Our Diaries, Ourselves

Moving fluidly between the trivial and profound, Julavits shows what a diary can do. It’s a vivid counterpoint to Manguso’s serious disavowal of the form.

Ongoingness: The End of a Diary by Sarah Manguso. Graywolf Press. 104 pages.The Folded Clock: A Diary by Heidi Julavits. Doubleday. 320 pages.

TODAY I DUG OUT an old diary from one of the large cardboard boxes that my husband and I never unpacked after our last move. It’s a spiral notebook with a multicolored cover. Thin lines of text, written in a black Pilot Precise pen, fill its pages, and my handwriting is narrow and mostly neat. The diary begins in the spring of 2005, a few months before I moved to New York. Flipping through it, I hoped to find some observation from my first hours, days, or weeks in New York — some early impression of the city that might foreshadow how the place would shape me.

But this old diary contained no descriptions of my first days as a resident of lower Manhattan, no trenchant insights about who I was or who I thought I might become, no acknowledgment that a new phase of my life was beginning — it was just a series of disorderly, repetitive, and banal ruminations on the typically 20-something concerns that consumed me at the time (namely, finding work and finding love). It occasionally listed the places I went, the people I saw, and the books I read, but without comment or reflection. Some of these I remember clearly, like encountering Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project for the first time in a graduate school class, or hanging out with the waiters who worked at the restaurant below my apartment in Little Italy. Others I don’t recall at all. I watched The O.C. on a date? My neighbor and I convinced a police officer to give us a ride, just for fun, after a night of drinking? Who was I?

When Heidi Julavits rereads her own youthful diaries, she, too, is looking for evidence — for proof that she was always fated to be a writer; that she had cultivated a dogged commitment to her craft from an early age. This is not what she finds. The diaries “fail to corroborate the myth I’d concocted for myself,” she writes. “They reveal me to possess the mind, not of a future writer, but of a future paranoid tax auditor,” a little girl who dutifully records her math test scores and frets about science projects. The Folded Clock: A Diary is Julavits’s do-over, an adult account that she begins in order to reclaim the solitary day as a unit of time — and it would appear, to reclaim the “genre,” too. She may have “exhibited no imagination, no trace of a style, no wit, no personality” in those early diaries, but they are by no means the final word.

In The Folded Clock, Julavits mimics her first childhood diary by beginning each entry with the words “Today I.” The entries that follow, however, are neither daily nor chronological. Gone is the tax accountant’s strict documentation of events. The woman who has replaced her is a lucid essayist with a wide-ranging curiosity and a talent for self-examination. This diarist is someone who attempts to pee in a bag on an airplane ostensibly so she doesn’t have to disturb the sleeping passengers next to her, but really, she confesses, for “the bragging rights” of accomplishing such an absurd feat. Though she fails to loosen her sphincter muscles at the key moment, she still manages to craft an outrageous tale about her own deviant (but ultimately endearing) unwillingness to disturb others. She is funny and likable, the kind of person who is always losing her wallet in new and interesting ways. Of course this wouldn’t be a real diary without secrets, neuroses, ugliness, and self-doubt. So Julavits dutifully serves up her less admirable qualities for inspection, too: her longstanding obsession with excessive wealth, her habit of picking fights with her husband, the difficulty she has in reciprocating when people reach out to her, and so on.

It might make another writer (me, for example) extremely uncomfortable to put herself on display this way, but Julavits does so with panache and appealing self-awareness, quoting herself at age 10, for instance:

I want to have a thin lovely figure, very pretty and smart and Alec and I love each other, never sick, happy life, my family isn’t killed, I am a great ATHLETE, popular, lots of friends, no pimples, a nicer nose.

And then admitting:

If the future scholars come to care at all about me, I wish them to know this: with certain variations (substitute my husband for Alec), the desires of my ten-year-old self have more or less held steady for the past thirty-odd years.

This is not only funny, but also entirely reasonable. I found myself thinking of Clarissa Dalloway — another woman (albeit fictional) who, when she looked inside herself, found that she “loved success; hated discomfort; must be liked; talked oceans of nonsense,” and (like Julavits) could be relied on to throw a fine dinner party. Or of real-life Sofia Tolstoy, who wrote in her diary:

I sometimes search my heart and ask myself what I really want. And to my horror, the answer is that I want gaiety, smart clothes and chatter. I want people to admire me and say how pretty I am.

Is it so awful to want to be admired? Let’s face it: most of us continue to entertain childish desires well into adulthood. The open dialogue between Julavits’s nobler and shallower selves is what makes this book such a vigorous and charming exercise in self-disclosure. The small details of her days and the texture of her thoughts lead Julavits into larger truths about her life and the choices that have defined her. She notices, she remembers, and she acquires new ways of understanding. In this way, The Folded Clock succeeds in refuting many of the usual accusations made against diaries: that they are preening, solipsistic, and dull.

These charges hover in the background of Sarah Manguso’s Ongoingness: The End of a Diary, a slim, pensive work about the author’s 800,000-word record of 25 years. In Ongoingness, Manguso is trying to explain why this document exists — why, for all these years, she continued feeding this ungrateful, unpublishable beast. For Manguso, keeping a diary was neither a discipline nor an experiment (as it is for Julavits), but rather a vice. “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,” she writes. As a result, diary-writing becomes a way of avoiding some of the tasks of life itself. Manguso admits: “I write the diary instead of taking exercise, performing remunerative work, or volunteering my time to the unlucky.”

Manguso chooses not to quote from the diary. Instead, she writes halting, laconic assessments of her relationship with it. Many of the pages of Ongoingness are half blank; after a few sentences or paragraphs, she’ll break off, resuming with a new thought on a new page. Technically, though the book is structured like a diary, reading it doesn’t feel at all like encountering an intimate private history. It’s more like wandering through the halls of a museum from which all the art has been removed, leaving nothing but opaque object labels on bare walls.

Manguso’s break with her diary coincides with her becoming a mother for the first time. “Before I was a mother, I thought I was asking, How, then, can I survive forgetting so much?” she writes. “Then I came to understand that the forgotten moments are the price of continued participation in life, a force indifferent to time.” Ongoingness is about the fears and beliefs that made her diary seem so essential, and what’s left when they dissolve. “The best thing about time passing is the privilege of running out of it, of watching the wave of mortality break over me and everyone I know,” Manguso concludes. “And knowing time will go on without me.”


For a time — from age six to 20 or so — I was a compulsive diary keeper, too. (I preferred to call mine a “journal”; “diary” was too girlie.) It was sometime in college that I started to suspect that the diary offered me an excuse for not always properly engaging with my real life. Whatever happened, I could write it away. I started to see something dishonest in my commitment to my diary; in a way, reworking the events of my daily life into something tidy and pleasing on the page amounted to shortchanging myself of the full, actual experience. But even after I stopped believing in my diary, I couldn’t fully break the habit of keeping it. This might be part of the reason why those post-college New York entries are especially vacuous: I’d stopped thinking of my secret little notebooks as a space for crafting a story about myself I might like to look back on, and instead started to treat the diary as a repository for messy, redundant thoughts I didn’t know what else to do with.

I still have a small spiral notebook I keep on my nightstand. I write in it sporadically (with a black Pilot Precise pen if I can find one), but the entries are short and somewhat aimless. Manguso’s experience of drifting away from her diary reminded me of my own; as the project of documenting herself loosened its hold on her, she explains, her diary entries became shorter and shorter. When she writes, “The only thing I ever wrote that wasn’t for an audience was the diary,” I believe her. Ongoingness is, in the end, a ponderous elegy to both her diary and the particular ambition it represented. By contrast, Julavits triumphs by tackling the question of her diary’s true purpose obliquely and concerning herself instead with the actual stuff of each day. Moving fluidly between the trivial and profound, The Folded Clock performs an argument for what a diary can accomplish. It’s a vivid counterpoint to Manguso’s self-serious disavowal of the form.

These days I often feel I don’t have much to add to the already-expansive record of my days: emails and online chats “archived” in perpetuity; photos snapped from my phone uploaded to the Cloud; running routes auto-logged with an app; credit card transactions preserved in online databases; not to mention all the other invisible tracking I’m only half-aware of. If I want to be reminded of where I went when, whom I saw, and what I did, it’s easy enough to recover those facts, and many others. What’s been lost, though, is the act of selection — the careful inclusion of one detail and deliberate omission of another — the kind of intentional self-editing that struck me as phony in college but which Julavits demonstrates need not be self-deceiving to be artful. And what I miss about my days of religious diary-writing aren’t the entries themselves, but the sense of purpose and control the act of writing gave me. In the years I wrote in my diary nearly every night, I would always put down my pen feeling calmer. I was certain that each page I filled brought me a little closer to some vital truth about my life that was just out of reach — and that only the act of writing could reveal.


Mythili G. Rao covers books for WNYC, where she is a producer for The Takeaway from Public Radio International.

LARB Contributor

Mythili G. Rao’s book reviews and essays have appeared in The New York Times Book Review, Newsweek, The Daily Beast, Words Without Borders, and other publications. She covers books for WNYC, where she is a producer for The Takeaway from Public Radio International.


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