Wonderful article in The New Yorker by Alice Gregory!
Dear Diary, I Hate You
Reflections on journals in an age of overshare.
BY ALICE GREGORY
I suspect that many people who don’t keep a diary worry that they ought to, and that, for some, the failure to do so is a source of fathomless self-loathing. What could be more worth remembering than one’s own life? Is there a good excuse for forgetting even a single day? Something like this anxiety seems to have prompted the poet and essayist Sarah Manguso, on the cusp of adulthood, to begin writing a journal, which she has kept ever since. “I wrote so I could say I was truly paying attention,” she tells us early in her memoir “Ongoingness” (Graywolf). “Experience in itself wasn’t enough. The diary was my defense against waking up at the end of my life and realizing I’d missed it.”
The journal, first envisioned as an amulet against the passage of time, has grown to overwhelming proportions. “I started keeping a diary twenty-five years ago,” Manguso writes. “It’s eight hundred thousand words long.” And the memoir, a kind of meta-diary, is her attempt to interrogate her obsessive drive to maintain a record of her existence. Careful to preëmpt criticism that her project is fey or vainglorious, she characterizes her diary habit as “a vice,” and points out that it has taken the place of “exercise, performing remunerative work, or volunteering my time to the unlucky.” Of all the psychological conditions to be burdened with, graphomania is hardly the worst, and Manguso doesn’t quite succeed in dispelling the suspicion that she is a little proud of her eccentricities, perhaps even exaggerating them. But she seems genuinely not proud of the diary. “There’s no reason to continue writing other than that I started writing at some point—and that, at some other point, I’ll stop,” she writes. Looking back at entries fills her with embarrassment and occasionally even indifference. She reports that, after finding that she’d recorded “nothing of consequence” in 1996, she “threw the year away.”
In her memoir, Manguso makes the striking decision never to quote the diary itself. As she started to look through the old journals, she writes, she became convinced that it was impossible to pull the “best bits” from their context without distorting the sense of the whole: “I decided that the only way to represent the diary in this book would be either to include the entire thing untouched—which would have required an additional eight thousand pages—or to include none of it.” The diary, she observes, is the memoir’s “dark matter,” everywhere but invisible, and the book revolves around a center that is absent. “I envisioned a book without a single quote, a book about pure states of being,” she writes. “It sounded almost religious when I put it that way.”
Manguso, whose previous books include two other memoirs and two books of poetry, grew up outside Boston. Now in her early forties, she teaches writing in Los Angeles, at Otis College of Art and Design. But for most of the book we come away with only the sketchiest outline of Manguso’s life. She’s married, with a son. Her son is young; her husband is from Hawaii; she was once very ill. (Her illness was the subject of her remarkable first memoir, “The Two Kinds of Decay.”) The individual memories she chooses to share often don’t link up to produce a continuous narrative. We get Manguso, at fourteen, looking through a telescope for a comet, failing to see it, and not caring; Manguso, in 1992, writing mostly about hating her mother; Manguso, in college, discovering that a boyfriend has read her diary, including some dismaying reflections on his sexual performance; Manguso, in her late thirties, drinking raspberry-leaf tea in an attempt to trigger early labor, hoping that her husband can be present for both the birth of his son and, an ocean away, the death of his mother.
The memoir, rather than being a synopsis of the life recorded by the diary, is mostly a set of meditations on the fact of the diary’s existence. The tone is matter-of-fact, and the controlled, even staid sentences seem deliberately to reject the manic, melodramatic quality of a diary. The book proceeds in sparse, aphoristic fragments, almost like prose poems. None are longer than a page, and some are just a single sentence:
I started keeping the diary in earnest when I started finding myself in moments that were too full.
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 happened and everything I thought while recording what I remembered had happened…
There should be extra days, buffer days, between the real days.
Manguso seldom divulges any particularly sensitive information, and yet her material is, in a sense, vastly more intimate than what we usually think of as private. She picks at the places where language butts up against the inexpressible. Her currency is the “henid,” the philosopher Otto Weininger’s term for the half-formed thought. Her impressions, while lucid, are true to the gauziness of mental life as we experience it. “Ongoingness” is an attempt to take, as Virginia Woolf wrote, “a token of some real thing behind appearances” and “make it real by putting it into words.” It’s hard to think of a more perilous way to write.
The great feat of the book is that it succeeds in not feeling abstract, even though it frequently eschews specificity. There is, in fact, a narrative here, albeit one that functions without the normal signposts of life-writing. Instead, it is a narrative about the gradual shift, as Manguso gets older, in her relationship to time. It is telling that motherhood receives the most attention. “Then I became a mother,” she writes. “I began to inhabit time differently.” She knows that this is something all parents discover—“this has all been said before”—but the consequences are nonetheless immense. “Nursing an infant creates so much lost, empty time,” she writes. “The mother becomes the background against which the baby lives, becomes time.” The rapid growth of a young child creates a new kind of time scale: she dreams of her son’s teeth “beating time in months, in years, his full jaws a pink-and-white timepiece.”
As Manguso’s sense of time dissolves, so does her devotion to the diary. In her twenties, she wrote down her experiences constantly and in minute detail. In her thirties, the diary became more of a log: “The rhapsodies of the previous decade thinned out.” As she entered her forties, “reflection disappeared almost completely.” Manguso doesn’t say that she intends to stop keeping her diary, but the subtitle of the memoir—“The End of a Diary”—implies that the habit may have outlived its usefulness. Another meaning lurks, too: Why does one keep a diary at all? As she looks back on the colossal project, she feels its futility. Although her method was to write down everything, her abiding sense is that “I failed to record so much.” Rather than a protection against time, the diary becomes a cruelly accurate gauge of time’s passage. She finds that she is afraid to read it and to face “the artifact of the person I was in 1992 and 1997 and 2003 and so on.”
One could argue that reading memoirs comes more naturally to us now than ever before. Our critical faculties and emotional voyeurism are primed as they’ve never been. Social media barrage us daily with fragmented first-person accounts of people’s lives. We have become finely tuned instruments of semiotic analysis, capable of decoding at a glance the false enthusiasm of friends, the connotations of geotags, the tangle of opinions that lie embedded in a single turn of phrase. Continuously providing updates on life for others can encourage a person to hone a sense of humor and check a sense of privilege. It can keep friendships alive that might otherwise fall victim to entropy. But what constantly self-reporting your own life does not seem to enable a person to do—at least, not yet—is to communicate to others a private sense of what it feels like to be you. With “Ongoingness,” Manguso has achieved this. In her almost psychedelic musings on time and what it means to preserve one’s own life, she has managed to transcribe an entirely interior world. She has written the memoir we didn’t realize we needed.
The New Yorker – Books APRIL 6, 2015
Alice Gregory is a writer living in New York.