Sarah Manguso

Sarah Manguso

I tried to keep my first diary during junior high, a diary which I began under lock and key and ended with a trip to the garbage can. I tried again in college, and then again while studying abroad, and to this day—aided by garbage cans and bonfires—there’s no existing firsthand account of my quotidian experience.

As a reader, though, my relationship with the diary has been something else. When a friend asked what I wanted for Christmas this past year, I told her I’d been meaning for a while to read Virginia Woolf’s diary. I love Roland Barthes’s Mourning Diary. I adore Reborn: Journals and Notebooks by Susan Sontag. And I hope to one day teach Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl to my own students. While I’m afraid to produce diaries, consuming them is another thing altogether.

My experience with diaries is far different from that of Sarah Manguso, who maintained an 800,000 word diary over twenty-five years—pages upon pages filled with small details of her life. In it she writes about family and friends, about lovers and loss, all the while maintaining the posture necessary for a writer who keeps a diary over such a long time.

We do not get to see this diary. What we get to see is Manguso’s examination of the diary, in Ongoingness: The End of a Diary, a book-length essay in which she tells us why and how she began keeping her diary, how her diary grew over time, and how, for Manguso, it became an artifact. Ongoingness inspects Manguso’s diary, looking for its tangible worth, then deftly shows us both the diary’s light and heavy moments—without giving us a single word from the document itself.

“I just wanted to retain the whole memory of my life, to control the itinerary of my visitations, and to forget what I wanted to forget,” Manguso writes, a hefty aspiration for a diarist. “Good luck with that, whispered the dead” she immediately follows, and we see instantly that Manguso’s reflection is more than just that: it’s clarity regarding the mores of a genre.

Manguso is a veteran writer of nonfiction, and I’ve loved her habitual blend of narrative and introspection, both in her essays and in her books The Two Kinds of Decay: A Memoir and The Guardians: An Elegy for a Friend. Ongoingness breaks this habit—rather than weave a story for the reader while adhering to the introspection traditional for the essay genre, Manguso instead executes Ongoingness as an essay on her diary. As if prompted to view her voluminous and unpublished work, she’s taken the text before her and, rather than reflect episodically, she reflects on the process and progress of thinking through her life. This itself should request our attention toward the diary as a serious subgenre of nonfiction.

I’ve long cheered for the diary as a subgeneric example of compelling autobiographical writing, but looking at Ongoingness helps me understand that diaries are not only worth looking at for insight into writers’ minds and lives, but for models of penetrative autobiography. Diaries have been dismissed for a long while—have been called unserious or, at worst, a “woman’s genre,” making it historically easier to dismiss than men’s autobiography—but what we don’t seem to stop and consider, whether the diary is kept by a woman or a man, is the diary’s strength at communicating uncalibrated thought. The diary asks us to be unrehearsed in our writing, asks that we not, say, write multiple drafts, and in doing so presents itself as a subgenre tied more strongly to honesty than perhaps anything else under the nonfiction umbrella.

Although I stopped writing my own diaries because I couldn’t bear them as a reader, Manguso is much braver, carrying her diary on a six-hour plane ride as her only reading material. I admire her courage as a reader, and her willingness and ability to look back at what she calls “an indivisible behemoth of English prose” and “language as pure experience.” I admire her ability to confront and conflate memory and time, and I do so because—and this is pretending I were able to keep one—were I to take my own diary on a long plane ride as my only book, I’d find myself constantly looking away. Other passengers may think I’m adoring the clouds below, but I’d really just be avoiding my uncalibrated self.

Micah McCrary is a contributor to Bookslut. His essays, reviews, and translations have appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, MAKE, The Nervous Breakdown,Circumference, and Identity Theory, among other publications. He co-edits con•text, is a doctoral student in English at Ohio University, and holds an MFA in Nonfiction from Columbia College Chicago.