A few nights ago, my husband said one of the meanest things I’ve ever heard. We were both sitting in our living room, vaguely aware of one another’s presence. He was watching TV, and I was refreshing Twitter. Our mantle clock ticked faithfully in the background. “You hear that?” My husband asked.


“The clock. It’s ticking all your wasted time away.”

I dropped my phone in a panic. My novel wasn’t done. My latest essay wasn’t done. Even this review wasn’t done. I couldn’t begin to count all the time that I had wasted on something so meaningless, while everything I actually cared about was on hold.

Time—my lack of it, my fear of abusing it, my acute awareness that it is finite and continually draining—is something I’ve been acutely aware of ever since childhood. I used to sit on the bus and stare out the window, thinking about how soon I would be six or seven or eight, and 60 and 70 and 80.

No one has ever articulated that fear the way that Sarah Manguso does in Ongoingness: The End of a Diary. This short memoir examines Manguso’s relationship with time, specifically through her obsession with recording every day of her life in a series of journals. By the time she was able to stop, she had over 800,000 words of self-described “nothingness.”

“The collection was hopelessly arbitrary,” Manguso discovers. “It possessed no form separate from the greater form, which itself was almost formless—which itself was just accumulation, just day after day after day.”

Ongoingness dives in to understand the drive behind Manguso’s chronic chronicles, alongside her reasons to step away. The most monumental was the birth of her son, after which she began to see time differently. “My body, my life, became the landscape of my son’s life. I am no longer a living thing in the world; I am a world.” In moving from the focal point of existence to the caretaker of another, the fear of time, memory and death abated, and the awareness of time went into flux.

The lyric memoir, brief and haunting in Manguso’s elegant prose poem style, is a meditation on control and acceptance. By writing down every memory every day, she sought to control the passage of time and her own brief, unique life. She feared death and the anonymity that life delegates to the departed. Accepting that she could not “keep” her memories or crystallize her time was acceptance of her own mortality. The fear of being forgotten, “a death worse than death,” as she recalls from her youth, lifts when she steps back from the center of her universe.

Maybe it’s children. Maybe it’s a partner. Maybe it’s a passion. We all have to find something to make our time here matter, or else the fear is justified: we’re wasting our most precious and unpredictable resource.

Ongoingness is a small, important book I’ll be keeping in order to flip through in the future, when that ticking is getting to me. A reminder to put down the micro-diaries and become bigger. Manguso has made a beautiful case for living with less fear and more purpose.

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