cover artOngoingness: The End of a Diary by Sarah Manguso is a book-length meditative essay in which Manguso explores her twenty-five years of obsessive diary keeping. The diary was a way to remember and forget. It also provided proof that she was paying attention to her life, that she was living. Except it became something she had to do every day:

If I allowed myself to drift through nondocumented time for more than a day, I feared, I’d be swept up, no longer able to remember the purpose of continuing.

But Manguso admits that she doesn’t want to remember everything, she wants to remember what she can bear and pretend that is all there is. By controlling her memory, she felt that she was in control of her life. She even goes so far as to regularly revise her diary:

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.

Of course I found myself wondering how authentic a record can it really be if you are revising the narrative of your life to include only the things you want it to and “erasing” the things you don’t want to remember. Manguso understands that things cannot be erased, that

Nothing’s gone, not really. Everything that’s ever happened has left its little wound.

When she had a baby her diary entries began to change. They became shorter, more a recording of facts, what was eaten, health, medication. The contemplation disappeared. Instead of Manguso living “against the continuity of time,” she became a “background of ongoing time” for her baby to live against.

Manguso begins to understand the ongoingness of things, of time of life of history. The past cannot be fixed in her diary. Change cannot be stopped. Always looking at what has happened prevents one from seeing what is happening. She thinks

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

By the end of the book/essay, Manguso has moved from wanting to remember everything to wanting to forget it all:

And now I’m forgetting everything. My goal now is to forget it all so that I am clean for death. Just the vaguest memory of love, of participation in the great unity.

Ongoingness is a marvelous little book about the things we do to create the illusion of control in our lives. Manguso created that illusion with her diary. Others have different methods. But no matter what we do, life is ongoing. Time is ongoing. There is nothing we can do to stop it.

The book is not written as a continuous narrative but in short little paragraphs grouped into thought packages (I just made that up, do you like it?). A thought package can be as short as a sentence or as long as a page. The thought packages build upon one another but they also spiral around, first going one direction, then looping back and moving out in another direction. They give a feeling of movement and together they create a sense of wholeness without being something fixed and conclusive but ongoing.

One other thing I love about the book, it was published by Graywolf, a local independent publisher. In the front of the book is this:

This publication is made possible, in part, by the voters of Minnesota through a Minnesota State Arts Board Operating Support grant, thanks to a legislative appropriation from the arts and culture heritage fund.

I’m one of those voters. Read the book. You’re welcome.