Why you should care
Drop this name at your next fancy cocktail party.
Sarah Manguso just won’t stop writing about her life. But we aren’t bored yet. This is perhaps the great age of nonfiction, with memoir showing no signs of slowing down as the it genre. There are traditional writers, experimental ones, navel-gazers. But Manguso’s work tends to evade those rote classifications.
Her new book, Ongoingness: The End of a Diary, is her third work of nonfiction to focus on an aspect of her life. Her first book focused on the death of a friend; the second on a chronic illness. This one references routines, documentation, the very habit of keeping a diary and what it does to memory. It meditates on motherhood, pregnancy and the birth of her son. Manguso is an unlikely memoirist: Her books are thin and lyrical, and she’s spent most of the first two thinking of pain, sometimes other people’s, and always in a universal manner. This is not a selfish writer.
And very few authors have pulled off such reflections as she does. One whose name comes to mind is Marcel Proust. We’ll leave it at that. OZY books correspondent Tobias Carroll talked with Manguso at her Los Angeles home over the phone on a winter afternoon.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
OZY: When did you first get the idea to write Ongoingness?
SARAH MANGUSO: It started as one kind of book; then it became a very different book. It began as an essay about graphomania, essentially. It began as an essay about the essential problems that I found as an autobiographer, which was perceiving and depicting myself amid ongoing times. And I also wanted to write about my diary because I couldn’t stop writing it. It had been almost 25 years. It was crucial to my surviving each day, and it was becoming a huge problem. Because I worried that I was sleepwalking through my life because I wasn’t documenting it sufficiently and I was documenting so many moments but I wasn’t documenting the time between the moments, which I realized sounds insane. But it was this heavy existential worry. The book became an essay of why I stopped this 25-year project of obsessive self-documentation. It became a very different book, actually much, much shorter than it had been originally.
Excerpted from Ongoingness:
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?
OZY: Can diaries themselves be literature?
SM: There’s Anne Frank, of course. When I was about to move to Iowa from Alphabet City in Manhattan for graduate school, I just took all of the books about Iowa out of the Tompkins Square Branch Library, and one of them was this incredible book that the University of Iowa Press had put out of a woman’s diary, from childhood into adulthood. It started in the 1870s. It was a woman, Sarah Gillespie Huftalen, who grew up on a farm in Iowa and became a schoolteacher and was a country schoolteacher for 50 years. She was an activist for women’s rights and for childhood education. But her childhood diary was one of the most important things I read when I was trying to learn how to write poems. I sort of romantically imagined that it was because she had this paper shortage and so she had to write very small. I don’t know if this is actually the case. I remember this one entry, she must’ve been 8 or 9 years old and she wrote the date and then she wrote “Strawberrying. Our little coltie died. Pa cried. Turks peep.” Oh, they had turkeys on the farm, and horses. And that was the whole thing. And every single entry was like that from childhood into adulthood. It just absolutely blew my mind.
I only write to solve problems.
OZY: How have you chosen the parts of your life on which to focus in each of these books?
SM: My books all began at attempts to assuage a particular existential anxiety. They don’t begin as “I have an idea for a book,” or “I have an idea for some literature.” I think I pretty much name the problem on the first page and then go on to demonstrate how I solved it for myself. For The Two Kinds of Decay, the problem was that I wanted to try to just remember this kind of crazy experience that I had had, this somewhat prolonged experience of being mortally sick in my 20s. And as I was writing that book, I just remembered everything that I could. And as they do, the memories came in vignettes and in brief bits of narrative that I then accumulated and made into this book form. In The Guardians I was just trying to figure out what things were going to be like now that I had outlived my friend. And with Ongoingness, as I said, it began as this way to try to figure out why I had this obsessive need to self-document several times a day. And then it became a way of trying to figure out what happened to me, having become a mother. You know, besides all of the clichés, which are of course true. I was exhausted. There was a profound loss of ego just because of the number of moments in the day that I was able to attend to myself versus my kid. But there was also something so fundamental that had happened, and it turned out to be that I began inhabiting time differently. So figuring that out was the object of the book. And once I figured that out, I was done.
OZY: What do you next want to try? A new experiment?
SM: I hate experiments and I hate play. Really, I only write to solve problems. Freedom is ultimately paralyzing and boring. If you told me to just produce a work of literature, honestly, I would never write anything. But you know, stay tuned as my next existential problem looms up.