The Rumpus Interview with Sarah Manguso

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Poet Sarah Manguso’s newest book is so short, I was able to read it twice, which is impressive because she covered what felt like a lifetime in so few words. Ongoingness is a distilled memoir that covers periods of her life while dealing with graphomania (defined as an obsessive desire to write), pregnancy, early motherhood, and her subsequent diagnosis with a nerve system disorder. Among other things, the book touched me for two reasons: Like Manguso, I also kept a journal for many years, though nothing topping her 800,000 total-word counts, and I recently had a baby. Her meditation on the black hole into which time disappears while you breastfeed a baby or wait for him to sleep was more compelling than a hundred copies of What to Expect When You’re Expecting.

Overall, the book is about time: its immutability, what we do with it, and the ways in which we try to hold on to that which we will inevitably lose. Manguso also shared her thoughts on perpetual nostalgia, archiving versus being an archive, and literally throwing away an entire year of one’s life.

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The Rumpus: I was extremely excited to read your book because it resonated with me so strongly. Like you, I spent a lot of time documenting my everyday moments, but once I became pregnant, I pulled back on that—mostly because I found myself just wanting to live in the moments instead of constantly searching for clever ways to write about them after the fact. Now that you have the baby, and he’s three years old, do you find that you’re still paring back that life documentation or have you been adding more detail?

Sarah Manguso: Well, the book began as an essay about the anxiety of graphomania. A couple years into the work on that, the graphomania subsided. It’s not so much that the diary-keeping has ended, but I don’t have the anxiety anymore. If I don’t properly document all the moments of life I [won’t] go crazy and die. The impulse is to capture things I want to return to later. It’s more a sketchbook and less a product of pure anxiety. I do write less, and I keep a tally of my annual word count just for fun, and I average about thirty-three thousand words per year. The highest word count for the graphomania years was seventy thousand. My published books hover around fifteen thousand or twenty thousand words and Ongoingness was ten thousand words. And the content has changed. I haven’t submitted to analysis that would allow me to answer those questions. It’s a gentler impulse than it used to be before.

Rumpus: Now that I have a child I return to my journal, and I feel like I’m trying to live in those previous moments, almost like part of me is in a suspended state of nostalgia. Do you ever have those moments, especially since you have so much documentation on what happened?

Manguso: Absolutely. Nostalgia—you said it really well. There’s something about seeing a baby grow that triggers nostalgia all the time. I was talking to a friend recently, and we were grieving for a sound her son used to make and he doesn’t make it any longer. My son has a million of those, and I can’t think of them now. My memory is so much worse now that I have a kid. I no longer experience nostalgia as something that starts with thoughts. I’m in a continuous condition of nostalgia. It’s like I write in the book: “When I’m with my son, I feel the bracing speed of the one-way journey that guides the human experience.”

Rumpus: I don’t know if you saw it, but I was struck by Boyhood

Manguso: No, I haven’t. I’m almost afraid to see it!

Rumpus: What struck me the most was this idea that the art reflected falling into this larger pattern of life: birth, growth, death, rinse, repeat.

Manguso: You’re so profoundly, actively conscious of that when you’re watching somebody just start that journey and start learning what self-consciousness is and what the boundaries of the self are. But you definitely sound like you’re having an experience [similar] to what happened to me early on. We grieve for the earlier iteration in those first crazy weeks.

Rumpus: As an archivist, and one who specifically works with students, some of the first materials I try to expose them to are manuscript collections, specifically letters and diaries, and try to teach them what they can learn about people or society within the gaps of the writing—the things that that aren’t always explicitly written on the page. When you write in your journals, do you ever think about the things people may learn about you or about motherhood or our culture in general a hundred years from now?

Manguso: [Laughs] That’s almost a perverse condition to be in. I consider my diary the document I’m writing to an audience of one. I’m not addressing the people of the future; it really is just a piece of writing that is almost like a tool of self-comfort. The movie Groundhog Day wouldn’t be irrelevant to bring up at this point, but I never think about what might happen to it when I’m dead. All I know is I can’t imagine a situation, while I still have my sanity and my physical health, that would impel me to stop writing it. I think it’s something I’ll do until the end. I’m vain, like most writers I want people to read my writing, but I don’t really think of my diary as something like that. I don’t know if it’s a failure of my imagination. It just seems like a thing that’s for me, and that’s the beginning and end of it.

Rumpus: What is your writing process like? And to be specific, are you setting aside a certain time of day, especially now that you have a child, to write or where you’re more productive? I know when I was journaling regularly, I would always do it within the last half hour before bed, when I had a chance to gather my thoughts.

Manguso: I certainly don’t have a routine or a special time I devote at a certain time of day. I’m as lackadaisical as I was when I was a teenager. I occasionally teach, much less now than I used to. Much of my day is spent at home. A division between professional work and private life—I don’t really have that division. It’s not a conventional memoir. I do write the occasional book review. But the diary and the writing that eventually finds its way into a book doesn’t really have much of a division. I write notes, and sometimes those notes just stay in the diary, although I do revise the diary. I want the prose to be good, as good as it can be. But I’m not quite as obsessive about perfecting the prose in the diary as what will find its way into a book. The only difference in the diary, I think, is the division between days are very wide. Or they’re very apparent. Using Ongoingness as an example, it’s constructed of short dense pieces of prose, but there is a dimension and a narrative. The diary is not a narrative. Time passes, but I don’t construct bridges between the days. What I do want to do is perfect the prose on each individual day as best I can. What’s often true in my last two or three books, things I began in the diary eventually migrate to become a book manuscript. There is a pretty strong continuity between the diary and the work that becomes work for a publication. It really is this mess of notes that becomes a book at some point. It’s really the only way I know how to work. I love the idea of starting a book and opening a new file and continuing a book and finishing.

Rumpus: What also resonated with me was time, lost time. When you go back in the journals do you find that time? Or are things permanently lost?

Manguso: So many things lost. How would even I know? There’s a comfort in knowing that some things are absolutely gone. The first semester I taught after giving birth, I realized every week my students would remind me of something we talked about, and I had no memory of what students said. There were very many instances of hearing sentences I’d uttered. There was corroboration between students, and I had no memory of it. Most of the time I found myself forgetting things I’d said I week earlier. I considered myself to be an excellent self-documenter, and that changed, and I was really bereft for quite some time. I think it’s only been recently that I’ve accepted that it’s not part of my identity at all. It’s really mind-bending. Especially if your organization of memory and data is a huge part of your professional identity at least. Good luck. You’re certainly not alone.

Rumpus: Do you ever want your son to see your diaries? Sometimes I consider the idea that I might want my son to see my diaries, especially as he comes close to the age that I was when I started journaling, which was twelve or so.

Manguso: That’s a good question. I don’t know. I have in the past handful of years started to realize I’m not quite as verbose or articulate as I am when I’m recording experiences. I wouldn’t say that I’ve consciously decided to just be a little bit more careful about details that might upset future readers. It feels unintentional—it wasn’t an intellectual decision—now that I have this family, that I might start writing differently. Wasn’t aware of this metamorph until a friend, also a writer, asked me, “Do you find yourself leaving things out of the diary thinking they would hurt your spouse?” My first response was no. Then I realized that she’s right. And it took some time to recognize that I was editing myself or practicing greater omissions than before. My brain is just doing the thing that it’s doing. I don’t love that.

Rumpus: I think anything I write now in a journal has some semblance of editing. But if I think of my son, or even my partner’s daughter, I have no real qualms about letting them see an unedited time in my life, especially as it covers this formative time of adolescence and young adulthood.

Manguso: Well, that period of time is so important. You drown in so much experience that needs contemplation. And especially that relationship with your stepdaughter with women. There’s so much relationship building that needs to be done.

Rumpus: Is there a particular day or a period of years you go back to?

Manguso: Good question. Honestly, I have no favorite day or favorite year. I did throw away a year in disgust. It was 1996, which I mention in the book, only realized later I was in throes of long, slow steroid overdose. I deleted a thirty thousand-word document that I kept over a year. There’ve been so many days it really just seems like this great mass of sentences with really no organizational principle beyond the recording of another sunrise with the date. And also I’m terrible at favorite in general. The premise of having favorites is somewhat troubling.

Rumpus: Is there something about you that doesn’t come through in the diaries that you’d want people to know?

Manguso: Before becoming a mom I had a lot of anxiety that I’d be a mom and no longer a writer. It might seem crazy but I was really anxious about the principle that I’d be a mom or the other thing. And it was all based in this stereotypical patriarchy that is so rigid. I thought no one would consider me a writer anymore. Not only have I kept writing the diary, but I’m just the same as before. I have another book coming out next year. It’s a short book, but I no longer have this anxiety that I won’t get to be a writer anymore after having a child and that’s been a very good lesson.

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Author photograph © Andy Ryan.


Stacie Williams is a writer in Cleveland, OH. More from this author →