I Want to Live: Memory and Memoir with Sarah Manguso

“I didn’t want to lose anything. That was my main problem. I couldn’t face the end of a day without a record of everything that had ever happened.” – Ongoingness: The End of a Diary

In her memoir Ongoingness, Sarah Manguso writes in fragmented vignettes of her compulsive diary keeping, her fear of forgetting, and the birth of her child who forced her to break her habit. Along with poetry and short stories, Manguso has already published three memoirs, each as stunning as the last. She writes about the “self” in a way that makes her writings personal to anyone reading them. I read Ongoingness during a low point in my life, while struggling with my own diary, my obsession with nostalgia, and my desire for perfect memory. I’d never read anything like it before – a book that described my own fear of forgetting.

I recently found a piece of paper from sometime in late 2001. I was eight. It was “Important Things that have Happened in my Life.” On it were the death of my brother from cancer, the death of my grandmother, and the terrorist attacks of 9/11. I have a very good memory of my childhood, all the way back to when I was two or three. I think remember so much because very early on in my life I knew I had something to remember – Daniel. My brother, sixteen months younger than me, was diagnosed with neuroblastoma as an infant and died shortly before my seventh birthday. I needed to remember, but this need can become an obsession. Manguso reflects on a time when, in panic, she tried to remember everyone she knows who has died. After writing a hurried list she thought, “Good. (…) I haven’t forgotten them all” (Manguso 48).

I horde letters, postcards, playbills, tickets, programs. I am an avid social media user; it’s another way to chronicle my life. I started my diary as a child and wrote in it daily for about eight years. During this time I kept detailed lists of books I read, albums I listened to, movies I saw in theaters, special days, weather patterns, emotional changes, and basically anything else you can think of. “To write a diary is to make a series of choices about what to omit, what to forget” (6). I could never write everything. Sometimes I edited the truth to make it more pleasant. Sometimes I would skip a day, but write an entry the day after as if I hadn’t skipped. I wanted my diary to be a series of vivid moments, that, when recalled, would bring those moments back to life. I wanted to create what Manguso calls an “ongoingness.”

When I was eleven my sister and best friend read my diary and teased me about it for the next six months. Somehow that humiliation didn’t teach me to not leave my diary hanging around. Though it taught me not to overestimate kindness of friends. I’ve never been able to move to a typed diary. The temptation to delete and edit is too strong. When Manguso moved her diary onto her laptop, she did what many diary keepers never dare to do. She edited it. “Everyone I’ve told finds the idea of my revisions perverse, but if I didn’t get things down right, the diary would have been a piece of waste instead of an authentic record of my life. I wrote it to stand for me utterly” (14).

There were times when I stopped writing in my diary for short periods, which is the closest I came to editing by omission. When my other grandmother died in 2012 the same week that Hurricane Sandy hit New York, I stopped writing for three weeks. I could not write “Nana died” because that would make it real. Instead I scribbled notes about the funeral, the family, and the daily motions of life onto small pieces of paper which I left in the pages of my diary to represent those weeks. Eventually colleges reopened and the subways started running and mourning ended and life went on and I continued to write daily. Since my diary was a pragmatic exercise, anything upsetting was difficult for me to write about. It’s easier to be sensible about joy than about sorrow.

One of the best things about keeping a diary as a teenager recording all the “firsts.” I wrote about my first boyfriend with all the warmth and conviction of an 18 year old. Yet it was breaking up with my boyfriend that brought my diary to a halt. My break-up was beyond my comprehension. Something had gone wrong and I was powerless to change it. I was very disappointed in myself because I knew that I had let myself down, and I had let him down. We had failed each other somehow. I was writing these massive, emotional entries that made no sense. I wasn’t documenting life anymore, I was documenting hysteria. I was also nervous about what was going to happen next – if I messed up and immediately journaled about it, I would be forced to face myself and my stupidity. Somehow a complete stop seemed better than documenting everything wrong. I didn’t know the end of my story so how could I write about it? I was supposed to be historian of my own life.

With every passing day I neglected to record, I got more stressed about the memories I was potentially losing. I still couldn’t bring myself to start again. I’d try, but the burden of explaining where I was in relation to where I’d been was too much. It didn’t help that during that time I was a full time student with two jobs. I didn’t have half an hour to spare every night. I spent the years without a diary “brooding about my lost memories” (41) as Manguso says. I wanted to understand what was happening to me. I wanted to be insightful and pragmatic while evaluating my life, except I couldn’t be insightful in the present. Some people’s lives may make good stories but no one’s real-time scribbled diary has the foresight of a novel. I recovered eventually, because everyone does, but by then I was so out of the habit I couldn’t get back into it.

During all these years I was pursuing my Thousand Books Challenge, the challenge being that I would read a hundred books a year for ten years. I noticed some synchronicity, ways life was reflecting my reading. (I read Ongoingness during that very period in my life when I was struggling to understand my own obsessive need to journal.) A friend suggested that I write a memoir when I was done, sort of a literary history of my life. In the absence of a diary I started writing the memoir immediately. If I was to properly document how my life was being effected by books, I needed to work on it while it was happening. My memoir became my diary. I started the memoir in the early months of 2014, a few months after I ended my diary. I read Little, Big by John Crowley that February. “Love is a myth. So is summer.” I read that and liked what it promised. Something beautiful was going to come of it all, eventually. Summer was going to come, eventually. I wanted my life to look like a novel because then it would make sense. In the absence of a diary I started writing the memoir.

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I edited my 2012 and 2013 over and over again, fitting quotes from books to my life, looking for inspiration. I was trying to edit my own life into perfection, until it looked more meaningful than reality. This kept me emotionally rooted in the past. I spent too much time steeped in emotions I needed to leave behind. But I wanted to make sense of what had happened before I moved into the present. Manguso writes, “I still needed to record the present moment before I could enter the next one” (27). This obsession with literary influence in my life led to good things, like vacations to Colombia (García Márquez) and Scotland (Pilcher, Gabaldon). It also led me to do stupid things, like going on dates with men because a Junot Diaz short story told me to. I realized how ridiculous I was being this past winter, when I was trying to write about the terrible moroseness I had fallen into, trying to explain it. How could I make sense of it while in the middle of it? I definitely wasn’t ready to be writing a memoir piece about it! There is a lot of good in the 199 page document containing 63,633 words about my life. There is also a lot of romanticized bullshit. I’m keeping those 63,633 words because they represent the years that I did not keep a diary. They are, in a way, the diary I didn’t keep.

I remember my life in moments. I want those moments to recreate the ongoingness of life – but they can’t always do that. I didn’t keep a diary this year. But just because I didn’t write about the last six months of my life, does that mean I’ll forget it all? Does it matter? A few years ago I wrote down every memory of Daniel that I could produce. I haven’t looked at it since. What is the purpose of this? If it’s been processed and saved then it feels safe. I am freed up to worry about other things. After Manguso had her baby she writes, “Now I consider the diary a compilation of moments I’ll forget, their record finished in language as well as I could finish it – which is to say imperfectly” (86). Keeping a diary seems safer than trying to remember.

Two months ago I started my diary again, in the old volume full of bits and pieces and failed restarts. I no longer need to keep a daily, obsessive journal; I hope I am no longer afraid of myself, or recording only half the truth of my life. The time consuming task of motherhood made it impossible for Manguso to keep a diligent diary, causing her to wrestle with her compulsions. She asks, “Why then,” (in the absence of compulsion or the desire for perfection) “should I continue writing the diary?” (82). Why did I restart mine? Manguso never really did. She doesn’t need to. I still need to. To write down your mistakes as you make them is to be aware of your own failings. But honesty is the point. Restarting my diary is showing myself grace. I’m forgiving myself for lost time.

“The forgotten moments are the price of continued participation in life, a force indifferent to time” (85). Now I am dating someone new. I wasn’t keeping a diary when I began this relationship. As far as recorded history goes he barely exists. Do I remember my first boyfriend with more clarity just because I recorded every moment with him and every milestone? Do I need to sit down with a notebook and several hours to backlog everything I’ve ever done during this new relationship? The brave part of restarting my diary is beginning to write new memories without having to justify old ones, or obsessing over what I missed.

My sister just moved to New Jersey to be with her fiancé, when we’ve spent the last 23 years living together. When she set her move-out date I started to freak out – I hadn’t written about our last year together in Queens. But of course I’ll remember ordering in when we had too much homework to cook, trying to feed stray cats, running home from the gym in the rain. And even if I kept a diary, would I have written all the little things that are taken for granted because they are part of the ongoingness of life, instead of individual memories? The bottle of lavender oil she kept in the shower, or her never-ending supply of pumpkin spice Keurig cups. I want to diary, because it’s who I am. That’s all. That’s all it can be.

Manguso reached ongoingness in her life through her son. She was too busy to worry about remembering. “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” (86). I’m not there yet. I still want to remember. But I don’t want to be afraid of forgetting the good, or afraid of remembering the bad. I want to live ongoing.

“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.

Good luck with that, whispered the dead” (40).

Sarah V Diehl

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2 thoughts on “I Want to Live: Memory and Memoir with Sarah Manguso

  1. Nicole says:

    This was beautifully written! Thank you for sharing, Sarah. I was never a dedicated diarist but I did keep several diaries as a child and teenager. I am thankful that I did because they help me remember how I saw life back then. I recently began keeping a journal again, but when I missed several weeks, I too began to panic and feel like the memories were slipping through my fingers, just as you describe. It is reassuring to read that I am not the only one. I had put the journal aside but your post has inspired me to pick it back up again, particularly this line that you wrote: “I no longer need to keep a daily, obsessive journal; I hope I am no longer afraid of myself, or recording only half the truth of my life.” Yes, that is what I must keep in mind too.

    Like

  2. thewordafter says:

    Thank you so much for the feedback! I am still planning to write that memoir one day, with a LOT more perspective and maturity, so it’s fun to work out my “memoir style” through personal essays. 🙂
    – Sarah

    Like

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