Read it and weep: On the limits of journaling and capturing adolescence

A girl in pink is displayed touching her cat, eating cheesecake, and standing with pink boots.
An excerpt from my journal. (Nina Potischman • The Student Life)

Sarah Manguso’s “Ongoingness: The End of a Diary” begins with what I would, for most of my life, have recognized as an incredible feat. 

“I started keeping a diary twenty-five years ago. It’s eight hundred thousand words long,” Manguso writes. “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.” 

In middle school, a friend’s mom informed me that her greatest regret of adolescence was her failure to keep a diary. The message was clear: Life goes too quickly. Before you know it, adolescence will be a hole in time, and you will hate yourself. Because once things happen, they’re irretrievable. For most of my life, I obliged.

“The memory and maybe the fact of every kiss start disappearing the moment the two mouths part,” Manguso writes. Out of this fear, I wrote too. Because with documentation, nothing was ever done. To write was to give place.

In high school, when I entered my first relationship, I stopped writing. I still do not completely know why — I think it was a combination of limited free time, and a feeling that because someone else was there to witness my life, there was less need to write it down.

But when we broke up, my lack of writing seemed to me a profound failure. How could I make sense of everything that had happened without being able to refer back to my thoughts? Without a record, I lost something of myself. 

The summer that we broke up, I returned to writing with newfound vigor, and made a promise to myself to keep my journal for the rest of my life. Writing became a means to process my newfound independence, but also a way to place my memories somewhere where they would be safe. I would never again look back and wonder who I’d been, what I’d thought, what I’d desired. 

I began to write backwards, documenting stories of things I didn’t want to forget from high school — a complete reconstruction of memory. Once I wrote everything down, I could leave behind that part of my life, safe in the knowledge that I would always be able to return.  

“Ongoingness” is, notably, a story about failure. As frequently as Manguso writes, she notes: “I knew I couldn’t replicate my whole life in language. I knew that most of it would follow my body into oblivion.” Diaries are a process of selection; something will always escape language. It is impossible to remember everything, and writing does not stand in for the experience itself.

I don’t think I ever believed it was possible to remember everything. But Manguso suggests not only that diaries are limited, but that something is lost when we try to get close to completeness. “Perhaps all anxiety might derive from a fixation on moments — an inability to accept life as ongoing,” she writes.

The central drama of her piece is Manguso’s relationship with time. Writing is a way of living in time; her diary is a means to control its passage. In this desire for control lies danger.

Sparsely written and populated with short vignettes, “Ongoingness” is uninterested in the meticulous detail that defines her diary — Manguso no longer has any desire to look back. She explains, “I envisioned a book without a single quote, a book about pure states of being.”

Yet despite the sparseness of her work, it does not feel abstract. Her broader point — wholeness, life and meaning, are not the accumulation of mundane details. In an era where it is increasingly easy to document every moment, Manguso’s message is powerful. Our problem is rarely a failure of documentation. It is a way of perceiving time.

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The brilliance of “Ongoingness” lies in its deceptive simplicity. By posing the problem of an 800,000 word diary, she introduces the central questions of art and mortality: “My life, which exists mostly in the memories of the people I’ve known, is deteriorating at the rate of physiological decay … Being forgotten like that, entering that great and ongoing blank, seems more like death than death.” 

What does it mean to truly “pa[y] attention?” Manguso does not claim that the form of a “diary” is irredeemable. But she does push the reader to consider: What is a diary for? What do you get out of writing? 

Like Manguso, for much of my life, my diary was a burden. Each day of missed notes was a source of anxiety, forcing me to consider the weight of everything that escaped me. To write, I would first have to confront the shame of having skipped days of writing, and of allowing my life to slip past me unnoticed. 

My therapist once explained: Anxiety tells us that if we could answer certain questions, negative feelings will disappear. The diary is an easy scapegoat. Maybe if I had catalogued every moment of my adolescence, the loss of first love would not burn. But there will never be enough words. There’s no place where adolescence can live untouched by the movement of time. 

After reading “Ongoingness,” I considered if I ought to stop keeping a journal. But I don’t think that’s Manguso’s message. Her work instead serves as a reminder to readers: You are creating a record of memory that will be, inherently, radically incomplete. And that has to be okay.

I still keep a diary, though it looks very different from the one I kept at 14. Writing is no longer compulsive — no longer a way to mindlessly catalogue events, to relive something I no longer have or to obsessively store details for future use. 

During my first year, a professor told me, “There is no reason to write if you already know what you’re going to say.” It took me a while to realize that this advice applied to my journal, too. 

I have lost interest in order, or the truth of what happened. Sometimes I write about living with a chronic illness; sometimes I make cartoons; sometimes I turn entries into works of fiction. I write when I feel compelled to create something. 

Almost every day, I do.

Nina Potischman PO ’21 is TSL’s book columnist. She is an English major from Brooklyn, New York who likes to make art and eat bagels.

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