An uncommon force pulled me to Sarah Manguso's meditative memoir, Ongoingness, The End of a Diary. In my search for engaging memoirs I found it quoted or suggested multiple times. Since I have kept a journal for years and even when not writing, I'm often thinking about writing, it was a foregone conclusion that I'd be drawn to Manguso's work.
Descriptions of the author's diary in several reviews mention her obsession with details and the diary's extraordinary length. I expected her memoir to be more than its sparse length of 95 pages. Though her journaling habit totalled close to a million words, Manguso didn't include a single one in this book. Rather, she distilled the essence of her journaling experience into a thought provoking essay. I was fascinated.
Ongoingness begins with two observations that resounded with me.
"I wrote . . . so I wouldn't become paralyzed by rumination."
"More than that, I wrote so I could say I was truly paying attention. Experience in itself wasn't enough. The diary was my defense against waking up at the end of my life and realizing I'd missed it."
Manguso started her diary twenty-five years ago about the same time I began my own. My impetus included an awakening to my mortality, a need to make my days matter and a desire to spend my life wisely. The act of writing unburdens me and allows light to shine in the opened spaces. Unlike Sarah Manguso, I regard journal keeping as an integral component of self care.
Unfortunately, Manguso fell into an unhealthy sitation. The diary kept her. She became so enrapt with marking every detail of her life moments that she stopped enlivening them.
"Perhaps all anxiety might derive from a fixation on moments — an inability to accept life as ongoing."
"The essential problem of ongoingness is that one must contemplate time as that very time, that very subject of one’s contemplation, disappears."
These revelations ultimately led her to a place of peace.
"Often I believe I’m working toward a result, but always, once I reach the result, I realize all the pleasure was in planning and executing the path to that result."
"The best thing about time passing is the privilege of running out of it, of watching the wave of mortality break over me and everyone I know. No more time, no more potential. The privilege of ruling things out. Finishing. Knowing I’m finished. And knowing time will go on without me."
Manguso continues by saying that she will move ahead with her practice of writing, but in a more healthy way. Instead of mentally writing her life virtually as moments occur; going forward, she will inhabit her moments and distill their essence in relation to her whole life tapestry.
Here are some closing words:
"Someday I might read about some of the moments I've forgotten, moments I've allowed myself to forget, that my brain was designed to forget, that I'll be glad to have forgotten and be glad to rediscover as writing".
Sarah Manguso's closing words are precious guidance for anyone who wants to write their own memoir. Ultimately, her collection of observations created a strange and exquisite life essay. I'm glad it found me.