The Extreme Diarist - Pacific Standard

The Extreme Diarist

In her new book, Sarah Manguso reflects on recording—and forgetting—the details of her life.
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(Photo: hippie/Flickr)

(Photo: hippie/Flickr)

My grandmother kept a diary. Not every year, but quite a few years. One of those years was the year that my grandfather died, almost five decades ago when she was still a young mother and his sudden death left her alone to raise seven children.

That year all sorts of things happened that she thought worth recording in her diary: There is a note about one of my uncles having a cast removed, another about when a litter of puppies was born, another about when one of my uncles was too sick to go to school. There are some days with long entries, and others with just a short entry about a birthday or a holiday or an anniversary. Some days have no entry at all. When I found the diary after her death, I went first to the day that my grandfather died.

"I decided the only way to represent the diary in this book would be either to include the entire thing untouched—which would have required an additional eight thousand pages—or to include none of it."

There is nothing there. Not even a word. She wrote the day of the week at the top of the page the same way she had on all of the other pages, but there is nothing else. It is a shocking reminder that our diaries know only what we tell them, and something I thought of often while reading Sarah Manguso’s Ongoingness: The End of a Diary, which was published last month.

For much of her life as a writer, in between writing two memoirs, two poetry collections, and a book of short stories, Manguso has kept a diary. Not casually, but with real devotion. Ongoingness, her new book, is a sort of commentary on that practice. It begins: “I started keeping a diary twenty-five years ago. It’s eight hundred thousand words long.”

Curiously, Ongoingness offers no excerpts or quotations from the diary itself. As she explains in the afterword: “I decided the only way to represent the diary in this book would be either to include the entire thing untouched—which would have required an additional eight thousand pages—or to include none of it.”

So rather than re-printing her diary—a practice that is not unheard of when you consider that other writers and some politicians leave behind multi-volume diaries just waiting for publication—Manguso offers only little breadcrumbs about hers: short, sculpted sentences; abbreviated paragraphs about the nature of keeping a diary; half-pages with precise speculation about why hers changed over time. She is so thoughtful, so fiercely devoted to the diary that of course readers believe her when she writes: “Twenty-five years later the practice is an essential component of my daily hygiene. I’d sooner go unbathed.”

Yet, hygiene serves a purpose we all understand. Diaries are mysterious things even for those who keep them, and certainly for those who do not. They are opportunities for self-justification, exercises in vanity and self-deception, and invitations for voyeurism, depending on whom you ask. And while some diarists live with the real fear that theirs will be read, others pine for the day they are. The exact number of active diarists is hard to determine; counting the number of notebooks sold every January wouldn't account for the number of desktop documents titled something like "Dear Diary." And even if we knew those numbers, then who exactly would count as a diarist: the ones who wrote every day or those who wrote more than once a week? Would someone who gave up the effort in April still count?

Diaries are mysterious things even for those who keep them, and certainly for those who do not. They are opportunities for self-justification, exercises in vanity and self-deception, and invitations for voyeurism.

But Manguso isn’t the average diarist. “Imagining life without the diary,” she writes early on, “even one week without it, spurred a panic that I might as well be dead.” While the rest of us might buy journals every December that we abandon every February, Manguso has never put hers away. Hundreds of thousands of words document days and feelings, relationships and failures, the death of her mother-in-law and the birth of her son, all of the contours of her marriage. Yet she knows even with such a high word count the diary is not exhaustive: “To write a diary,” she concedes, “is to make a series of choices about what to omit, what to forget.”

And there, of course, I found my breath caught while reading. That is what I knew from reading my grandmother’s diaries and yet had never really understood. I knew that my grandmother had made a decision to leave the page of that cold, dark September day blank, and yet, I could not understand why. Now I suppose I can see how the omission was an act of hope, an act of forgetting. The facts would remain and haunt whether or not she wrote down the details.

For my grandmother, the ongoingness of her life was most radically changed by death; for Manguso, it was life, the birth of her son. Any diarist will be interested in Manguso’s reflections, but those who have raised children will find their own special kind of ongoingness reflected in her book. Her life changed between decades and as her career took shape, but it was really when she became a parent that the texture of time was altered most fully.

Still, that division of before and after makes Ongoingness sound more staid than it is. Really the book is an odd thing: a sort of memoir, a kind of manifesto. The pages are filled with sentences that are rougher than aphorisms but smoother than pensées. It’s a pleasure to read, and yet also not something at the end of which you feel as though you have actually read. Sort of like returning to my grandmother’s diary from that particular year, I never find what I am looking for, yet always learn something by looking.

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