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Rudiments of a Self: An Interview with Sarah Manguso
As a journalism undergrad in Arizona, I signed up for an Intro to Poetry class, not really knowing what to expect—I was not Well Read. In high school, I developed a casual fondness for Charles Bukowski and read over the shoulder of the student with the scar on the back of his head—he did hallucinogenics and I worshipped whatever he scrawled in his notebooks when he wasn’t paying attention in class.
Then, I read Sarah Manguso’s first poetry book, The Captain Lands in Paradise. I couldn’t believe how much I loved it. I read it over and over, often ignoring my actual schoolwork in order to read a few of her poems for the twentieth time. It was the first book that made me think, “I want to do that.”
Sarah later became my mentor and I continue to regularly reach for her books whenever I need a lesson in clarity. In her newest book, Ongoingness: The End of a Diary (Graywolf), Sarah shows us her relationship with time, her son, life, death, and the compulsion she has to document her life. She writes, “And then 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.”
It’s a beautiful, haunting book that I had a lot of questions about.
(Ed. Note-Sarah will be reading this Friday, March 20th @ 7:30pm at Powell’s City of Books on Burnside)
Chelsea Hodson: On the first page of Ongoingness, you write, “I wrote about myself so I wouldn’t become paralyzed by rumination—so I could stop thinking about what had happened and be done with it.” When I write, I will often end up perpetuating my own obsession. Do you often have the sensation of relief or letting go after writing about something?
Sarah Manguso: I always feel relief after I get it down right, but getting it down right can take a very long time.
CH: You write that you stopped taking photographs at age 12 because you thought they were ruining your memory: “I’d study the photos from an event and gradually forget everything that had happened between the shutter openings.” You also mention that you never made audio recordings, and I assume you never felt a compulsion to video, either. Why didn’t you? Video and audio seem more effective methods of documentation.
SM: Sure, but before smartphones, they weren’t really an option. Staring into the twenty split seconds captured by my Kodak Instamatic at summer camp almost drowned out the rest of July 1986. Almost twenty years later, those media still don’t capture things the way that writing can, and anyway, I’m a writer. I’m not a creative monster. I’m interested in writing.
CH: I wonder about the exercise you mention doing with your students—to sit silently for up to forty minutes and then write about it. What value do you think can be found in those daily voids, in those little gaps of “empty time”versus moments that feel “too full”?
SM: If I can perceive and understand one small thing thoroughly, I gain a greater sense of peace and power than I’d feel having paid semi-attention to a vast thing.
CH: Do you envy people who don’t have the same compulsion to document their lives—people who are perhaps content to look at old photographs?
SM: I can’t imagine how they manage to continue.
CH: What are the dangers or risks involved in forgetting someone, someplace, or some year?
SM: Those who forget history…no, that’s too easy. My problem is that I can’t stop thinking about something until I write about it. Have you heard of the Zeigarnik effect? It states that people remember uncompleted or interrupted tasks better than completed tasks.
CH: No, I haven’t, but that makes sense. You write, “Shortly after the turn of the millennium, I read the diary from beginning to end. Finding nothing of consequence in 1996, I threw the year away.”Do you ever regret that?
SM: I just remember thinking that the writing seemed worthless. I might have been in the middle of a long, slow corticosteroid overdose. It’s funny because a lot happened that year, and much of it is depicted in Decay. I guess I have the book instead of the diary, in that case.
CH: Has anything ever been too painful to write in the diary? Are there topics that you avoid? Do you feel a duty to be honest?
SM: I don’t include every joyous or hideous detail, but economy doesn’t feel dishonest. I prefer the pathos of understatement.
CH: Do you ever cross-reference a memory with the diary and find you’ve misremembered it?
SM: Yes, but I also misremember quotations from other books.
CH: You describe writing in the diary as an “essential component of [your] daily hygiene,”but you also refer to it as a vice. What other vices do you indulge in, and how do they differ from the diary?
SM: I’d be interested in other people’s estimation of my vices, since a daily diary is so often vaunted as proof of discipline. For me, writing a diary is not an application of discipline; it’s a surrender to desire.
CH: What makes a vice useful as opposed to reckless?
SM: I don’t know that those adjectives necessarily oppose each other.
CH: You mention your diary being unintentionally read on a few occasions, but have you ever felt compelled to deliberately share parts of your diary with a certain person? Sometimes if I write about someone, I selfishly want to show it to them.
SM: That’s interesting. Why would it be selfish to show them—if it were cruel? I recently wrote an essay that included bits and pieces about people I know, and before part of it was published I revised it madly. Parts of it were a little cruel.
CH: I guess I think of the act as selfish because I sense I would get more pleasure out of the act than they would. But perhaps that’s not true. In David Shields’book How Literature Saved My Life, he writes about discovering his college girlfriend’s diary and reading about himself within it. He can’t stop himself from continuing to secretly read it daily; he becomes obsessed with her perception of his life.
SM: I love that story—David writes about it also in Enough About You.
CH: Right. I’m curious: have you ever read an account of yourself from someone else’s perspective? Did it surprise you?
SM: I read all the student evaluations for every class I teach. I’m always surprised that my students are so kind, almost all of them.
CH: Did you ever consider documenting your life as a suitable substitute for having children? Did it take becoming a mother to realize how separate the things are, or did you always know that?
SM: I didn’t consider my diary a suitable substitute for having children, but I did consider being a writer as a suitable alternative to being a mother. I thought a fealty to art was a nobler pursuit than merely dropping a few cubs onto the earth and then dying, and I was highly suggestible to the cliches that female artists should either be hot young disasters or wise, sterile crones. I tried and failed to be both of those things, but I still didn’t want children. Then I started to notice how many better women writers had had children and were having children and I was forced to admit how completely in thrall I’d been to the patriarchal cliches. I never wanted a child, but I decided to become pregnant because I thought it might make me a better person and a better writer, and I am indeed now a better person with a better life.
CH: Did those patriarchal cliches ever affect other aspects of your life, or just in terms of how you perceived motherhood?
SM: They made me unwilling to marry or even to enter into a real relationship until I was in my 30s. I felt deeply distrustful of the heteronormative paradigm and resisted any experience that I feared might drag me down into Feminine Mystique territory. It was a failure of my imagination that I couldn’t conceive of motherhood as anything but a surrender to the patriarchy.
CH: In The Two Kinds of Decay, you wrote that you waited seven years to write about your experience with a chronic disease (chronic idiopathic demyelinating polyradiculoneuropathy). Did you reference your diary when writing that book? Do you think you would have been able to wait seven years had you not kept a diary?
SM: I wrote Decay absolutely from memory. I used the diary to check a few facts, to see if I’d forgotten anything, but I don’t remember finding anything noteworthy.
CH: In the beginning of your previous memoir, The Guardians, you write, “Since I was afraid to know so many answers, I didn’t ask any questions, and now it’s been three years. Now no one could possible be able to remember the mundanities of July 23, 2008.”This is the day your friend Harris died. I’m curious if you have record of the mundanities of July 23, 2008? How did your diary inform your memory of Harris and did it help you write about him?
SM: This is what I wrote that day: Apartment gets rented, boxes get delivered. Cull, pack, hire movers, upload to Craigslist. That’s it. As I wrote TG I was shocked by how little I’d written in the diary about Harris. I’d seen him at least once a month for almost ten years, and I recorded almost nothing. I never feared losing him. I thought we would never die. One day he gave me an impromptu lecture about object-oriented software programming, and I didn’t even save my notes, since I knew we’d be friends forever. And we were. Most of those little memories were useless to the project of TG, though, and I included almost none of them in the book. The book was about surviving Harris, which is why I named it for us, the ones who survived him.
CH: When I began writing personal essays, I expressed my apprehension about being too self-centered. You encouraged me to begin by being as self-centered as I could be, and to examine myself as closely as possible. That was very freeing to me—I thought, “Of course.”Did anyone ever give you similar permission or encouragement to examine yourself this way, or was it always a compulsion to turn inward?
SM: I never considered it a vice. What about the Greeks’Know thyself? I consider the dimensions of a self to be much greater than the usual thing-after-thing-ness of personal narrative; in fact I suspect that human awareness of the self and human awareness of time are so closely intertwined as to be nearly identical.
CH: Has that changed for you now that, as you write, you watch your son change “from day to day and minute to minute”?
SM: My son is more interesting than I am because he is still building the very rudiments of a self. At this point I’m just tinkering with the fixtures of mine.
CH: You write that your diary “was of no help”against the toll pregnancy took on your body, in terms of exhaustion and difficulty remembering things. During that stage of your pregnancy, did you begin to view the diary as a chore?
SM: While I was pregnant I couldn’t even remember things long enough to write them down, and I was too tired to write them down anyway. But if I don’t want to write, I don’t write. Teaching provides most of my income.
That said, there is a social imperative for women not to represent pregnancy as a period of anything less than normal strength and ability, because that representation is then warped by evil people into an argument that mothers are less valuable than other human beings. On the other hand, though, it’s a supreme injustice to mothers to represent motherhood as trivial. I choose to represent it as a shattering, for that is what it is, but it is very hard to communicate the experience of this shattering to people who aren’t mothers. Even to say that motherhood is a large experience often sounds like a tacit argument that a woman without children has an unfulfilling life; I certainly heard it that way before I was a mother.
CH: Right, I have as well, though I’m not offended by it.
SM: I keep trying to talk and write about this with my friend S., who doesn’t want children, but we keep disappointing each other by not thinking clearly or complexly enough. It’s important to me that I describe motherhood accurately and honestly, though, because until recently, I had been brainwashed into believing that motherhood was trivial. Until recently I thought my art-centered life was too important to pollute with such a mundane, common experience. What do you think of all this? Does motherhood seem to you like…a thing for other women, not you, not a serious writer?
CH: Well, it’s interesting to me that you use the word “shattering.”To you, this seems like a positive thing, a kind of breaking open to make room for a kind of love you couldn’t previously have imagined. I believe that, but I also feel content never knowing what that feels like. I think it may be as simple as the fact that I’ve never envisioned myself as a mother, and I’m terrified of things I can’t even begin to imagine. I think, I’m overwhelmed by the world almost all the time as it stands now—how could I endure a shattering of that magnitude? I have a feeling you’ll say, “You simply adapt.”But I’m not convinced I could. And without that instinct to nurture in that way, I can’t envision myself becoming a mother.
SM: All I can tell you is that I felt exactly the same way, with the same certainty, when I was your age (we’re 12 years apart), and that I’m now in good company: Lydia Davis, Joan Didion, Zadie Smith, Maggie Nelson, and Miranda July all have kids, and so do very many other serious women writers, and they all mention their kids in their work or at least in the press. My refusal to have a child was an excuse I made to avoid the challenges of extreme love, and to avoid having to participate in dismantling the stereotypes that had brainwashed me. That’s a sentence from an essay I’m working on. But neither do you need to have children. There are other profound experiences that will allow you to face the challenges of extreme love and to dismantle stereotypes.
CH: In Ongoingness, you write about beginning to forget more things while you were pregnant. Were you concerned that your memory would be permanently ruined, or did you view it as an acceptable temporary side effect?
SM: I feared my memory was ruined, but I knew I wouldn’t stop writing.
CH: For someone that relies on their memory for their work, it seems potentially catastrophic. Did you ever panic, like, “What have I done?”
SM: Yes, I panicked. But I also was spending almost every minute of the day with this newborn human, which was highly interesting.
CH: In Ongoingness, you write, “I no longer believe in anything other than the middle, but my students still believe in the beginnings.”This sounds jaded to me—or is it serene? Surely you still believe in some beginnings, like the beginning of your son, or your body as a mother, or even your son’s firsts?
SM: I don’t feel jaded; I feel grateful for the perspective that has shown me the fallacy of beginnings and endings. (The alternate subtitle for Ongoingness was The End of Beginnings and Endings.) Ongoingness is the story of how I stopped worrying about documenting my life and started accepting that my body is just a brief concentration of energy that will soon disintegrate.
CH: In The Two Kinds of Decay, you write, “A crow stands outside my window all day, reminding me of the best thing about life—that it ends.”This doesn’t sound like something you would write today—do you feel differently now?
SM: I still believe that the crow’s reminder, that we die, is the root of all beauty and joy.
CH: What about death do you consider beautiful?
SM: Life is beautiful because, thanks to death, it is finite—every doughnut might be your last doughnut. That potential lastness casts a shimmer of appreciation and longing onto every experience. It is more visible to me now that I’ve passed 40, and much more visible now that my son is turning from a tiny kid into an actual kid. I can hardly imagine what it must feel like for people who are truly old, truly perched on the precipice.
CH: I wonder if your experience with a chronic disease informs your sense of ongoingness—that certain things, experiences, and people will always be with you?
SM: I don’t have a sense that things stay the same in ongoing time; I don’t believe that anything is constant and I don’t believe that anyone will always be with me. My disease helps me remember that, but it isn’t the only thing.
CH: In The Guardians, your husband seems to represent an element of continuation and ongoingness of intimacy after your friend Harris commits suicide. Do you see it that way?
SM: I didn’t see it that way until my friend Sheila pointed it out to me in what eventually became her blurb for the book.
CH: Finally, what are your favorite diaries to read?
SM: My favorite diary is Sarah Gillespie Huftalen’s. She was an Iowa farm girl who became a teacher.
Sarah Manguso is an essayist and poet. Her new book, Ongoingness: The End of a Diary, is out now. Her five other books include The Guardians: An Elegy for a Friend, named one of the top ten books of 2012 by Salon, and The Two Kinds of Decay: A Memoir, named an Editors’ Choice by the New York Times Book Review and a Best Book of the Year by the Independent, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Telegraph, and Time Out Chicago. She is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and the Rome Prize, and her books have been translated into Chinese, German, Italian, and Spanish. Her essays have appeared in Harper’s, the New York Review of Books, and the New York Times Magazine, and her poems have won a Pushcart Prize and appeared in four editions of the Best American Poetry series. She grew up near Boston and now lives in Los Angeles and teaches at the Otis College of Art and Design.
Chelsea Hodson is the author of two chapbooks: Pity the Animal (Future Tense Books, 2014) and Beach Camp (Swill Children, 2010). She is an MFA candidate at Bennington College and was a 2012 PEN Center USA Emerging Voices Fellow. Her essays have been published in Black Warrior Review, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, The Lifted Brow, Sex Magazine, Sundog Lit, and elsewhere. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.