When Diary-Keeping Gets in the Way of Living

"How could I have believed that if I tried hard enough, I could remember everything?"

Sarah Manguso is the author of an 800,000-word diary that she’s been writing for more than 25 years. She’s also the author of the short, 93-page book Ongoingness: The End of a Diary, which comes out on March 3rd. The title is sort of misleading, as the diary hasn’t ended yet—she’s still writing it every day. The book explores how her attitude toward writing the diary changed over time.

Early in the book, she portrays the diary as a frenzied attempt to hold onto memories, a way of dealing with mortality:

I didn’t want to lose anything. That was my main problem… 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.

But halfway through the book, something changes. She gets pregnant. Though she doesn’t stop writing, during her pregnancy, and after her son is born, she begins to think about the writing differently. She cares less about forgetting things, doesn’t feel as strongly the need to record and reflect on moments:

How could I have believed that if I tried hard enough, I could remember everything?...

I used to harbor a continuous worry that I’d forget what had happened, that I’d fail to notice what was happening. I worried that something terrible would happen because I’d forgotten what had already happened.

Perhaps all anxiety might derive from a fixation on moments—an inability to accept life as ongoing.

Below is a lightly edited transcript of my conversation with Manguso about memory and writing, and how they affect thinking about time and life.

Julie Beck: When did you start keeping the diary?

Sarah Manguso: It wasn’t a daily diary when I began it, it was an occasional diary. That would have been around 1988 or 1989, and then it became a daily diary around 92 or 93.

Beck: How old were you in 1988?

Manguso: I was 14.

Beck: When you started, what was the motivation? Was it a deliberate act, like “Henceforth I will chronicle my life from this day forward” or was it more of a whim and you wrote whenever you felt like it?

Manguso: I didn’t have that grandiose self-awareness but it wasn’t really a whim either. I describe in the book this art opening that I go to. I remember that event as being a somewhat historic event in my life because it was a very early, if not the very first, experience after which I felt that so much had happened to me—mostly internal and invisible—that I really wouldn’t be able to responsibly survive without writing about it. Or without just trying to make sense of these extreme feelings I had felt, by writing them down in manageable prose. Even then I wasn’t really interested in just writing for the experience of writing. I wanted to create a product that brought some kind of relief, that provided some kind of medicine for my low-level anxiety.

Beck: So at first it was just you waiting for something momentous to happen, and then eventually it was every day no matter whether something momentous had happened or not?

Manguso: Yes and no. It did eventually become daily, but that premise is slightly troubling. I guess what happened was my ideas about what was momentous had undergone this metamorphosis, and I no longer separated momentous events from non-momentous events. Everything just seemed equally important. Everything that happened seemed to have equal potential to change my life utterly. And so every day became equal to every other day.

Beck: Can you tell me more about how your style of writing in it changed over time? Did you write lengthy missives or just a few quick notes and how did that correspond to where you were at in your life?

Manguso: The entries started out the longest, and are now the shortest. In Ongoingness I think I list a couple of formally important changes that the diary underwent. One of them was this gradual but complete change from writing in past tense, like “This happened and then this happened,” to the present tense. Like, “This happens, and then this happens.” And around that time, the first person pronoun also fell entirely out of the prose. I never say "I give interview." I would just say "Give interview." That wasn’t really a conscious decision, but the pronouns no longer seem necessary. It is true that I look back and I read earlier entries and I sort of appreciate the verbosity, but it’s just not really a style that I feel I can write in now without it seeming like a kind of drag. It does feel as if my natural register now is a much more abbreviated prose than I had in the beginning in the 80s and 90s.

Beck: That makes sense especially considering how brief the book is, written in little nuggets.

Manguso: Yeah. Yeah, you're right. All of my writing has become more compact over the years.

Beck: Without the first-person pronoun, do you think there's less interiority to it now?

Manguso: Well, no. The amount of internal experience that I'm recording is the same. I have over the years stayed fairly steady at [writing] about 33,000 or 34,000 words a year. So it seems to have reached some kind of stasis. I have a document in which I record the number of words per year, and I can just bring it up right now and tell you, if you like data. I like data. The 90s had between 46,000 and 61,000 words per year, and then the 2000s were actually highly variable—30, 60, 50, 40, 40. I guess since 2010 it’s been fairly static at 34,000 each year. I don’t know what that means.

[The diary] is ongoing, it’s just very very different from the way that it began. It’s also a different kind of tool, and it occupies a different function in my life from the function that it served when I began it.

Beck: Things changed when you got pregnant, right? How did you start thinking about diary-keeping and also time, and how that was going to function in your life, differently after that?

Manguso: In retrospect I can speak about it logically and methodically, but at the time it just seemed like swirling chaos. When I became pregnant I'd been working on the book for a couple of years. At that point, I had envisioned it as a book about compulsive diary keeping. And so I was reading a lot about other people’s diaries, and about the neurological reasons for graphomania [the excessive urge to write], and then I became pregnant and my previously rather thorough and reliable memory stopped working.

Despite my reluctance to represent pregnancy as a weakening, because of course there are enough sources in our culture that tell us that biology is destiny and women are weaker intellectually than men for the very reason that they are the ones that make the babies—despite all that, I have to say that I was really shocked by what I can only assume were these physiological changes. I became sort of a mess. Previously I had been a fairly obsessive organized person and I was no longer an organized person. And so the diary was nowhere near as thorough because I was scrambling to just keep it together in my regular life.

I mention in Ongoingness that I was teaching a class while pregnant. I would show up and I'd bring my lecture notes and my students would tell me things we’d talked about the week before and actually quote myself back to me and I would have no memory of what I had said. It was pretty mortifying. Basically every area of my life was like this. I had this great awareness that my memory, which I had previously considered this static, highly functional force in my life was no longer going to be this way. And I had no idea when or whether it would come back. That stage lasted really until after I gave birth to my son.

And then when he was quite young, not one year old yet, I began having these moments in which extremely detailed preverbal sense memories of my own infancy returned. I would be hanging out with this little preverbal creature, and, to maybe romanticize it slightly too much, it seemed as if my brain was trying to help me relate to or communicate with this preverbal creature by reminding me of what it had seemed like to be a preverbal creature. In the book I talk about this incredibly detailed sense memory of a panel on the inside of my crib that was orange, there were all these little cranks and buttons to push and turn and play with, and there were visual and tactile and audible components to this memory. And there were several other early childhood memories that kind of came up for the first time in my life that I had remembered.

I was simultaneously forgetting more than I ever thought I could survive forgetting and remembering more than I ever thought I would. And it just became clear to me that my experience of memory and self and time were not as I thought they had been. I guess pregnancy and motherhood were triggers for a new understanding of the position of the self in time.

Beck: What was your understanding of it before versus after?

Manguso: Before, I thought I would simply record everything that happened to me during a day and kind of upload it to the diary and that would prevent my living thoughtlessly. It would enable me to live thoughtfully always. And I took for granted that I would just remember everything in time to write it down and I also took for granted that I’d probably forget everything after I recorded it. It became clear to me that neither of those two assumptions were correct.

Beck: You wrote in Ongoingness that for you, diary-keeping was a vice, not a virtue. Why do you think that?

Manguso: Obsessive behaviors always feel a little dirty don’t they? This was definitely something that I didn’t feel I could stop doing. In the book I talk about this particular day on which a friend of mine offered me a ride from New York back to Boston, back to college and I declined because I thought "Oh God, I have this whole system of getting onto the Greyhound bus and writing in the diary the entire time," the whole four hours that it would take to get from New York back to Boston, and I thought "I’d really rather do that than spend 4 hours with my friend,” which seems insane to me now. I don't know that I would make the same choice now. But at that point I was really enthralled by this need to record. It felt unsafe to put that at risk.

Beck: The friend who offered you a ride back to Boston, he died young, right? I think you say that in the book.

Manguso: Yes, he died young.

Beck: Was that close to the time of that incident?

Manguso: It wasn’t, but in retrospect I can add that fact. Certainly the moment he offered me the ride I had no idea he was going to die at 30. I was in college and I think he just graduated. So we were in our early 20s. This feeling that certainly attended my middle class privilege at the time was that we weren’t going to die young. We weren’t living in poverty, nobody was at risk of coming to a violent early end, and I just thought, "Eh I’ll take the bus, I can always spend time with so-and-so because we’re going to live forever right?" It just seemed that everything would be the same forever and ever at that point. And then of course it isn’t. One learns this gradually and then suddenly.

Beck: Did writing in the diary bring you comfort at all or was it only a source of anxiety?

Manguso: Absolutely. It brought me great solace to write things down and to make sense of them. Not "sense of them" in the way that, say, a narrative would, where one event leads to the next event, and then the end comes and it's just an inevitable outcome of all the things that have happened. I wasn’t trying to predict the future or find any order in the day-after-dayness, but I was trying to just make sense in the incredibly complex interactions that you have with people all day long. Every exchange that I had with another person, everything that I observed, every little throwaway moment I had on the subway observing this and that, the denseness of experience just seemed unmanageable without writing it down. After I wrote it down, it was a great relief to just have at least made that much sense of it in translating it into prose. So I guess it was a low level constant anxiety attended by a simultaneous gentle relief. But it was a long time before that anxiety dissipated almost entirely, which is where I am now.

Beck: So if that anxiety has dissipated now, has the comfort also dissipated? And if so, why keep writing?

Manguso: Yeah, good question. Why keep writing? I can’t really come up with a logical answer to that question. I think in the book I kind of side-step by saying “There’s no reason to continue writing other than that I started writing at some point—and that, at some other point, I’ll stop.” But I can’t imagine making a reasoned decision to stop it on a particular day, because it just seems so haphazard and meaningless. I guess it does serve a function in the way that every repeated life-long behavior serves a function. It feels nice to drink coffee out of the same mug every day and it feels nice to just continue making these daily entries as I have for so many years now.

Beck: You mentioned that a lot of the reason you were so obsessed with writing things every day was so that you wouldn't forget things. Did you find that having it actually helped you remember things better?

Manguso: It wasn’t that I wanted to keep everything in my working memory, I wanted to document so I wouldn’t have to keep it all in working memory. There was a point in the writing of Ongoingness at which I had to decide whether I was going to excerpt the diary in the book. I went back, just chose a year, and opened up the file, scrolled down to some random day. It’s like reading about someone else’s life. But as I read it, I remember it. I don’t think that’s unusual for compulsive diary keepers.

Beck: The thing with memory is research is always pointing out that memory is faulty, and it's so unreliable, and your memories can even change the more you remember them. Do you think that writing something down right after it happens or the same day that it happens helps create a truer memory?

Manguso: Well, I dislike the word "true" because it always has a kind of moral tinge, doesn't it? Like if it's not true it's a lie. I prefer accuracy or precision, which is what I think we're really talking about here. And I’m not a memory scientist, I’ve only read very shallowly and spottily in that field. So I guess I would say that writing it down at the end of the day probably affords you a more accurate account than if you’d written it down years and years later but it’s certainly not perfect.

Beck: Do you think it would be better, in some ways, to just let things fade and warp as they naturally would?

Manguso: Unfortunately I’m not really easygoing enough to accept that, but I know very many people who are and they seem fine. And they’re serious writers too. There are celebrated writers who have recently written about diaries—everyone's talking about diaries suddenly, I don't know why.

Beck: Are you talking about the Zadie Smith thing?

Manguso: Yes, yeah. I didn't want to make it all about Zadie.

Beck: We don't have to, I'm just affirming that I read that as well.

Manguso: Yes, Zadie Smith, productive thoughtful writer, doesn’t keep a diary.

Beck: At one point in the book, you point out that living in the past is generally seen as bad, as is worrying too much about the future. You write “I wanted to know how to inhabit time in a way that wasn’t a character flaw.” What makes those ways of inhabiting time "wrong?" Do you think you ever found the right one?

Manguso: I don’t think they’re “wrong” per se. I was definitely referring to this cultural assumption that it’s considered socially incorrect to just be bathing in nostalgia all the time, but it’s also considered socially incorrect to just be focused on your potential and to ignore the actual state of events. It seems virtuous, or I think it’s represented as virtuous in our culture, to live in the moment, be unpolluted by the past and unhampered by anxiety about the future.

Beck: Except it's kind of crazy, especially with the Internet, where it's so easy to just be nostalgic about everything all the time.

Manguso: Yeah absolutely. The Internet is a big problem.

Beck: Is it now?

Manguso: [Laughs] Yeah, interview title: "The Internet is a Big Problem." One of the ways that I manage the great nostalgia machine of the Internet is that I don’t participate in social media. It's too overwhelming. There are already too many obsessive practices that I have to keep up every day. I don't know how I would manage that. On the other hand, occasionally it does feel as if I’m missing out on everything that's happening.

Beck: Eh, most of it's garbage.

Manguso: Everybody says that, but most of everything is garbage.

Beck: That is true. But the thing about social media is interesting because I feel like of the various things to read and do and be on the Internet, that one is the most diary-esque.

Manguso: Yeah. But it’s public and not private and that’s the essential difference right? My diary is written for an audience of zero. I think once you have an audience everything changes. Whether that’s the audience you actually have or the audience you imagine you have.

Beck: Did you write Ongoingness over a long period of time? Because at the beginning you write about these worries, and at the end there's a part that says "When I remember how this document began, I remember it as something I used to worry about."

Manguso: The book is written in past tense and then at the very end it kind of enters the present day and that is its form. So you did notice the end is kind of meant to represent the present day.

Beck: How long were you working on it?

Manguso: I think I have a log of that too, let me just bring that up.

Beck: You have a lot of metadata about the diary.

Manguso: I know, I have a lot of metadata about everything. You’re learning a little bit about how I am in general.

In August 2010 in my journal I wrote: "Start writing about the problem of depicting ongoingness in autobiography."

And then in March 2011, I wrote "Take heavy pass through Ongoingness, still don’t know just what it’s about." So around March 2011 I gave it its title.

In October 2012: "I can’t even tell you what I'm trying to write about in Ongoingness, it arose from some terrible anxiety I no longer remember." That was when my son was about 9 months old.

And then January 2014: "The magic of composition over, Ongoingness is now just a set of problems to solve. Take a light pass, cutting viciously of the interruptive anecdotes. The essay must form an unbreakable ongoing skein."

Beck: That brings me to—I also wanted to talk about a diary as a narrative of a life. In one way, as you establish in the book, reflection kind of takes you out of the river of life, right? But of the available options, a diary seems like the most ongoing story you could tell.

Manguso: If language is your medium, as it is mine, my medium of choice, the one I feel most fluent in—yeah, the diary was by far the most useful tool I had in just trying to live thoughtfully and carefully and responsibly.

Beck: But at the same time it's still an interruption.

Manguso: You can’t do both, right? If only we could.

Beck: In the afterward, you write: “Imagine a biography that includes not just a narrative but also all the events that failed to foreshadow. Most of what the diary includes foreshadows nothing.” Which reminded me of this part I love from Howard’s End—and I hope it’s not really pretentious of me to quote it, but it goes: “Actual life is full of false clues and signposts that lead nowhere.”

Manguso: Of course Forster is much more elegant than the clinical way that I say it, but yeah. It seems as if we're talking about the same thing.

Beck: It definitely seems more true to include those in your life story, but do you think it’s helpful or instructive at all, to look back on all those things that seemed like they were leading up to something and then just sort of floated away into thin air?

Manguso: Narrative is not a mode that has ever come easily to me. I neither produce nor consume it with much ease and I don’t really need to read or reread an entire book or watch or rewatch an entire movie.

People for whom story is very important find this just so impossible. We just live differently, me and people who are bound by narrative convention. It’s not that they're more conventional, it's just a convention that's never really seemed necessary to me. So I’m not even really interested in trying to create narrative momentum in the diary. Which is maybe why it’s a form that has been so appealing to me for so long. All you have to do is talk about a moment. You don't have to anticipate anything. You don't have to really digest anything that happened before that day. It's just the day.