kept throughout her life.
“I started keeping a diary twenty-five years ago,” the book begins. “It’s eight hundred thousand words long.”
We live, of course, in a diaristic era. This April, Heidi Julavits will publish “The Folded Clock,” which uses the diary as a source of revelation and reflection; meanwhile, Karl Ove Knausgaard has become a lightning rod for his 3,600-page autobiographical “My Struggle” (the fourth volume is due out in the U.S. in early May).
Manguso’s intent, however, is different — not to re-create her diary but to meditate on it, as both artifact and pathology. There is nothing in “Ongoingness” about the decision to come to Los Angeles, first in 2010 and then again, after moving back to New York, in 2013. There are no proper nouns, no names, few reference points other than the obsessive weight of the diary itself.
As she acknowledges in the early pages, “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.” At stake is not forgetting but how to convey the depth of everything. The diary, then, is the expression of such an impulse: preservation as a kind of firewall.
What makes “Ongoingness” so fascinating is that even as it recognizes this, it also moves beyond it, seeking an accommodation with memory and time. The turning point is Manguso’s experience of motherhood. (She and her husband, who works in the video game industry, have a 3-year-old son.)
Although she had begun to write about the diary as early as 2010, her focus shifted after the birth of her child. “This,” she admits with a laugh, “is essentially the motherhood book I swore never to write or read or talk about or even allow into the conversation about serious work, because before you have a baby, babies are this trivial thing that other people waste their lives doing.”
That’s not to say “Ongoingness” is about parenthood, at least not in any traditional sense. Instead, it zeros in on being a mother, its physical and existential weight. “In my experience,” Manguso writes, “nursing is waiting. The mother becomes the background against which the baby lives, becomes time.” And: “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.”
This feeling of expansion did much to alleviate the anxiety that had driven the diary, as did the protean memories that emerged from her early interactions with her son.
“One of the details that made me understand that most of my beliefs about how I inhabited time were fairly limited,” Manguso reflects, “was that in the experience of hanging out with this preverbal human, I suddenly started having preverbal memories of my own. I had always been highly critical of people who claimed to have these extremely early memories, because memory science dictates there’s no way you can hold something like that untainted. But as I watched this preverbal kid stand in his crib and look around, I had a perfect sense memory of an orange panel, with a little crank and a little bell and a little mirror, and the more time I spent with him, the more those memories started coming back to me. That in itself didn’t assuage all my anxiety about forgetting, but it definitely contributed to my letting go.”
On one level, this explains the title, which is about ongoingness as a state of being. “We move through time,” Manguso says, “and there are individual events, but there is a continuity of experience, too.”
All the same, ongoingness cannot protect us from mortality, from desolation, loss. The topic infuses her writing in “The Guardians,” built around the suicide of a college friend — or “my obsessive unwillingness to stop grieving for my friend when everybody else I know has finished, including his family” — and “The Two Kinds of Decay,” which tracks the author’s experience, in her 20s, with an autoimmune disease.
“All I care about,” she says, “is if I can move on. Of course, it’s a construct, but it’s soothing, or, to use a very overused metaphor, it feels as if I’ve backed up a file and I don’t need to keep it anymore.”
“Ongoingness” is, not unlike Manguso’s other work, willfully open-ended, reflective, subjective, an essay rather than a mere recounting of events. That’s one reason it is so slender, fewer than 100 pages of deftly wrought fragments that together explore the problem not just of memory but also identity.
“It does seem like a great contradiction,” Manguso admits, referring to the diary, which is ongoing to this day. “‘Ongoingness’ is not the diary; it’s a work about the diary. As such, my worry about failing to record so many things in the diary doesn’t really carry over. This essay is me writing as myself. And so the anxiety I’m writing about didn’t really infect the composition here.”