MARCH 30, 2015
IN HER NEW BOOK Ongoingness, just published by Graywolf, Sarah Manguso, the author of two books of poetry, a collection of short stories, and two other books of nonfiction, confronts a decades-long need to keep a daily journal. The book reverberates with revelation and insight about her changing sense of place in the universe as she adjusts to motherhood, a state in which she becomes the universe for her young son. On a Friday in February, we spoke on the phone from different time zones — she’s based in Los Angeles and I live in New York — about the evolution of the new book, the relief of routines, how Ongoingness relates to her previous work, and the tension between remembering and forgetting.
CYNTHIA-MARIE MARMO O’BRIEN: It seems like this book came about because having a child altered your ideas about time and mortality. And the title reminded me that you’ve written about mortality before.
SARAH MANGUSO: This book is not the book I started writing a few years ago. It began as an essay about anxiety about graphomania. I wanted to examine my diary — I couldn’t stop writing it — it seemed crucial to my survival. So I meant to write a broad but charmingly literary account of the history of the great cases of graphomania and hypergraphia; then, I thought, I’d effortlessly introduce my own experience and there would be some sort of apotheosis or new awareness at the end. But after I started the book, I became pregnant and gave birth, and despite my intentions it became a completely new work. I could never have anticipated this, but I no longer felt the anxiety that I had for decades — that if I didn’t meticulously keep my diary something terrible would happen; it would be unsafe; it would be pointless to continue — I would be sleepwalking through life.
I agree that I definitely attempted to write about mortality in my other books, first in the context of my auto-immune disease, and then after the death of a friend, but this one didn’t begin as a project that was related in any way to the others. It was just an attempt to assuage this particular anxiety about needing to document every day.
Actually, I get the sense from your work that you’re suspicious of narratives in which one thing follows after the next.
Oh sure, yeah — and I’m not alone in holding this suspicion.
Yes, but it’s interesting to hear that though the book did not begin in that way — though you couldn’t have planned it — it did end up having this relationship to your other writing.
True. I guess there is a lurking inevitability that one will return to the central problem of one’s existence. I think I’ve been trying to write about the self and time since my very first attempt at writing poems. The context of that interrogation changes from book to book but I think you’re right. There are these general qualities that all the books share and I don’t feel that it was — it just felt accidental. I only see it in retrospect. When serious readers tell me, “Hey, look, — despite everything, despite wanting to make each book the book by which I can finally sail away from all of the other things I’ve ever written, inevitably there’s going to be a theme.
Do you think mortality is the subject of all good writing?
Definitely, yeah — wait, did you say the subject or a subject?
The subject. I think it’s a subject of good writing, although boiling things down to general qualities is not a talent of mine. I never feel confident when asked to do that in writing or in conversation. But I think writing about the self, writing about a person in time (and all persons exist in time), is one of the milieus that we cannot escape. And writing about a person in time, absolutely, is equivalent to writing about mortality. So mortality is the inescapable thing.
I think you said it better. I think I just took a long time to restate what you very succinctly said.
Oh no. For me, one of the hallmarks of your work is distillation — you distill concepts — and that you’re constantly negotiating your relationship with time. So I wonder, how do you measure it?
One thing I do know is that before I was a mother I was not aware of the literal daily march of minutes. I could work for 10 hours straight and it didn’t affect anything. I could skip a meal or have a late meal or stay up very late and then sleep the next day instead of sleeping at night. I could work however or whenever I wanted. That was one of the great pleasures and freedoms of my life. And then after I became a mother, especially in the very beginning — certainly there are other parenting methods, but the one I adopted was that there should be a schedule of the day. Deviation from the schedule would mean the baby would have some unanticipated need. Of course babies are just a constellation of unanticipatable needs, but those can be reduced, at least in the case of my kid, by adopting an extremely strict schedule.
Now, with a preschool-age child, I continue to live life around the schedule I’ve set for him. He gets up, eats, naps, and I pick him up from school at the same time every day. I know that sounds exhausting and it is exactly the sort of thing that people say is something that makes them not want to become parents.
But there’s a great relief in living in absolute slavery to this schedule. It cuts down on the number of minutes that I can worry about these very vague, non-specific, non-concrete anxieties about the self and time.
I wanted to return to the compulsion to keep a diary that inspired you to start the book. There’s a moment where you write, “I think I don’t need to write anything down ever again. Nothing’s gone, not really. Everything that’s ever happened has left its little wound.”
So does time play a role in amplifying or healing those wounds? And is it possible to ever forget?
That’s such a great question, and I sort of want to dodge it by saying that Lewis Hyde has a book coming out in the next year or two about forgetting — not the tragedies of forgetting, but the relief. His working title is A Primer on Forgetting. From what I understand — I just read a brief excerpt from the manuscript in a magazine — he’s approaching the idea of forgetting scientifically, colloquially, through literature, and through history. You know — it’s a Lewis Hyde book; it’s everything. A while ago he and I were on a panel together, and at some point he told me about this effect that I think I write about in Ongoingness but I don’t call it by name. The Zeigarnik Effect. This psychoanalyst, Bluma Zeigarnik, observed that waiters in a restaurant were able to remember all of their open orders, but then as soon as the orders were paid they immediately forgot them. Do you remember? Is this in the book?
I don’t think so.
Oh, good. The effect is that unfinished experiences lend memorability to an experience. Once it feels finished, once it completes, it’s no longer memorable.
I wrote the book about my disease, The Two Kinds of Decay, absolutely from memory. A couple of years after it came out I realized I didn’t remember as well anymore. And this has been true about all three of my memoirs — I can’t even remember what’s in Ongoingness, and it’s just been published.
What about the wounds? What happens to them?
“Everything that’s ever happened has left its little wound.” That’s in reference to one of the surprises of motherhood that I wrote about in the book. I was spending the majority of my waking hours with this preverbal creature, and I started to remember my own preverbal experiences. They were unmistakable. They were extremely precise. They had duration. They had color. It was an absolute shock to me.
The word “wound” has the connotation of permanent injury, but I didn’t really think of it that way. I wanted to suggest that there is some kind of physiological permanence to the things that happen to us.
There’s a strong tension in your work between fleetingness and permanence. At the end of The Two Kinds of Decay the lesson of suffering is “paying attention,” but your goal now, you write, at the end of Ongoingness, is “to forget it all so that I’m clean for death.” How do you reconcile paying attention with forgetting?
That’s a good question. The Two Kinds of Decay seems to me now to be a book about having a disease that took up a lot of my time when I was in my 20s. It’s a book about being young.
My experience of being an adult has changed extremely in the past 20 years. I think it colors the way that I think about mortality. I certainly never really visualized or considered I might live a very long time or a normal life expectancy back when I wrote The Two Kinds of Decay and now I do, for no medically grounded reason.
There is little enough known about my disease that I could be right or wrong about that, but now I do anticipate and want to live a long time so I can raise my son. That anticipatable experience inevitably brought me to this idea that at some point my son will be old, and then he will die, and then these next people will be young, and then they will die.
That kind of continuity became visible to me only later in my adulthood, whereas The Two Kinds of Decay was really just about me living and dying. I couldn’t really see beyond myself to the degree that I do now.
That makes me think of the passage in Ongoingness where you talk about being qualitatively old. It was a surprising moment for me as a reader because the book suggests a sense of constant movement and going forward. And then you say, “Recently I became not quantifiably old, but qualitatively old. Old as a state of being. As an acceptance that I’ve more or less become the person I had a chance to become.” That seems suggestive of coming to an ending place.
I agree. Except that I feel I’m part of this greater continuity. It does feel as if I’ve reached some, if not stopping point, point of pause, but my son hasn’t, and the trees outside my windows haven’t. They’re just going to keep flowering, and then the flowers will fall, and the flowers will come again.
You write in Ongoingness about no longer paying attention to what’s happening to you —
Well, certainly a lot less. I’m not not paying attention. But yeah.
Is it only that your attention has shifted?
Am I paying less attention to myself, and more attention to other things? The practical, literal answer to that is yes. I’m raising a child. I didn’t really think that I would submit to all the clichés of motherhood and parenthood. I was highly skeptical it would be the end of myself and the beginning of me as this nurturing force. That idea just made me want to vomit.
But I have to confess that the very literal difference between not having a child and having a child is that there are fewer moments in the day to ruminate. And I’m a great ruminator. Before, that was my primary focus and I loved it and I loved trying to capture it in writing and I just have fewer minutes to do that now.
But if the duration of my daily ruminations has been curtailed, I hope their depth hasn’t been.
There seems to be, whether intentional or not, an effort to offer a response in Ongoingness to a question from Two Kinds of Decay: “Why is it important to me to know the beginning and end of this particular decay?” Did you re-read that book while writing this one?
Oh God, no. I don’t reread my books.
But if I publish more, inevitably there will be contradictions to what I’ve already written. The experience of being a mother for a sustained length of time is hugely different from the shattering that comes in the very early months and years of motherhood.
You write about your son as the primary reason why your relationship with the diary changed. Have you found your writing habits and diary-keeping habits changing again as he has grown out of infancy?
I think I need more time to really know the answer to that. He’s still pretty little. I don’t delude myself into thinking that there aren’t many great more metamorphoses to come in the experience of parenting him.
Are you able to see the work you might do next?
In literal terms, yes. I have a book coming out next year. It’s called 300 Arguments and it is a collection of extremely short essays, most of them between one and three sentences long.
Wow. Is this in some way a move back towards your roots in poetry?
I don’t really perceive poetry and prose as opposites. Most of my so-called poetry is prose. It just seems like the next thing.
Early in Ongoingness you say that you prefer reading diaries to works intended for publication —
But in that passage, I go on to rhetorically dismantle that claim: it’s as “if I want the information without the obstacles of style or form. But of course all writing possesses style and form, and in good writing they aren’t obstacles.”
The diaries I love to read are good writing, just the same as the good books.
What are some of your favorites?
Oh, no names. I loathe being asked my favorite things. That question always brings with it a quality of vague and all uncompromising dread.
I will tell you about one — it’s called All Will Be Well. I read it when I was living in Manhattan immediately after I was accepted to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. I was 23 at the time. I went to the Tompkins Square branch of the public library and took out all the books about Iowa.
The writer, Sarah Gillespie Huftalen, grew up in the 1880s. She was a farm girl with many siblings doing this big job in a cold place, and she eventually became a teacher and education advocate. Her diary is amazing. Even as a child she had this incredible taste for distillation. (I imagined she was restricted because there wasn’t enough paper.)
I remember one entry,
“Turks peep. Went strawberrying. Our little colty died. Pa cried.”
I didn’t know it at the time, but that book was hugely influential in my coming to understand how prose, not just poetry, could be a form in which you could practice restraint and distillation. But I haven’t reread it since 1996 so this whole experience could have been reconstructed by memory.
Do you think about form when you’re writing?
No, because form isn’t extricably separate from content for me, and it’s never intentioned. It’s just something that attends my writing.
For my prose books, I write notes for years. I don’t write in a form, but eventually I see a form slithering in the chaos. Once I see it, it’s almost always fully realized; I just need to tinker with it and then the book is done. I never decide I’m going to write a novel or I’m going to write an essay in parts. I didn’t want to write another very short book in short segments. But there are certain inevitabilities in writing — and that’s the form that this book took.
The poet James Tate once said, “The process of putting my poems together for the book is just done by instinct, but I have an exceptionally well-trained instinct.” I really like that as a description of how writing works.