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Washington, DC

The Intentional is a print literary and culture magazine that supports emerging writers and prizes approachability.

Book reviews, essays, and more

Book reviews, essays, and more, all by emerging or unpublished writers.

When You Can’t Sleep Because You Can’t Stop Worrying About the Future: Read Ongoingness: The End of a Diary by Sarah Manguso

Elizabeth Weinberg

Photo c/o sarahmanguso.com

Photo c/o sarahmanguso.com

By Stephanie Bento

“Perhaps all anxiety might derive from a fixation on moments—an inability to accept life as ongoing,” Manguso assures us in her poetic memoir, Ongoingness: The End of Diary. “Remember the lessons of the past. Imagine the possibilities of the future. And attend to the present, the only part of time that doesn’t require the use of memory,” she writes. 

Indeed, there’s much comfort to be found in this wisp of a book.

Manguso’s sparse prose creates ample room for the reader to linger in the vastness of her ideas. Her lyrical language echoes, echoes, echoes in the mind of the reader, like sound travels in an empty room. The white space of half-empty pages is eerily comforting, quieting our existential anxiety and allaying our tendency toward rumination.  

Thought it be little, the book is hefty in ambition.

Ongoingness rebels against the confines of form. The book is not a diary in the traditional sense, but a distillation of the essence of a diary: an attempt to capture fleeting feeling. Or as Manguso writes, “language as pure experience, pure memory.” Take, for example, this desperately hungry attempt to capture a moment:  

At an art opening in the late eighties, I held a plastic cup of wine and stood in front of a painting next to a friend I loved. It was all too much. I stayed partly contained in the moment until that night, when I wrote down everything that had happened and everything I remembered thinking while it had happened and everything I thought while recording what I remembered had happened. 

In essence, Manguso’s memoir is a memorial to moments. A meta-diary, if you will. “I tried to record each moment, but time isn’t made of moments; it contains moments,” she says.    

At the heart of the book rests the idea that time is constantly escaping us, and with it, the souvenirs of our existence: memories. She writes: “The essential problem of ongoingness is that one must contemplate time as that very time, that very subject of one’s contemplation, disappears.”

So what are we to do? As anyone who has ever kept a diary knows, we chase after time with our pen in a breathless effort to pin it down. “I used to harbor a continuous worry that I’d forget what had happened, that I’d fail to notice what was happening,” Manguso writes. As though we are pressing a flower in between the pages of a book, we preserve our memories. “I wrote so I could say I was truly paying attention. Experience in itself wasn’t enough,” she writes. “The diary was my defense against waking up at the end of my life and realizing I’d missed it.”

This idea of waking up from life perfectly captures the hazy, dreamlike mood of the book. In recalling her experience of writing a diary over more than three decades, Manguso doesn’t reiterate every sharp detail of her recorded life. She recalls some specific events in Ongoingness, but mostly the book circles around the “pure experience” of being alive. In other words, Ongoingness is about the shades of feeling, fear, and hope that color life experience. In the end, feeling is all we remember, anyway. Isn’t it?

At some point, though, fear ceases to motivate her obsessive diary-keeping. “Then I became a mother,” she writes. “I began to inhabit time differently. It had something to do with mortality. I kept writing the diary, but my worry about the lost memories began to subside.” As Manguso reveals, “when I am with my son I feel the bracing speed of the one-way journey that guides human experience.”

Ultimately, Manguso reaches the simultaneously soothing and terrifying conclusion that the hours will march on, despite our best efforts to catch up to them, and that our lifetimes are but a droplet in the ocean of time. “Look at me, dancing my little dance for a few moments against the background of eternity,” she says. “Look, here we are, even now—” she concludes, as if to say that this moment is all there is.

And that is more than enough.