Sarah Manguso’s Ongoingness: The End of a Diary is and is not several different things.
It is sort of a memoir. It is sort of a treatise on writing.
It is sort of a collection of essays. It it sort of a narrative. It is sort of prose poetry.
It is a book that you can read in less than an hour, but you will probably want to go back. Which you can, because it’s short.
On the surface, Ongoingness is about Sarah Manguso’s struggle (yes, struggle) to stop keeping a diary. If it sounds a little bit like she’s overcoming an addiction, well, she kind of is. You know, anything that you do to the point of compulsion is an addiction. But writing too much, especially if you are a writer, is kind of like overcoming a food addiction. You can’t stop eating. But you do have to reset your brain to what is normal.
So how do you reconcile the urge to hold on to our lives with what should be the emphasis…living in the moment?
That’s what Ongoingess is about.
I thought this book was going to be “prose” poetry. That’s when the writing looks like it’s in paragraphs but the lines are about feelings, ideas or images without a story.
But really, these are mini-essays…and all are less than a page in length. So I didn’t find myself having to struggle as I read, and it wasn’t hard to figure out how one “essay” connected with another. There is a bit of a narrative or story that comes together as you read the mini-essays.
Manguso’s struggle, to teach herself not to compulsively write every experience that she had so that she could function on having her experiences, may seem strange to a lot of us, but it isn’t such a big problem when we each think about our own compulsions and what they take from our own lives.
Funnily, she doesn’t mention social media once although that’s what I immediately thought about as I read this. It seems like she had her own going in her head before anyone thought about it.
So many of us are busy documenting our lives every moment that we have it. At some point, do we wonder what we are documenting everything for?
Unless you have access to a fairly large library system, you may have difficulty finding Ongoingness without purchasing it. Even though it’s very short, it costs about the same as a regular paperback.
This price is fair because production costs are about the same regardless of the book length, especially when the print run is relatively small. And Manguso’s job is just as difficult…writing with such brevity takes a lot of control and facility with words.
Apparently in recognition of the fact that buyers like us may be taking the time it takes to READ the book into account when making book purchasing decisions, two of her books have been combined into one volume, below, for only a slightly higher cost.
If having ENOUGH time to read is your issue, start reading Manguso!
You can read an excerpt from Ongoingness here.
Manguso’s two other books, both on very intense topics.
Diaries and Memoir
Diaries are not the easiest thing to read because they usually are not meant to be read. More often, authors keep diaries and journals and use those to shape their memoirs.
In Ongoingness, Manguso is really writing a memoir centered on her habit of (over) journaling.
Below are a couple books to get you started with memoir, and below that are some resources it you’re interested in reading diaries.
William Zinsser is most famous for his book On Writing Well, which is the best book I know about writing nonfiction. In Writing About your Life, each chapter focuses on writing a different type of memoir, into which he incorporates examples from his own life.
Annie Dillard is one of the editors of this collection of excerpts of a range of significant American memoirs written by all types of people. This book is a way to try out a range of different styles to see what appeals to you, and there is an excellent bibliography in the back. The only drawback is that this collection is nearly thirty years old, so anything published since then hasn’t been included, but the excerpts that are included have stood the test of time, and most, if not all, of the full-length books are still in print and easy to find.
Here is Zinsser’s most well known book, which addresses more different types of nonfiction than you ever new existed!
And Annie Dillard’s own memoir of her childhood, which is excellent, but not the easiest read in the world because she doesn’t tell her story chronologically, so it’s easy to get lost.
By definition, the memoirist can set the book up any way he/she wants, go in any order, double check memories against documents or not….
Basically, the thing that separates memoir from reality-based fiction is that the memoirists are supposed to relate events based on best memory, but other than that it’s pretty much anything goes!
If you are interested in reading diaries, be careful because many novels are written in diary form.
You also want to check the front matter and the end matter to determine to what extent the diary has been altered. They usually are because otherwise, most would be incomprehensible, but if there is no note of explanation, you kind of have to assume it’s fiction.
One very famous example is Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl. The originally published version was an amalgam of Anne Frank’s own rewrites combined with heavy editing by her father, who did so deliberately for several reasons, one of which was protecting the memory of his wife. The originally published diary is still the standard version, but the “Definitive” version is also available for comparison. There is even a “Annotated” version which shows three drafts side by side.
Believe me, a much different picture of Anne Frank emerges when you read all of her ranting!
If you want some diaries that are not Anne Frank (or Samuel Pepys, the other big one):
Here is Samuel Pepys’ mid 17th century diary, probably the most famous one ever written in English.
Anne Frank’s diary was originally written in Dutch, which gives an additional layer of alteration to the original text. Below is the standard diary and the “definitive” version, which includes materially excised by her father.