Ongoingness: The End of a Diary

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Choose Life


“The purpose of being a serious writer is not to express oneself, and it is not to make something beautiful, though one might do those things anyway. Those things are beside the point. The purpose of being a serious writer is to keep people from despair. If you keep that in mind always, the wish to make something beautiful or smart looks slight and vain in comparison. If people read your work and, as a result, choose life, then you are doing your job.” Year in Reading alumna Sarah Manguso on envy and the purpose of writing. Pair with Jaime Green’s Millions review of Manguso’s Ongoingness.

A Year in Reading: Parul Sehgal


My professional reading life is fairly regimented — I have to be attentive to new, newsworthy books to assign for review or to write about myself — and my personal reading habits have become suitably random in response, subject to mood as much circumstance, which, this year, meant the purchase of a new coat. Said coat, a voluminous and awful garment — moss green, somehow both pilly and prickly — has, to its credit, pockets like wells. Which meant that I, who do most of my reading on the Q train to and from work, fell in with a group of regular traveling companions. Four books (or rather, 3 and 3/4), whose slenderness was, at first, their chief qualification, took up permanent residence upon my person: a new Picador edition of Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping that’s about the size of a pack of cards; my friend Brenda Shaughnessy’s 2012 collection of poems Our Andromeda, a book I worship; my husband’s high school copy of Macbeth minus an act or two; and Paula Fox’s Desperate Characters.

I read and reread many books in 2015 (my favorite books of the year can be found here and here), but these are the books I kept in orbit, the books I wore out. Desperate Characters, in particular, I couldn’t stop rereading. It’s the type of novel it’s become so fashionable to deride — one of the “quiet” books about middle-aged women staring out of windows, enjoying quiet epiphanies — when it’s really a wallop of a book, a barbed portrait of a marriage, not to mention a brilliant take on gentrification, white fears of black and brown people, the hostile insularity of the nuclear family, and how power reproduces and how power conceals itself. And from time to time, sure, the heroine stares out of a window.

(It occurs to me now that these books are more connected than not — they’re all about paralysis and ambition, about moving through trauma, trying to move past it. Reading choices can seem so random, but aren’t we always just digging deeper and deeper grooves into old obsessions?)

But it was also a year of discoveries — the late Czech novelist Bohumil Hrabal was one, the poet Anne Boyer another — and rediscoveries. I taught a class in criticism, which allowed me to go back and reread a few favorites — The Sight of Looking at Death by T.J. Clark, Zona by Geoff Dyer, Changing My Mind by Zadie Smith, My Poets by Maureen N. McLane, Sontag and Kael: Opposites Attract Me by Craig Seligman.

Most of all I was grateful for the number of writers finding fresh and intelligent ways to think about family life — I’m thinking of recent books like The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson, On Immunity by Eula Biss, Ongoingness by Sarah Manguso, 10:04 by Ben Lerner — but also older books, beloved books I returned to as I wrote about these issues in an essay for Bookforum, including Zami by Audre Lorde, The Salt Eaters by Toni Cade Bambara, The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For by Alison Bechdel. These books position the family not in conflict with creativity but an extension of it, not a way of retreating from our obligations to our communities but a reaffirmation of them. It’s a lovely thought — that what tethers us, burdens us can somehow also set us free — especially to one in a coat bogged down with books, standing on a subway platform too early in the day.

More from A Year in Reading 2015

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles

The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews

Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.

A Year in Reading: Meaghan O’Connell


The first book I remember reading this year was an advance copy of Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, handed to me by my friend Amanda. I had a six-month-old baby, and Amanda and I had both, coincidentally, just moved from New York to Portland. I am sure I’d read things in the first six months of my son’s life, but I don’t remember any of them. I think mostly I tweeted and Googled paranoid things late at night. She pressed this book to me and I read it on a car ride out to the Oregon coast, baby napping in his car seat. At first it made me mad, all the theory getting in the way of what I really wanted, THE LIFE OF MAGGIE. She is one of those people for me, writers who I want to cross all boundaries with, writers from whom I ask too much. She makes me want more than, as a reader, I deserve. She already gives us more than we deserve. It isn’t fair. I read about how she put a laminated copy of her Guggenheim fellowship announcement (given to her by her mother) under her son’s high chair to catch everything he tossed, and my heart soared. I got used to the theory, came to love it. I read the book a few times over. Then I read Bluets again. Then I ordered The Art of Cruelty, and was told we already owned a copy. Actually I put it on the stoop before we left New York. It was a galley, I rationalized. But really, that book makes me mad. It’s hard to get into and it isn’t Bluets — this is how unfair I am to Maggie. I always call her Maggie in my mind. Anyway, in my newly regained readerly flush I paid for this book and it’s still on my nightstand. I haven’t been able to get through the first few pages. I am an apostate, I know it. Still, though, I think of this as the year of Maggie Nelson, for the world and, more specifically, for me. She brought me back into loving reading.

I read Sarah Manguso’s Ongoingness soon after, the Graywolf one-two punch of 2015, but it just made me want to reread Manguso’s book The Two Kinds of Decay, which is such a mean thing to say, I know. Anyway I did reread it, in the mornings before settling into writing for a few weeks. Reading someone else’s book during the work day feels like the ultimate indulgence to me. It makes me anxious, but then the words, the voice, the confidence (if it’s the right book) soothe it, too. I’m not sure it serves as anything more than a more virtuous, exciting way to procrastinate. Even still: Grace Paley, Nora Ephron, Manguso, they all put the voice back in my head, helped settle the whirling panic and reform it into something more confident and at ease. I felt like they were the band playing me in.

When a certain ferocity was needed, I listened to Sylvia Plath read her own work on Spotify. Afterward, I started reading parts of her journal. Her mundane anxiety about publishing her work, applying to residencies, and walking to the mailbox looking for checks is what made me put it down. Not today, Sylvia. Not today. Same goes for Adrienne Rich’s Of Woman Born. And Paula Bomer’s Baby & Other Stories. I recommend these in a certain state of mind, when you can handle them. It’s important to know when you can’t. This is a skill I’ve yet to master.

If it was the year of Maggie Nelson, for me, it was also the year of Heidi Julavits. She’s “Heidi J” to me and my writer-reader friends, because we refer to her constantly. Her book The Folded Clock came out in earlyish spring and this book and iced coffee were about all I saw on Instagram, and all I cared to see. At first I thought it was the Leanne Shapton cover, but it goes deeper. It’s a book that seems effortless, which means it was brilliantly engineered. The kind of book that makes you happy to have to wait somewhere, because you have it in your totebag; happy to go to bed early so you can sit up reading it. I saw Heidi J read one night at Powell’s and my friend and I left immediately to get a drink. She was so funny, so charming, so effortlessly beautiful (like her writing!), we sat in the car sighing. “Her kids are older right?” Right. She makes me excited to be a decade older, to be more settled into life, to work my ass off and to know myself. This, and the hidden work of the book, is its power.

On the occasion of Vivian Gornick’s The Odd Woman and the City being published, and a friend texting me photos of random pages of Gornick’s backlist, I said, Fine, and ordered a bunch of her books from Powell’s. I’d read her best book, Fierce Attachments on a road trip a few years ago; I was 30 weeks pregnant and the bookstore owner confessed she was pregnant, too. When she sighed and proclaimed her love for the book as she rung up my purchase, I knew it was brought to me by fate. We became friends and I sent her a box full of baby clothes. I read the rest of Gornick’s books this year like they were the key to something, though none of them touches Fierce Attachments. The End of The Novel of Love felt a lot like a brilliant incisive woman writing on Tumblr, full of the sort of projection and assumption and familiarity that is absent from more traditional criticism. In other words, I loved it. The Situation and the Story was that kind of clarifying reading experience where the clarity might be a delusion but at least you have the confidence, the reassurance, of clarity. Months later I couldn’t tell you what I took from The Situation and The Story aside from that mental cheering and gratitude for a book coming into your life at the exact right time you think you need it (for me, I was finishing a nonfiction book proposal). The Odd Woman And The City itself seemed sharp and funny and a little sad. Did it ever really cohere? Transcend? I’m not sure, but I am grateful to have spent time inside her head.

After that, propelled forward by fate, the final Neapolitan novel from Elena Ferrante was coming out, so I finally GAVE IN and bought the first two books, My Brilliant Friend and The Story of a New Name. My initial reaction was something like, “What is this shit, enough with these dolls!” But then I got sucked into what was one of the most satisfying reading experiences of my life. I finished these books in the course of a few days, stopping only to drive to the bookstore one late afternoon, cursing myself for not buying all of them at once. When I finished all four I was bereft. I was mad at Ferrante. I thought she screwed up the ending. Really, I was mad it was over.

I didn’t read anything for awhile, or nothing memorable. How do you follow Ferrante? After a few weeks of false starts and Googling furiously to try and figure out Ferrante’s secret identity, I found my cure: Barbara Comyns. I knew of her from an Emily Books pick: Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead, brilliantly reissued by The Dorothy Project, and still unread by me. I have learned in my time as a reader that the writers Emily Books publishes will always be the ones people come to be obsessed with, even if it takes, regrettably, a few years. Elena Ferrante! Eve Babitz! Ellen Willis. Eileen Myles. Those are just the people whose names start with E, for fuck’s sake. Renata Adler! Nell Zink! I could go on. Resistance is foolish.

All this to say Barbara Comyns’s Our Spoons Came From Woolworths got me out of my own head and onto the couch for three hours, reading this in one setting after my son went to bed. Her voice is sui generis and I goddamn love her. She reminded me of a thing that Emily Gould — who along with Ruth Curry started Emily Books, and who also not coincidentally wrote the introduction to the edition of the book I was reading — told me once when I was having a crisis of confidence. Okay, a crisis of jealousy. She said something like, with regard to writing, it’s useless to be jealous because, “No one can ever be better than you are at being you.” No one else can be better than Comyns is at being Comyns, that is no one can write like Comyns, so I ordered her book The Vet’s Daughter and inhaled that one, too. I need more.

As the year comes to an end, this is all I want, to read books that aren’t the key to anything except themselves. Mary Gaitskill’s The Mare made me sad and anxious. I am waiting for David Copperfield to come in the mail.

More from A Year in Reading 2015

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles

The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews

Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.

The Extreme Edge of Experience


Year in Reading alumna Sarah Manguso writes about motherhood, writing, and the disintegration of the self in a moving essay for Harper’s. As she puts it, “I want to read books that were written in desperation, by people who are disturbed and overtaxed, who balance on the extreme edge of experience. I want to read books by people who are acutely aware that death is coming and that abiding love is our last resort.” Pair with Jaime Green’s Millions review of Manguso’s Ongoingness: The End of a Diary.

Cohesion Is Not Continuity: On Sarah Manguso’s ‘Ongoingness’


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.

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