April 2015

Jill Talbot


An Interview with Sarah Manguso

In "On Keeping a Notebook," Joan Didion asks, "Why did I write it down? In order to remember, of course, but exactly what was it I wanted to remember? How much of it actually happened? Did any of it? Why do I keep a notebook at all?" Didion differentiates between "notebook" and "diary," admitting she has never been able to keep the latter because of boredom or lies, as she has always struggled to distinguish "what happened from what merely might have happened." Through the inquiry of her essay, Didion comes to understand that she keeps a notebook to remember how it felt. "How it felt to me: that is getting closer the to the truth about a notebook."

Sarah Manguso's Ongoingness: The End of a Diary poses a similar set of questions: the writer's inquiries into why she has, for twenty-five years, kept a diary. For Manguso, keeping a diary has been an obsession, a way not to "lose anything," to avoid rumination, to "stop thinking about what had happened and be done with it," to maintain an analytic record, and to avoid coming to the end of her life only to realize she missed it. Within the short and compact segments of this slim volume, Manguso considers time ("Time isn't made of moments; it contains moments. There is more to it than moments."); memory ("I wanted to remember what I could bear to remember and convince myself it was all there was."); language ("I knew I couldn't replicate my whole life in language."); and the nature of the self within the context of time, memory, and language.

Readers familiar with Manguso's style -- her previous book, The Guardians, was named one of the top ten books of the year by Salon -- and the brevity, the introspection, and the negative space that works within and around her abbreviated, in medias res segments will understand when she writes, "I was forced to admit that beginnings and endings are illusory. That history doesn't begin or end, but it continues." And it is this idea of continuing against "everything that's ever happened," this idea of ongoingness that moves us toward the next page, the next line, the next memory, the next flash of language that shows us where we are -- even now.

Early in Ongoingness, you write, "I'd write about a few moments, but the surrounding time -- there was so much of it! So much apparent nothing I ignored, that I treated as empty time between the memorable moments."

I wrote "Virginia Woolf" beneath that, wondering if you have been influenced by her concepts of "being" and "non-being" that she articulates in "A Sketch of the Past." She writes:

These separate moments of being [writing, walking along the river, remembering the willow "all plumy and soft green and purple against the blue," reading Chaucer with pleasure] were however embedded in many more moments of non-being.

Moments of non-being, she explains, are those we do not recall or collect because of their failure to "make a dint" on us. "A great part of everyday life," she notes, "is not lived consciously," a phenomenon she calls the "cotton wool of life."

I have to admit I hadn't read the Woolf essay until after Ongoingness was published, but I'm sure there are a thousand other imaginings of that concept, and of all concepts. In a recent interview, my interlocutor noted that a bit from my book's afterword -- "Imagine a biography that includes not just a narrative but also all the events that failed to foreshadow" -- recalled for her a line from Forster, "Actual life is full of false clues and signposts that lead nowhere." Which, for me, recalls the Yiddish proverb that I used as an epigraph to my book The Guardians: "All signs are misleading." (In Yiddish it rhymes.) Everything is everywhere. I should have read the Woolf years ago. It's good to remember that Newton and Leibniz came up with the calculus independently of each other.

I love that you just referred to another interview you recently gave in this interview. Your thoughts about other authors' lines reminds me of a line (one of yours) about other writers' lives: "I often prefer writers' diaries to their work written intentionally for publication." What are some of your favorites and why?

Before I moved to Iowa from New York, I took all of the books about Iowa out of the Tompkins Square branch of the New York Public Library. One of them was the diary of Sarah Gillespie Huftalen, an Iowa farm girl who grew up to be a teacher and an activist for education reform. Her childhood entries took my breath away. One entry went something like this: "Strawberrying. Turks peep. Our little colty died. Pa cried." At her best, her work equals that of the great Japanese miniaturists.

One reviewer similarly describes the prose of your previous book, The Guardians, as being written in "short painful bursts." I love The Guardians so much I keep it on my writing desk -- I never want it to be far away from me. I wonder if you have a book like that.

I just picked up my copy and reread all my underlines. Some of the lines I underlined are about memory: "But I need to try to remember it now so I might keep it from haunting me." "I don't remember it -- it may as well have happened to someone else." "The memories of a few dangerous moments are smooth stones in my hand. They always feel the same." Memory is one of the main threads and interrogations in Ongoingness, which makes me wonder, too, whether something in the writing of The Guardians led to the writing of Ongoingness.

I don't use a single book as a touchstone, but short passages from books and scenes from films and bits of music resound in my memory as I write.

Louis CK: "The meal isn't over when I'm full; the meal is over when I hate myself." Similarly, the book isn't done when it's full enough; the book is done when I have nothing else to write. I don't save anything for later. That said, I suspect that everyone, not just every writer, maintains a few lifelong obsessions, and that anyone who writes autobiography must frequently return to the problems surrounding memory.

The problems surrounding memory, plural, yes: you write about lost memories, mysteries, how you can't forget what you want to forget, your fear of being the only one to carry a memory that had once been shared, but may have now been "expunged from the mind of the other."

In another moment in Ongoingness, you mention wanting to maximize the breadth and depth of your autobiographical writing, but "in the last thing one writer ever published, when he was almost ninety years old, he wrote a terrible warning. He said he'd liked remembering almost as much as he'd liked living," but if indulged too much he would "get lost in his memories. He'd have to wander them all night until morning." When I read that, I rushed to my bookshelf to pull out In Brief to check the line from William Maxwell's "Nearing 90." You write that he responded to your fan letter. What did you learn from that exchange?

Maxwell's name appeared in earlier versions of the book, as did the names of the painting, the cathedral, the comet, the island, the horse... but in the end I had to cut them all. (Too distracting.) Maxwell remains one of my favorite American writers, and his response to my letter was gracious, brief, and typed on a manual typewriter with some slightly misaligned keys. What did I learn? I learned that William Maxwell answered his mail. I learned how it feels to receive a small gesture of great kindness.

What, did you think, the names distracted you (the reader, the writing) from?

The intended sound of the thing.

Yes, so much of your work is built of elision, about what's not named or known, which reminds me of your lines about beginnings and endings as being illusory. You write, "I no longer believe in anything other than the middle." Almost in the exact middle of Ongoingness, you mention your pregnancy and follow with ruminations about the impact pregnancy and your son's world had on your memory and your perception. How has being a mother impacted your writing?

I'd been working on Ongoingness for about two years when I became pregnant. Some hormonal event caused my working memory to shrink to the size of a dot. My students would quote me back to myself, and I wouldn't remember having said any of the things I'd said. I had very little to write in the diary. I was exhausted and furious. Then, during the first few months of my son's life, I found myself overwhelmed by sudden, highly detailed, unmistakably accurate memories of my own preverbal childhood. So in the space of a year I both gained and lost memory function. Until then, I'd assumed my memory's capacities were immutable in breadth and depth. I stopped worrying so much about lost and underprocessed time, and my book about graphomania became a book about the cessation of graphomania. But maybe that's not what you were looking for with this question... maybe you want an answer that looks beyond this book. That answer will probably have to come from a reader.

One of my first writing professors advised, "If you want to change your line, you have to change your life." There's so much to that, I've found.

I'm fascinated by negative space in works of nonfiction as well as with nonfiction that presses against formal edges, and Ongoingness certainly has and does both. In the New York Times, the reviewer of The Guardians opens, "How Manguso, a poet, fiction writer, and memoirist, classifies her new book is anyone's guess."

How about Ongoingness? Is it a book-length essay? A memoir? A meta-diary? A meditation? Or is it a work beyond genre, beyond a singular category?

I call it an essay -- I like to keep things simple -- but I wouldn't contradict any of those more descriptive names.