In Ongoingness: The End of a Diary, which was recently released in paperback, Sarah Manguso writes that she was twelve when she discovered that photographs corroded her memory: “I’d study the photos from an event and gradually forget everything that had happened between the shutter openings.” She stopped taking pictures.
While the subject of photos occasionally arises, the primary focus of this slim and affecting book is on the diary, a medium that Manguso suggests invades our memories as much as pictures. When we log absolutely everything, she argues, we’re mediating our lives rather than experiencing them. So what’s the purpose of keeping a diary?
Ongoingness is a reflection on that very question. For twenty-five years, Manguso recorded every detail in her diary—bringing it to a nearly unfathomable 800,000 words. She wrote those words partly because she was terrified of losing herself to time, and partly because she wanted to shape her own memories. “I wanted to remember what I could bear to remember and convince myself it was all there was,” she writes.
Ongoingness charts Manguso’s evolution from diary-keeper to diary-skeptic, so therefore is fixed on the author’s interiority, but it resists solipsism by referencing other human beings. The people who populate her memoir lack dimension, but their existence reminds us that the writer’s thoughts about the world transcend her own experiences.
Like Manguso’s earlier work, The Two Kinds of Decay (2008), the meditative Ongoingness resists categorization as a book of essays, a memoir, or collection of prose poems–it feels like all three. But both books share a concern with time—specifically, “bookending” time. Decay is a remembrance of a nine-year period of illness, wherein she writes, “A crow stands outside my window all day, reminding me of the best thing about my life—that it ends.” She puzzles over the ontology of the illness—When did it begin? When did it end?—and concludes that one can learn only from forward movement through time, not from remembering or guessing. She develops this idea more fully in Ongoingness.
As the narrator of Ongoingness ages, her relationship with time likewise matures. Initially, she sees life in a simplistic version of time, as a series of beginnings and ends: “All I could see in the world were beginnings and endings: moments to survive, record, and, once recorded, safely forget.” Diary-keeping, then, began as a vice for Manguso, an addiction that she desired to free herself from. Then her perception began to change. “I knew I was getting somewhere,” she writes “when I began losing interest in the beginnings and ends of things.
Manguso’s evolution is persuasive: When the word “ongoingness” first appears in the text, I was prepared to yell, ‘Yes, yes, life isn’t about a series of single moments that need to be embalmed.’ I agree with Manguso completely.
Manguso has an exceptional talent for drawing conclusions from the minds of her readers. Consider the passage that describes her grandfather, who has begun leaving boxes of belongings out in the open: “His things, at least, would keep going after he ended.” Her focus on “things” reads like a departure from her overarching philosophy. But in fact, it’s a disruption that pulls the reader out of the narrative, causing us to pause and think: ‘but wait, he’s your grandfather! He’ll keep going because you still live.’ The reader has arrived at the conclusion Manguso is gesturing toward.
She seems certain that her readers either keep diaries or snap thousands of photos a day and aims to gently wean us by demonstrating through an almost mathematical proof that we can put down our pens and cell phones and not experience any negative consequences. Let the building you’ve erected or the poem you’ve written carry you forward into the next century, she argues. It’s okay to experience your own life and unclench your fists.
One of the most notable passages addresses the birth of her son, which begins with “to inhabit time differently. It had something to do with mortality. I kept writing in the diary, but my worry about the lost memories began to subside.” She understands the futility of resisting the continuity of time, of resisting aging. “I became the baby’s continuity,” she writes, “a background of ongoing time for him to live against.” Here she changes into someone able to see her own life as part of a continuum, part of an “ongoingness,” a constant for someone who has yet to make temporal peace.
But where does that leave her diary? In one of several humorous moments, she points out that as a writer she’s not exactly putting “malaria pills in the hands of the destitute.” The least she can do for humanity, she says, is confront her past selves on all those hundreds of pages. Her difficult work is, in effect, a painful synthesis of life and art that leaves readers with this important takeaway: Writers are not isolated entities. Real issues must be at stake in their work.
Manguso has set stakes that may appear “artificially, comically high” in her assertion that by writing she is saving a life. But if her work soothes just one soul who would rather die than be lost in time, then she’s done her job well.
Ongoingness: The End of a Diary by Sarah Manguso
Published December 6, 2016
Sarah Manguso is the author of seven books, including 300 Arguments, an essay-in-aphorisms. Her essays have appeared in Harper’s, McSweeney’s, the Paris Review, the New York Review of Books, and the New York Times Magazine and have been translated into several languages. She grew up near Boston and now lives in Los Angeles, where she is the Mary Routt Chair of Creative Writing at Scripps College