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Ongoingness: The End of a Diary


Ongoingness: The End of a Diary

Sarah Manguso has written two previous memoirs. One, THE TWO KINDS OF DECAY, is an account of her own debilitating illness when she was in college. The other, THE GUARDIANS, is an elegy for a close friend of hers who committed suicide as a young adult. Both books were spare and precise in style, deliberately eschewing the kinds of easy clichés that can mar this genre. Now Manguso, also an award-winning poet, returns with a third memoir about a different type of writing --- and how and why she is finally letting it go.

"Like many girls I was given a diary," writes Manguso in ONGOINGNESS. "I wrote in it every now and then out of a sense of duty…. I didn't need a diary then. I wasn't yet aware of how much I was forgetting." By contrast, by the time she was in college, she was near-obsessive in her desire to document even the most mundane aspects of her daily life --- perhaps especially those mundane moments. But even as she struggled to record the moments of her life, Manguso was painfully aware that even the most conscientious documentation --- and hers was thorough indeed, amounting to more than 800,000 words --- still misses whole moments: "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." Manguso's desire to record every significant moment was accompanied by a fear that she is recording (and, by extension, remembering) the "wrong" things, making the wrong choices about what to include and what to omit.

"For such a spare and slender book...Manguso packs in a lot of ideas, not only about motherhood and the writing life, but also about the hubris of youth and the contemplation of one's own mortality that comes with age."

But as Manguso entered her 30s and became a mother, she found that her understanding of remembering, forgetting and time itself started to shift somewhat. "I began to inhabit time differently," she writes. "It had something to do with mortality. I kept writing the diary, but my worry about the lost memories began to subside." In part, Manguso speculates, the shift had to do with the role --- of continuous presence, of reliable background --- she played for her infant son. The difference also has to do with the quality and direction of her attention. "I'm not really paying attention to what's happening to me anymore --- no longer observing steadfastly the things that have changed since yesterday." Instead, she writes about her son, "he needed me more than I needed to write about him."

For such a spare and slender book --- the memoir is fewer than a hundred pages, many of which are no longer than a sentence or two --- Manguso packs in a lot of ideas, not only about motherhood and the writing life, but also about the hubris of youth and the contemplation of one's own mortality that comes with age. As in her previous memoirs, she also calls herself out when she fears (rightly or wrongly) that she's veering too close to sentimentality, an easy trap when writing about one's children: "Watching him learn things is like watching a machine become intelligent, or an animal become a different animal. It's terrifying and beautiful, and this has all been said before."

Because of its small size and fragmentary style, ONGOINGNESS is a book that lends itself equally well to being read in a single sitting or in fits and starts. Readers will want to return to it again and again as they consider their own relationships to documenting, remembering and just plain living their lives.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl on March 26, 2015

Ongoingness: The End of a Diary
by Sarah Manguso

  • Publication Date: March 3, 2015
  • Genres: Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 144 pages
  • Publisher: Graywolf Press
  • ISBN-10: 1555977030
  • ISBN-13: 9781555977030