The Work Contained Within the Work

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There is a note I have written to myself in one of many notebooks (that contain fragments of thought on art, learning, and experiences) wherein I have concluded that I am drawn to journals, diaries, and notebooks of writers and artists whom I admire. I believe I wrote it after devouring Susan Sontag’s second posthumous release of diaries, title As Consciousness is Harnessed to Flesh. There is no plot or through-line to the work as a whole, except the reader is provided a glimpse into the artist’s thinking, her development of ideas and connections. This view into her thought excited me in the way I was originally excited by the interviews of Francis Bacon conducted by David Sylvester. I must have read those interviews dozens of times.

Although I have very little in common with Bacon, his thought and the rationale for the work inspired me to reflect as a reader. As I have grown older, I have found my attraction to these fragmentary, private and unpolished thoughts has only grown. So, when I started to read Manguso’s short book on her diary, I did so expecting to read fragments of the actual diary. This was not the case, but the work was powerful nonetheless…because the work contained the spirit of the actual process involved in its creation.

Sarah Manguso’s Ongoingness: The End of a Diary does not contain any extracts from her diary but seems to fully capture the completeness of the 800,000 word document to which the title refers. Managing to explore all 23 years in which she carefully kept her diary, Manguso creates a powerful meditation on time, memory, and identity. Although this memoir- which seems like a philosophical statement built on fragments- is incredibly brief at under 100 pages, the work is intense. This feat is accomplished through the author’s precise language and pacing. At the conclusion and throughout the book, Manguso allows the reader into the planning for the final piece which becomes the book itself. I was completely transfixed by the author’s ability to do this so seamlessly and subtly. There was a plot. The plot was revealed as the intellectual and emotional growth of the author and its impact on her writing practice and on her life. She is a mother by the end of the book, and she has a vastly different perspective than she displayed in the beginning. Like an extended prose poem, this work moved quickly over long periods, and felt odyssey-like. There is a trip, but it only involves the passage of time.

This book reminded me of Maggie Nelson’s Bluets (2009), which I believe is unlike most of her published work. Nelson has written poetry and “autotheory,” but the construction of Bluets is like short bursts of detail. It feels ecstatic and beautiful in a way that few works do. It reminded me of diary entries and journals. This was not far off from her intention. Although her methodology has more to do with philosophical writing (numbered paragraphs like Wittgenstein’s Tractatus or Investigations), it is less logical and more intuitive. It is autobiographical…hence the “autotheory” as some have referred to her work. Like Manguso’s Ongoingness, Nelson’s process for creating Bluets is contained in its text, which is a curated selection of years of recorded text on 3×5 cards.

Aside from this similarity, Manguso’s book has no real connection to Nelson’s of which I am aware. But, there is something that connects these works. They both seem to reveal the author (The Life of the Mind) within the text in similar ways. Both of these books have impacted me.

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