In Ongoingness: The End of a Diary, Sarah Manguso writes of what compelled her to keep a diary, an exhaustive, exhausting project she undertook for 25 years:
I didn’t want to lose anything. That was my main problem. I couldn’t face the end of the day without a record of everything that had ever happened.
Although the project was impossible — capturing every moment is like making a map at one-to-one scale — the effort seems crucial. “I couldn’t think of any way to avoid getting lost in time.” Manguso writes of a fear of endings, of rushing her life to each new beginning. Yet this is not only the story of Manguso’s diary-keeping but, rather, of its end.
After a quarter century of meticulous recording, Manguso becomes pregnant and becomes a mother. At first, the fog of pregnancy-brain brings on a temporary amnesia that interferes with the practice. But it is the birth of her son that disentangles Manguso from her diary for good. It is not her cloudy mind or busy life, but the way motherhood transmutes her sense of time and memory and her place in that terrain:
In my experience nursing is waiting. The mother becomes the background against which the baby lives, becomes time.
I used to exist against the continuity of time. Then I became the baby’s continuity, a background of ongoing time for him to live against. I was the warmth and milk that was always there for him, the agent of comfort that was always there for him.
Manguso’s anxiety in the face of endless moments is superseded by a timelessness in which “My body, my life, became the landscape of my son’s life.” The extraordinary moments of Manguso’s life are now, she finds, the extraordinary moments of her son’s life. And her memories of him defy the rules of memories she had known before: “The memory should already be fading, but when I bring it up I almost choke—an incapacitating sweetness.” She records these memories dutifully in her diary for a while. And then she stops.
The diary itself, Manguso tells us, is 800,000 words long. (In an afterward she explains the pragmatic, and wise, decision not to excerpt any of its text.) Ongoingness is contrastingly spare, built of fragments or moments no longer than a page. Most are much shorter, a few brief paragraphs with white space between them to breathe. You can read the book all at once even if you pause to absorb between moments, as the white space invites you to do. I finished it in one sitting, and as soon as I did I felt sure I would read it again.
There is a remarkable sureness to this book, a calm hush like that of a person who speaks softly so that you lean in to listen. When Manguso writes things like, “My students still don’t know what they will never be. Their hope is so bright I can almost see it,” her earlier gentleness with her younger self saves her from condescension. Her son, in a way, solidified her life: “Now I am old enough to know what I’ll never accomplish.” She writes that she is relieved to never again have to wonder if she’ll have a child, to know the things — “a soldier, a physicist” — she’ll never be. Manguso’s diary entries not only recorded what had happened, they also, in effect, delineated what hadn’t — a constraint of possibility. But motherhood and the simple progress of life limit possibilities on their own. This seems to be a relief. Manguso’s electric questing settles down into a kind of sureness or calm.
If the engine of the essay is doubt, then where is the place for certainty in this form? Essai is to ask; Michel de Montaigne’s motto was “What do I know?” Doubt, not-knowing, and the driving force of questions are the currency and engine of the essay.
Essayists celebrate this not-knowing. In the introduction to his collection, Loitering, Charles D’Ambrosio writes of essay-writing:
Seeking faith with doubt, that’s definition enough for me. Or strike faith, if you must, and leave it at seeking with doubt. And longing. And not-knowing.
D’Ambrosio’s questing takes him, often, out into the world, the reported story a sounding board or tuning fork to resonate the writer’s life and questions. In order to understand the fear of vaccination, Eula Biss in On Immunity calls on Susan Sontag, Voltaire, Bram Stoker, Rachel Carson, and a host of other sources, not least of which is her own conflicted heart. The writer and the reported story intertwine and spiral, resonating and amplifying and juxtaposing. There are rarely solid answers. Perhaps we learn to ask new questions. The essay’s questions are often ravenous. Ongoingness, in contrast, feels sated.
Manguso’s certainty pulls some of her statements toward aphorism:
Then I came to understand that the forgotten moments are the price of continued participation in life, a force indifferent to time.
Left alone in time, memories harden into summaries.
Yet for the most part her declarations are certain, self-contained, but not pat: “even before my body was an instrument for language it had been an instrument for memory.” These feel like essential truths and revelations at the same time. Should we fault a woman her wisdom? How many writers, especially women under retirement age, are willing to baldly be wise? No equivocation, no apologies.
Manguso writes a quest through doubt, but she writes from the other side. Perhaps this is the essayist’s equivalent of the redemptive memoir: a tale of doubts and questions all resolved. Yet this book raises questions even where it doesn’t ask them. If it were so pat and settled it wouldn’t hum in your mind for days after you put it down. What can writing’s purpose be without an audience? How are we to be present in the world? Can we experience everything fully and also remember?
In the essay that I have read on either the first or last day of every writing class I’ve ever taught, “The Essay, an Exercise in Doubt,” Philip Lopate offers a variation on the essayist’s doubt: self-questioning rather than ambivalent. The landscape for interrogation is the writer’s own mind. He calls the essay “a meadow inviting contradiction, paradox, irresolution and self-doubt. The essay’s job is to track consciousness; if you are fully aware of your mind you will find your thoughts doubling back, registering little peeps of ambivalence or disbelief.”
Usually this tracking of consciousness is what Lopate calls “the mind at work on the page,” the essayist’s thoughts enacted and performed. But Manguso tracks her consciousness on a greater scale of time, through the iterations of self that add up to a lifetime. She does not inhabit doubt of herself, because she finds no single self to write from. She writes of the urgency of her diary-keeping practice as well as its obsolesence. She writes, “for twenty years, every day, I wrote down what happened. After I finish writing this sentence I’ll do it again,” and that this is no longer a thing that she does.
Both are true because each page of Ongoingness is its own moment, and although some come chronologically later, this doesn’t make them more right than the others. It’s not an act of doubt but of generosity toward one’s past selves and their passions, fears, and compulsions. As Manguso writes near the end of Ongoingness (if ends are a concept that still apply), “I’ve never understood so clearly that linear time is a summary of actual time, of All Time, of the forever that has always been happening.” In that ongoingness, all our selves are present, not in conflict or doubt but in chorus.
Manguso describes this book within itself. As she comes though the exhaustion of her first trimester, she writes, “I began to see the work I might do next — this, an assemblage of already exploded bits that cohere anyway, a reminder that what seems a violent interruption, seldom is.”
Indeed, in many ways, Ongoingness is a reassurance. Reassurance that life coheres despite gaps in remembrance or narration: continuity is not the same as cohesion. Reassurance that beginnings and endings are traversable. Each “exploded bit” is a beginning and an end on the page — each is punctuated by an end mark, a little coda of finality — yet each flows into the next, the very ongoingness Manguso fears and seeks in this book: moments that are discreet but flow and the aspect of time that is more than a succession of beats. Moments no less discernible from one another than lives.