A Public Diary: A Review of Sarah Manguso’s “Ongoingness”


Ongoingness: The End of a Diary
by Sarah Manguso
Graywolf Press; 104 p.

Sometimes queen of heavy darkness, sometimes of blinding light, Sarah Manguso, author of two poetry collections, a short story collection, and two memoirs (Two Kinds of Decay and The Guardians: An Elegy for a Friend), presents her third memoir Ongoingness: The End of a Diary, the story of her compulsive journaling, which ended with the birth of her son. Her starring, dazzlingly complex subjects are time, mortality, memory, beauty, and of course, writing.

Manguso goes after herself, like a detective a suspect, in an unrelenting quest for answers. Her style, resembling Lydia Davis or Carole Maso’s, straddles genres, causing us to question what makes something a poem or an essay, fiction or nonfiction. While Manguso’s approach to her work is highly philosophical and self-aware, her voice never possesses an alienating intellectual tone or weightiness. She tells this particular story in short segments, almost stanzas, or flashes: the experience of memory itself.

In Ongoingness there’s no TV, no internet, no weather, just Manguso in the room of her mind, viewing herself from multiple angles. She keeps her world refreshingly contained, without noise, turning her gaze entirely inward, which in this age of distraction, produces an immensely soothing, calming effect. Her spare, rhythmic, and exacting sentences feel comfortingly sure-footed. The book’s intense focus brings to mind Susan Orlean’s reflection in The Orchid Thief, “I was starting to believe that the reason it matters to care passionately about something is that it whittles the world down to a more manageable size. It makes the world seem not huge and empty but full of possibility.” In all of her memoirs, Manguso’s passion is clearly her thoughts, her writing, which she shares in an attempt to help us wade through our own minds or “catalog of emotion.”

Manguso’s themes evoke the memory of my writer’s workshop; when asked why we write, one classmate responded, “Because words are the only things I can make do what I want them to do.” Another said, “Because I am going to die, because you are going to die, because we are all going to die.” Manguso is fiercely intrigued by that which is not under her control and the challenge of wrangling it with words. In Two Kinds of Decay, she documents her experience with being diagnosed with an autoimmune disorder in college. In The Guardians, she grieves over a friend’s suicide. Both of these incidents exert a push and pull on her life and cause an unwanted exposure to herself. She’s forced to reorient herself, change her routine, circle moments in bafflement and frustration, and search for answers. In Two Kinds of Decay she writes, “The world, with its infinite variables, is the wrong place to attempt implementing the scientific method.” She continues, “Narratives in which one thing follows from the previous thing are usually imaginary. Everything that happens, happens in a moment.”

Her disease required treatments involving having her blood filtered and in effect having part of her thrown out, discarded. I become weak at the sight of blood (even on the page apparently) and found, as I often do when reading Manguso, that I was forced to become stronger by absorbing her words.

Ongoingness begins,

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.

In this slim volume, which contains almost none of her original diary entries, each unflinching sentence stands on its own and breathes. All of her observations and profound insights are careful and equally strong, almost spring-loaded, demanding frequent rereading and reflection.

Manguso knew her diary project would fail from the outset, but she couldn’t stop. She compulsively transformed her experiences into language, worrying that life couldn’t exist on its own, without her interference.

She writes, “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.” She continues,

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.

She explains how her journaling became a vice, “an essential component of [her] daily hygiene.” An act of simultaneously cleansing herself and preserving her memories.

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[…]

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.

Manguso examines the history of the diaries she’s had, how her focus and style changed over the decades, and the concept of a diary in general: writing not intended for an audience. She relates her own project to the age-old mission, spanning from cavemen’s handprints to architect’s building blocks: the desire to create something that will continue to survive, that will escape the gravity of time.

Manguso also confesses the unusual practice of editing her entries; “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.” The quest for “language as pure experience, pure memory” proved impossible because language itself is not original, but referential; it has its own history.

In the year 2000, Manguso began throwing out entire years of her diary, in a way, a large act of editing and a mark of a change from her youthful, tight grasp on everything;

When I was twenty-three I began seeing a psychotherapist because I couldn’t bear the idea that, after the end of an affair, all our shared memories might be expunged from the mind of the other, that they might no longer exist outside my own belief they’d happened.

Being forgotten like that, entering that great and ongoing blank, seems more like death than death.

This grip on her memories and life begins to further loosen at age 38 with her pregnancy, which brings on a sort of amnesia, a feeling of memory dissolving, which secures her to not the past nor the future, but the present moment. She writes, “When I became pregnant I struck something mortally. Not just myself, symbolically; my son, actually.” She presents the unique perspective that she’s not carrying life, but death inside her.

Spending time with her son, she is surprised to remember buried, undocumented, preverbal memories. She defines motherhood as when one “becomes the background against which the baby lives, becomes time.”

Manguso’s entire view of time shifts; she’s less interested in the beginnings and ends of things, but drawn to the middle, realizing that life is not a neat narrative, not an arc, not even a shape, not a story. It’s invigorating to watch her run up against ideas with full force, fracture herself, change her mind. To courageously wound what is sometimes already wounded. And fear not, this is far from a story of a loss of self due to motherhood, a dead end, but rather a story of expansion. She writes, “Since the baby was born I still occasionally wonder whether I should have a baby, whether I should get married, whether I should move to this or that city I’ve already moved to, already left” (74).

And yet, clearly, Manguso’s son has changed her. She feels life’s momentum “the bracing speed of the one-way journey that guides human experience” and states, “Now I am old enough to know what I’ll never accomplish…It feels like a relief.” She continues, “Perhaps all anxiety might derive from a fixation on moments—an inability to accept life as ongoing.”

It’s a pleasure to observe a brilliant and inquisitive mind demand so much of itself. Manguso courageously questions her very life work, asking does the act of writing remove us from our lives or enrich our experiences? Should we leave our memories in the past as soft senses or subject them to our factory of a brain, its cruel conveyor belt? What should we hold on to?

In the past, she says, “I just wanted to retain the whole memory of my life, to control the itinerary of my visitations, and to forget what I wanted to forget.”

But now,

The experience is no longer experience. It is writing. I am still writing.

And I’m forgetting everything. My goal now is to forget it all so that I’m clean for death. Just the vaguest memory of love, of participation in the great unity.

Plunging into and surfacing from her emotions and contemplation, Manguso reaches the conclusion that “To write a diary is to make a series of choices about what to omit, what to forget.” While she may not control time, or all aspects of her life, or now her son’s, she exerts complete control over her writing, her choices, emerging as a master of her craft.


Erin Lewenauer hails from Milwaukee, Wisconsin and is a graduate of Vassar College. She holds an MFA from the University of Pittsburgh.

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