Ongoing Arguments
with Sarah Manguso

Photo by Joel Brouwer, 2018

By Scott F. Parker

Note: This article is part of a multi-part series called Stories of Self, which is collaborative by design—each installment is a mutual product written “with” its subject, and in each case the subject was invited to clarify, object, suggest, excise, edit, and ultimately approve the final version. Originally composed in 2016, this installment is published here for the first time. Previous installments of Stories of Self can be found here.

Consider the amazing capacity of the humble pronoun.
—Sarah Manguso, 300 Arguments

Opening scene: College student. Male, white. Backwards hat, hoodie, cargo shorts, flip-flops. Could pass as a frat bro except it’s 6 a.m. and he’s in a cafe reading philosophy, looking up only to stare dreamily out the window. On the table next to his book is a journal, in which, if you asked him, he’d tell you he’s attempting to compose a viable self from the experiences of his life. The book he’s reading is probably Emerson or Nietzsche—someone who sees selfhood primarily as a creative enterprise. It sometimes seems to him that his life as well as his reading is grist for the mill of composition. Nothing is real (of value) until he has created it. He worries sometimes about solipsism but dismisses it when he considers that everyone’s situation is as his: we are all responsible for the project of creating ourselves. And so he returns to his journal.

There truly are two kinds of people: you and everyone else.
—SM, 300 Arguments

Meanwhile, across the country in New York, a woman is writing a diary of her own. She types her entries into her computer, revising them as she goes, each unable to register its status as not only a culmination of the past but also as an expression of the ongoing present. The value of the diary is not what any single entry records but that the diary itself goes on recording, each word briefly the last before giving way to the next. The river of narrative time isn’t the water but the movement.

Every case is orthogonal to all the others. That’s the entire problem.
—SM, 300 Arguments

Looking back years later, the diarist will write on the opening page of her book Ongoingness: The End of a Diary:

I started keeping a diary twenty-five years ago. It’s eight hundred thousand words long.

I didn’t want to lose anything. That was my main problem. I couldn’t face the end of a day without a record of everything that had ever happened.

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.

More than that, I wrote so I could say I was truly paying attention. 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.

Imagining life without the diary, even one week without it, spurred a panic that I might as well be dead.

Many years have passed for the college student, too, by the time he reads these words. He is married and has a cat and quiet life in Montana. Nevertheless, the first page of Ongoingness leaves him disoriented in time and personhood.

He has long since stopped journaling, yet he finds himself suddenly returned to his college years as he thinks to himself, Surely, I’ve read this book before. Surely, I wrote it myself.

The author has relocated from New York to the Bay Area by now, but Montana and San Francisco bear on this story only in that they are remote places and the two subjects communicated via an online video program, the connection between them analogous to the continuity of each over time: discrete quanta sequenced such that one only becomes aware of the amalgamation at the glitches.

I love having a problem I believe I might someday write
my way out of.

—SM, 300 Arguments

SM: I had a relapse of chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy in 2010. And I had another relapse in 2014. And I will have another relapse at some point. Two Kinds of Decay didn’t make the disease go away, but it did sort of solve—at the risk of being a little precious—this metaphysical problem of being a person with a chronic illness. It was something I had to think my way out of. The remaining problems are just the problems of having a body, getting sick. And those are hard but they’re concrete, and you can’t think your way out of them. All the thinking problems have been solved. And so all that remains is to be the sick person. It’s disappointing when I relapse, but it’s not a completely self-encompassing experience anymore when I relapse. It’s just this extra thing that I have to do sometimes.

SFP: You’ve mitigated the suffering by learning how to relate to it differently.

SM: Yes and no. It is different now that I’m a mother. I’ve just had one relapse since becoming a mother. It’s changed my entire concept of selfhood in that the primacy of my subjectivity is no longer. I’m just this thing that is in service to this other thing, my offspring. It used to be that when I got sick it was a me problem. But now it’s very much my kid’s problem. I had a relapse when he was two, and he noticed mom wasn’t home. Then when I was out of the hospital—I have some mobility disability when I relapse and it lasts for months, or in this case a couple of years—I couldn’t hold him, I couldn’t carry him, and he noticed, and I’m sure that was very confusing to him in his preverbal but very observant stage of early toddlerhood. I hope I can put off having the next relapse until my son is old enough to understand that mom is just doing this thing temporarily and she’ll get better. I could talk forever about this. But I’m going to restrain myself.

SFP: For someone with graphomania you sure write short books.

SM: I know. I also have a case of perfectionism, so I tend to overwork things.

SFP: In The Guardians you write that you’d trade poetry for a longer life. Why poetry and not essay or memoir?

SM: I don’t know. But when I started taking this medicine, I no longer wanted to write poetry. I would hesitate a hundred times before saying, “There it is, that correlation between being a poet and increased rates of suicide that Kay Redfield Jamison so thoroughly researched and analyzed in her great book Touched with Fire. I wouldn’t say it was that simple, but it certainly felt clear to me that I no longer had a strong desire to write poems.

SFP: My understanding is that poetry doesn’t work for narrative therapy. And your diary sounds like it’s mostly narrative based.

SM: We’re getting into the tricky part. Of course, there are many ways to write poetry and many ways to write essays, and I’m not really comfortable discriminating between my own poems and essays. But what I can say for sure is the way that I was before I was medicated gave me a strong desire to write poems. I felt my feelings were more organized afterward, in a way, that I had a strong desire to write sentences rather than verse. There’s this wider associative gap between the components of my poems than between the components of the essays I’m writing now. There were just measurable concrete differences in the kind of work that I wanted to make before and after. And I think it was a kind of shorthand I used when I said I was giving up poetry. But I think what I’ve been doing all along is more like essay than poetry, and the pieces were just more associative before, and their logic is more legible now than it was in the beginning.

SFP: Having recorded so much, is it difficult to distinguish between memory and what you wrote down? Has the diary displaced the past?

SM: How could I know, right? I’m sure. I’ve done cursory reading in the field of memory science, and my understanding is such that, yes, when you write something down there is a kind of overwriting of the so-called original memory. But when memory gets recorded in the brain it doesn’t all go to one place. It’s separated into component parts. The emotional part goes to one place, and the linguistic part goes to another place, and each time you then remember it you have to reconstruct it from this different physical area and it’s never the same. I think it was in Pieces of Light, Charles Fernyhough puts forth this theory that the only way you could have a memory that hasn’t degraded would be in a person who has amnesia and could not remember the memory, because remembering it messes it up because you’re reconstructing and then reconstructing a reconstruction and so on. So the idea of a perfect memory has to be imagined in this totally theoretical, far-fetched way. The idea is when a memory gets encoded it’s perfect, but the second you remember it it gets messed up. It’s very comforting because you no longer have to worry about writing it down wrong. It’s all wrong, so you might as well do your best.

SFP: When you write the diary, is there a sense of looking ahead to the looking back and trying to correct it or improve it?

SM: No, I just want the material to be in the best prose. And for me that necessarily means clear and accurate in all the ways that autobiography can be accurate. I don’t have the feeling that I’m writing for posterity. I just have the feeling that a month from now I’ll be scanning the diary to look for talking points for my shrink or looking over the history of when I worked on a certain project and for how long and in what terms I was describing it to myself. That kind of accuracy. Also it’s very pleasurable to distill and contain a large emotional experience into a couple of sentences. I just find that deeply comforting. There’s a kind of psychic unrest that I feel before that gets done. But once I get it into a sentence or two, I feel great. I can go. I’m sure some Freudian can tell me exactly what that means, but it’s just something that I have a strong desire to do and get a strong pleasure from, so that’s the reason I do it.

SFP: Does it seem at all like when you’re doing it that the diary life is more real than the lived life? Is there a sense that an experience doesn’t become real until it’s recorded?

SM: It’s not unreal, it’s just not fully over. I’m not done with it yet until I write it down. For me, putting sentences down, translating experience into prose is the way that I process everything. The way that I process every experience that I have. That’s just my thing. And this is just how it feels. It’s not an intellectual decision, it’s just an emotional truth.

SFP: When I look back at when I used to journal a lot I see that without realizing it what I was doing was figuring out a way I could start writing. And once I started writing I sort of lost interest in journaling.

SM: It sounds like your journal was more of an artist’s sketchbook, right. Because you’re suggesting that the kind of writing you did there became the writing you did as a vocation or profession.

SFP: I think that’s a lot of it, but there was something about what I was doing that was very much not just about documenting and processing. There was also this sense of using it to create something else. And I think a lot of that had to do with self-identity. So how the self was created was a creative process.

SM: How do I have these two parallel tracks, the diary and the professional writing, when it seems continuous . . .

SFP: I think I’m trying to force you to say what I want you to say.

SM: That always works great. What is it you want me to say?

SFP: I think I have this relationship that I’m trying to project onto you and it’s not very accurate to what you’re saying. So answer your question and I’ll answer mine.

SM: I will say that I do still kind of use the diary as a workbook/sketchbook, but as soon as I find myself working on a bit of prose in the diary that seems to be a stand-alone essay I remove it and make it an essay. And I have this “work in progress” folder, and if it becomes an essay, great, and if not I put it in the “under the house” folder, which gives it its proper burial. The things that stay in the diary that aren’t liable to become their own pieces are the pieces I log. I log what I work on and how much. My son is four. I log a lot of the things he says because they’re amazing. I can open it up and see what I’ve written over the last few days and that might be representational. I write about how I’m feeling, if it’s extremely good or bad, what I’m reading, what I’m working on. It also doubles as a commonplace book, so quotations from everything I read and hear. My internet reading is pretty broad. I love to read comments under Gawker articles. I think some of the great humor writing on the internet is hidden down there. There are a couple of Facebook pages where I lurk. I have this friend from sixth grade who collects all of the video memes, so every couple months I go there and can see all the stuff people weep about and rave about. That’s what I’ve been writing about.

SFP: I was trying to get you to say the diary was more real, but it sounds like the reason you’re saying no has everything to do with audience because if you’re really not writing for posterity or, as I was trying to read into it, some abstract thing like an omniscient POV.

SM: I don’t think a piece of writing becomes more real because more people read it.

SFP: Not more people but like I’ve taken this thing and put it into a perfected version by writing about it well.

SM: So translating the actual experience into writing perfects it.

SFP: It gets rid of the messy part, it streamlines it, it brings the meaning forward.

SM: It’s a translation. I don’t think you can fully translate experience into prose. I certainly can’t. There are the limitations of the form. And I would say that fully neurological experience of the world can only partly be represented in language. I think it’s the word real that’s tripping me up. I don’t think there are greater and lesser degrees of reality. I think being real is like a toggle switch, it’s a black and white thing. Maybe that’s the difficulty I’m having thinking along these lines. What I can say for sure is that once I finish writing about some experience and it becomes autobiography I am satisfied and no longer need to ruminate on it. We started this conversation talking about what happened after I published Decay. Two things happened. One is a couple of years after it came out I had forgotten a lot of what was in the book. And I wrote that from memory, so at the time (2006) it was in my working memory. By 2010 I didn’t know it anymore. The second thing is the metaphysical suffering of having this disease had been solved by writing the book. Now I’m just a person with the disease, not a self-obliterating condition. It’s not as satisfying as having your subject say “It’s not real until I write it.” That’s just not accurate to my experience, unfortunately.

SFP: It’s a romantic idea that writing has this magical or metaphysical way of creating reality, rather than just creating writing. . . . Where does the urge to write the diary come from?

SM: It’s a good question. I don’t know. That’s not autobiographical material. That’s biographical material. I think somebody would have to connect the dots. And that’s unlikely to happen. And that’s okay. Why do you like the things you like? I’m going to talk about my kid again. He is four, and he likes the things that he likes, and I don’t know why, because you have a kid and you expose him to things, sports, drawing. I had this idea that all kids really like to draw. You give them a bunch of paper and crayons and it’s paradise. My kid has no interest in drawing. We go out on the sidewalk with chalk and he doesn’t want to do it. He likes what he likes. He likes going to the beach. He can pick up three little stones on the way home from school and that would be amazing. He has a rock collection. Why does he like what he likes? I don’t know. I’m sure there are some physical, neurological reasons, I’m sure there’s a genetic component. But I don’t know. There is this unknowable but certain set of reasons for why people are the way they are. He just is. It’s deeply comforting as a reminder. There’s a way he’s been since infancy. He was incapable of autobiography, no self-consciousness, but he likes what he likes.

SFP: I like in the book where you say, “I’ll write until I stop.” I love that. I thought that was exactly right.

SM: I have no more anxiety about it. It was the anxiety, the feeling of worry, of brooding on what the diary meant and why I was doing it and when I would stop. I don’t care about any of that anymore. Problem solved.

SFP: This makes me a little uncomfortable asking, but if you’re busy or in some other way swept up in life such that you don’t have the remove from which to write about and document life, does that suggest an increased happiness? Or to get to the point: to what extent is consciousness a curse?

SM: I don’t really observe a binary or dialectic between living and writing. It’s all pretty continuous. They seem like somewhat continuous activities to me, and I don’t think of consciousness as a burden, just as a component of being alive. I’m way less tortured than I was when I started writing Ongoingness, and I will absolutely state that for the record. And I feel silly saying this because I’m between one and fifteen years older than you (judging from your Skype appearance, you have very nice skin) and this is going to sound hugely condescending from an older person talking to a younger person, but I can say once I crossed forty some of these terrible burdens of consciousness and the terrible anxiety that I wasn’t remembering responsibly or sufficiently or that I wasn’t feeling, all these worries about thoughts and feelings and metaphysical entities kind of faded away. It’s a combination of just not giving a fuck anymore and perhaps having solved some of the problems, and just being too tired all the time. Burden is a word I would have used not that long ago to describe things that I thought and felt but are no longer really part of my lexicon.

SFP: In the book you attribute a lot of that to your son. Can you try to tease out aging apart from that?

SM: I have this life. Certain things have happened. I can’t subtract out part of it. But it’s comforting. Twenty years ago I thought how could you possibly be a writer and a parent? I had been so brainwashed by the culture. I thought if you were a woman and wanted to be a writer you had to be this young wild or this old oracular bodiless Sappho. Now I think that worry is utterly beside the point. Things happen and you keep doing it. I worried I would stop writing if I took on a family, but, no, you just keep going. I’m completely hijacking the question, but there’s something I saw online that was deeply clarifying. I don’t know if it was from some soap corporation, one of these horrible promo videos that look like art films but are designed to sell you shampoo, but it was a series of brief interviews with women with mobility disabilities and diseases, amputees. One woman had been a dancer and she had this traumatic spinal cord injury, really high so she could use her arms but not her legs, and she said, “I thought I wouldn’t be a dancer anymore, but I am the same dancer and I have a strong desire to keep dancing,” so she dances in her chair. It’s so fucking beautiful. She figured out a way to make her chair go and it looks like she’s doing donuts, but they’re big and they describe these long curves and she lifts her arm and it’s totally dancing. Matisse is always used as an example of what happens when an artist can’t make his or her art anymore. Something on a much smaller scale happened when I had my kid.

SFP: That reminds me of something you wrote. You’re talking about your students about how you have seemingly infinite possibility, but as you age the possible lives available to you drop away until eventually you’re left with the life you have.

SM: I think that’s why a greater majority of old people have a sense of calmness. Young people see them as complacent, But it’s what you said, it’s done, it’s not perfect but this is pretty much it.

SFP: I find it to be a relief. And I’m not that much younger than you, by the way.

SM: I feel exhausted in a good way.

You aren’t the same person after a good night’s sleep as you are after a sleepless night. But which person is you?
—SM, 300 Arguments

Closing scene: After closing his laptop, the man in Montana goes looking for his last surviving journal, the one that when he burned the rest of them he decided to save as representative of its era. He makes a pot of coffee and reads the journal beginning to end. With a pencil he marks a handful of sentences that interest him.

“My project is my life. . . . My thoughts settle where pen meets paper. All the inclinations and potential become ideas, and ideas become facts, and facts become myths. Then after a minute goes by the myths become facts. . . . I’m not the same person I was when I came here, but am I the person I was on my way to becoming when I came?”

Here is where Manguso might say, “I’d like to meet someone whose passage through life has been continuous, whose life has happened to an essential self, and not been just a series of lives happening to a series of selves.”

And if their conversation were to continue, it might continue like this:

Him: “Who can one model a life on? No one. Not even oneself. It must be an original.”
Her: “Biographies should also contain the events that failed to foreshadow.”
Him: “I see a younger me trying to encourage himself on to become, who, me?”
Her: “I’ve more or less become the person I had a chance to become.”

He puts down his coffee and goes to the fireplace with his journal in hand, ready to break away from the past again.

But the fireplace where he lives now is the gas-burning kind, covered by glass.

Look at me, dancing my little dance for a few moments
against the background of eternity.

—SM, Ongoingness

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