Ongoingness: The End of a Diary by Sarah Manguso

Ongoingness: The End of a Diary BY Sarah Manguso. Graywolf Press. Hardcover, 104 pages. $20.
The cover of Ongoingness: The End of a Diary

To a writer, a blank page is at once an invitation and a reproach. Empty, the page is full of possibility, perfect; marred by words, it is perfect no longer. Mallarmé, a strategic user of empty space, wrote of how whiteness defends the paper against the poet. The intrepid writer will make a mark anyway.

In Ongoingness: The End of a Diary, Sarah Manguso makes a case for letting the blank page win. The book, her sixth, describes how and why its author gave up her compulsive diary writing. A slight volume of hardly more than a hundred pages, Ongoingness is the counterpoint to the author’s actual diary, a sprawling document of some eight-hundred-thousand words, composed over the course of twenty-five years. The work the diary inspired, however, is compact and crystalline. Lines of clear, spare prose cover only a fraction of any given page. Whiteness prevails. The absence stands in for all that is lost to the passage of time. But Manguso doesn’t mourn what’s gone, nor does she use language to recapture it. In Ongoingness, she suggests that memories alone might be enough.

For a writer who earned acclaim for her memoirs, The Two Kinds of Decay and The Guardians, this seems like a strange proposition. But Manguso has always used her own experience as a starting point for a narrative, not as its horizon. In both of these earlier books, a moment of suffering serves as an occasion to consider the ways we write about pain, both others’ and our own. The musing, elliptical narratives offer more questions than answers.

Ongoingness has the same contemplative quality. Less a memoir than a fragmented and extended essay, it consists of aphorisms and brief anecdotes about art, aging, and impermanence. Like Didion’s memorable “On Keeping a Notebook,” it is not a personal record but rather a meditation on the act of recording. But whereas Didion was interested in a certain kind of person—the notebook keeper—Manguso is interested in certain kinds of experiences, namely fleeting ones. She investigates the banal (eating a sandwich) and the momentous (giving birth to a child) with the same degree of seriousness. Each, she emphasizes, is tragically transient. A written account of one’s days ought to be a way of preserving each “exquisite moment”— a way of marking time and a way of arresting it.

We soon learn, however, that Manguso’s obsessive documentation prevented her from participating fully in the life she was attempting to transcribe. The diary began one evening in the 1980s, following an art opening that was, in Manguso’s words, “too full” to forget. She began cataloging all her experiences and thoughts, but soon realized that she was missing more than she was capturing. “I’d write about a few moments, but the surrounding time—there was so much of it!” Anxiety about keeping an “authentic record” replaced rumination over a single event. “I knew I couldn’t replicate my whole life in language,” she confesses. “I knew that most of it would follow my body into oblivion.” Nonetheless, she proceeded to write nearly continuously, turning down invitations from friends in favor of time spent with the diary. Like many writers before her worried about doing, Manguso was observing rather than living.

But when she gave birth to a son, life took over. As Manguso grew ever more absorbed in caring for him, observation became close to impossible. This development was less troubling than she expected. She found herself less anxious about vanished hours or days, more content to experience without documenting. When she did keep track of what she’d done, the process was unsatisfying. “My prose began to judge or summarize its subject before it took any time to observe that subject,” she writes. “Is it possible to truly observe one’s own child, as a writer must, while also simultaneously loving him?” The implied answer is no. Eventually, she gave up the diary and relied entirely on her memory, which, to her surprise, was far better at preserving the “unbearable sweetness” of each episode.

The child’s birth gives the book its narrative arc; his arrival brings about the diary’s end. “If I didn’t write it, I wasn’t anything,” Manguso says, “but then the baby became a little boy who needed me more than I needed to write the diary. He needed me more than I needed to write about him.” For this reflective writer, the child’s constant demands were a gift, a reason to focus on her life in the present.

Time, then, is the book’s true subject, and it’s a challenging one for a writer. “The central problem of ongoingness,” Manguso remarks, “is that one must contemplate time as that very time, that very subject of one’s contemplation, disappears.” Her efforts lead to some hackneyed pronouncements. At one moment, she reminds us that “history doesn’t begin or end, but it continues.” Elsewhere, she observes, “Lives stop, but life keeps going. Flesh begets flesh.” And later, “Perhaps all anxiety might derive from a fixation on moments—an inability to accept life as ongoing.” The statements are true, but they are also overly familiar.

Manguso, a practiced poet, expresses her ideas much better in images. Take this parable about preservation and loss:

The oldest known cave paintings are thirty thousand years old. Along with abstract markings and pictures of animals, they include images of human hands.

It seems that the painters pressed their hands against the walls, blew pigment from their mouths onto the walls, and then lifted their hands away.

Then they walked out of the cave, marked with red ochre from fingertip to wrist.

The catalog of emotion that disappears when someone dies, and the degree to which we rely on a few people to record something of what life was to them, is almost too much to bear.

The scene communicates the tragedy of time’s passing better than any direct statement could. It also suggests that a personal record might remain, long after a body has gone. A cave wall, like a blank page, can bear the mark of a hand.

Maggie Doherty teaches writing and literature at Harvard University.