share


Interview with Sarah Manguso

There’s a certain barometer of a writer’s achievement that urban readers know well: did this book cause me to miss my train stop? The staff of The Paris Review can attest to my tardiness on the days I was reading Sarah Manguso’s The Guardians, a measured and intimate study in grief following the suicide of a close friend of the author. Manguso’s three works of nonfiction – Two Kinds of Decay, The Guardians, and Ongoingness: The End of A Diary – orbit deeply personal subjects, but her finely tuned ferocity, honesty and wit cast questions of memory, mourning, and the body in a universal light. ‘I want to know about my particular grief,’ she writes in The Guardians, ‘which is unknowable, just like everyone else’s.’

 

Blaise Pascal wrote, ‘Le silence éternel de ces espaces infinis m’effraie,’ and this fear of the ‘eternal silence of infinite spaces’ has become a refrain amongst writers terrified of the blank page. But Manguso leverages white space with confidence – reviewers of Ongoingness were quick to note that the slim volume contained more white space than text. The potency of Ongoingness, which chronicles Manguso’s decision to ‘quit’ a diary that she had kept for over twenty years and which contained nearly a million words, lies precisely in its economy. The book becomes the antidote both to the diary, and to the nervous record-keeping that the diary represented. In chronicling and questioning her long-held fear of losing time by not recording it, Manguso explores the futility and audacity of our impulse to guard our experiences.

 

In Ongoingness, Manguso shifts her focus from grief to the search for a liberation from our expectations of memory. Her decision to end her diary is transformed into a radical shift in viewing time: ‘I tried to record each moment,’ Manguso writes, ‘but time isn’t made of moments; it contains moments. There is more to it than moments.’

 

She was kind enough to answer questions via email, beginning in February of this year.

 

Q

The White Review

Ongoingness is at once specific to your experience, and a broader study of memory, time, and a common impulse towards narrative-building through keeping a journal. I wonder if you had given thought to how the book would be received, both by readers who might relate to the need to keep a journal, and those who might not understand the compulsion.

A

Sarah Manguso

— I try to anticipate the publication of a book ‘without hope and without despair,’ per Dinesen’s widely applicable instruction. It is always strange to see how a book actually is received, what errors of fact or of interpretation are included in reviews, where one receives the best and most intelligent readings, and so on. I expected to find (and found) the requisite comments-field screeds declaring the book should never have been published, but I didn’t expect to find so many people at my readings having gathered for communion with other diary-keepers. More than fifty in Portland alone!

Q

The White Review

— Early on, you address the notion of self-censorship, and of using the journal to reflect a certain perception of your life as you lived it. You write of deleting and shredding certain sections, because ‘I wanted to remember what I could bear to remember and convince myself it was all there was.’ What made you feel free to destroy those sections?

A

Sarah Manguso

— I shredded several high-school sheafs; they were pencil-scrawled pages of melodramatic self-loathing (along with at least as much self-regard and loathing of the world), wilful stupidity, intellectual lassitude… I never wanted to see any of it again.

 

At a different time, I deleted the year 1996 from my hard drive. This is how I recorded it in The Two Kinds of Decay: ‘At some point after the year 2000, I read my journal from beginning to end and saw I had recorded nothing of consequence in 1996 and threw away that year in disgust.’ Years later I realised I’d made that decision in the middle of a long, slow steroid overdose, but I don’t regret the decision. I like that a year is gone from the voluminous decades. It’s like a missing tooth; it adds character.

Q

The White Review

— You write that you asked your students to study empty time, sitting in silence for long stretches and then writing about what they had experienced. I was wondering about this exercise, and whether the students were expected to direct their attention to the physical world or if you asked them to do something more akin to meditation.

A

Sarah Manguso

— After we sit in silence for some part of an hour, I ask my students to write five sentences about what has happened without using the first-person pronoun. No feelings; just observations. If meditating is a means of relaxing one’s attention to one’s surroundings, then that’s the opposite of what I’m trying to get them to do. I’m trying to inflame their attention until that’s all they are: attenders to the actual.

Q

The White Review

— You then write, about this exercise, ‘I wanted to comprehend my own position in time so I could use my evolving self as completely and as usefully as possible. I didn’t want to go lurching around, half-awake, unaware of the work I owed the world, work I didn’t want to live without doing.’ Ongoingness has been described as an ‘urgent’ book. How has an attention to time informed the subjects of your writing, or your approach to writing?

A

Sarah Manguso

— I’ve been trying to write about time for twenty years, all that time feeling like a one-woman version of the blind people trying to describe the elephant.

 

Here, unforgivably, is a description of the book I included in a grant application, but it seems the most cogent answer I can come up with at the moment:

 

‘Perceiving ongoingness is a crucial problem of experience, and depicting ongoingness is a crucial problem of autobiography. One takes for granted the basic impossibility of writing about oneself except anecdotally – after all, one cannot spend one’s life observing oneself. I am sitting at the writing desk. I am still sitting at the writing desk…

 

I think of Ongoingness as the final work in a series of works that explore various aspects of time – before, after, during, truncated, ongoing. In particular, I think of it as a sequel of sorts to The Guardians, which is about suicide. Upon finishing that book, I immediately realised I wanted to write Ongoingness with the hope that things continue…

Q

The White Review

— With its use of white space and tight, economical paragraphs, Ongoingness has a distinctive form. How did you come to this form, and how has it been conducive to your project?

A

Sarah Manguso

— I’m inclined toward writing short forms, either collections of short pieces or longer pieces built from short pieces.

 

I find it impossible to talk about form as distinguishable from what is generally called content; one comes into being along with the other, inextricably. The Paris Review piece does resemble Ongoingness on the page – the unit of composition is short – but that piece is an excerpt from my next book, Three Hundred Arguments, a collection of 300 discrete pieces, while Ongoingness is a single essay containing various silences.

 

The important thing, for me, is to contradict anyone who claims that any short form is automatically a fragment. Here are two relevant arguments from the 300:

 

‘To call a piece of writing a fragment, or to say it’s composed of fragments, is to say that it or its components were, in an earlier form, whole, and that they are no longer.’

 

‘The word “fragment” is often misused to describe anything smaller than a bread box, but an 800-page book is no more complete or unbroken than a ten-line poem. That’s confusing size with integrity. An ant is not a fragment of an elephant except orthographically.’

Q

The White Review

— That’s such an important distinction. It reminds me of when Raymond Carver, in an interview, rejected being labeled a minimalist writer: ‘There’s something about “minimalist” that smacks of smallness of vision and execution that I don’t like.’ Do you think the same connotation is applied to short forms, perhaps by way of naming them ‘fragments’?

A

Sarah Manguso

— Yes. But it’s also important to remember, per James Richardson, ‘all stones are broken stones.’

Q

The White Review

— You had the title for The Guardians years before you completed the manuscript. How did you come to call this book Ongoingness?

A

Sarah Manguso

— In 1992 George Trow went on a road trip with the writer Alison Rose. Ariel Levy wrote about it in New York Magazine. It was on that trip that Trow made the following complaint about life: The ongoingness of it is, frankly, a real problem.’ I loved that line so much, and I never forgot it. It adhered to the book quite early on. Trow went insane, as you probably know.

Q

The White Review

— In ‘On Keeping a Notebook’, Joan Didion writes, ‘Keepers of private notebooks are a different breed altogether, lonely and resistant rearrangers of things, anxious malcontents, children afflicted apparently at birth with some presentiment of loss.’ Did this presentiment of loss figure into your own need for keeping a journal?

A

Sarah Manguso

— Yes, but aren’t all children afflicted with some presentiment of loss? I can’t imagine we were in the minority.

Q

The White Review

— But not all children turn that spectre of loss into habitual, at times anxious, journaling.

A

Sarah Manguso

— True! Writing has always felt good to me. It provides an escape hatch for the internal mess.

Q

The White Review

— There’s a memory theorist, Pierre Nora, who coined the term ‘lieux de memoire’ to describe specific, encoded sites of memory. He was talking about national memory–monuments, speeches, etc–but he wrote that these sites of memory ‘are the rituals of a ritual-less society.’ I see the act of journal-keeping as another way of inventing rituals for ourselves to create some sort of order, and then journals could be considered, perhaps, sites of memory, a crystallised version of ourselves, or who we once wanted to be. Do you view your diary in this way, or did it eventually become more insidious an artifact?

A

Sarah Manguso

— That’s an interesting leap from monuments to diaries as ritualised spaces… I view the diary as a container more than a place or even an entity of itself. It is the container for things I remember, or that I remembered once. So in that way it is a site of memory, a file of previous selves.

Q

The White Review

— You record having not been bothered or surprised when boyfriends, friends or family read your diary without your consent. Some journal writers are fiercely protective of their journals and would consider this a betrayal. Why did you react differently?

A

Sarah Manguso

— I knew their guilt would be their problem.

Q

The White Review

— You write that, back then, ‘if I didn’t get things down right, the diary would have been a piece of waste instead of my authentic life. I wrote it to stand for me utterly.’ Was it this honesty, and the attempt to create a journal that authentically reflected you at the time, that made you less protective of what you had written?

A

Sarah Manguso

— I didn’t want to expend the energy it would have taken to hide the thing. I frequently wrote in public. People must have suspected I was writing about them. I now understand that I must have wanted them to read it, but that level of self-knowledge wasn’t available to me at the time.

Q

The White Review

— Was the process of writing Ongoingness a necessary distinction between yourself now, and the self you were recording in the diary?

A

Sarah Manguso

— I wrote Ongoingness to record the particular experience of losing a continuous anxiety of long duration. When I was done with it, the worry had dissipated. So, yes, there is a before and an after, but it’s the same as with all my books.

Q

The White Review

— If writing The Guardians led, in a way, to Ongoingness, was there a similar cognitive thread between Ongoingness and your forthcoming Three Hundred Arguments?

A

Sarah Manguso

— Maybe. Ongoingness is a book about learning to inhabit time instead of just ceaselessly documenting it, and Three Hundred Arguments begins: ‘Finally, a form I’ll always have time to write – but of course it demands more than time.’

Q

The White Review

— In the afterword, you write of your decision not to excerpt the diary in the book. One explanation is that you were ‘afraid of facing the artifact of the person I was…’ but elsewhere you have shared fragments of your journal. Why was it fundamental not to excerpt the diary in this project?

A

Sarah Manguso

— While I was trying to decide whether to excerpt the diary in the book, I kept thinking of this sentence: ‘The only way to deal with the entirety of the Western canon is to fail to refer to it.’ I believe it’s Trow again, but I can’t find it anywhere. Maybe I heard it in a dream. Regardless, in the end I followed its instruction.

Q

The White Review

— Your book is not prescriptive, but it does confront and challenge some of the impulses of obsessive diarists, namely the need for building and protecting one’s own narrative. How did motherhood lead you to relinquish or reshape your part in that narrative-building impulse?

A

Sarah Manguso

— First my working memory became noticeably less reliable. Then some very early preverbal memories began to surface, sensory memories of my infancy that were unmistakably accurate. I began to understand that keeping a diary was, as we say, neither necessary nor sufficient.

Q

The White Review

— Do you think there’s a negative value judgment imposed on obsessive journal keepers?

A

Sarah Manguso

— Obsessive behaviours always feel a little dirty.

Q

The White Review

— I wonder why they have to feel dirty. You write that friends found it ‘perverse’ that you revised a diary that you didn’t expect to publish. Why do we transpose pejorative sexual language on private creative behaviour? And especially for writers who, intentionally or unintentionally, use journal-keeping as a sort of practice, or for people who keep journals to make sense of their experiences and then return to the world with that understanding, is the act truly private?

A

Sarah Manguso

— I think my insistence on calling the thing a diary – for that is what it is – rather than a sketchbook is what makes it seem illicit, masturbatory. A sketchbook sounds like a place for good, clean, honest work. But my diary is a diary. Its sketchiness is incidental to its dailiness.

Q

The White Review

— Early in Ongoingness, you argue, ‘To write a diary is to make a series of choices about what to omit, what to forget.’ What choices do we make, then, when we give up a diary? Did ending the diary feel like a relief, a liberation, or a natural progression?
A

Sarah Manguso

— I still keep a diary, but the impulse to do so is much gentler now. Losing that impulse came as a great surprise and a great relief. For those still in the thick of compulsive diary-keeping, it might help to remember this passage from Woolf’s ‘Sketch of the Past’: ‘These then are some of my first memories. But of course as an account of my life they are misleading, because the things one does not remember are as important; perhaps they are more important.’
 

share


ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR

Catherine Carberry holds an MFA from Bowling Green State University, where she served as Assistant Editor of Mid-American Review. Her fiction has appeared in journals including North American Review, Indiana Review, Greensboro Review, Tin House online, Baltimore Review, and Sou'wester. She lives in Spain.

READ NEXT

feature

Issue No. 15

A Weekend With My Own Death

Gabriela Wiener

TR. Lucy Greaves

feature

Issue No. 15

We all have tombs from which we travel. To reach mine I have to get a lift with some...

feature

September 2013

Outside the Uniform

Kaya Genç

feature

September 2013

I.   The first time I had to wear a uniform I looked like a madman struggling against a...

Art

Issue No. 6

Interview with Edmund de Waal

Emmeline Francis

Art

Issue No. 6

As we speak, Edmund de Waal, ceramicist and writer, moves his palms continually over the surface of the trestle...