“I didn’t want to lose anything,” writes Sarah Manguso in Ongoingness: The End of a Diary (Graywolf, 2015): “I wrote so I could say I was truly paying attention.” She reiterates this sentiment about memory and loss later in the book, “The diary was my defense against waking up at the end of my life and realizing I’d missed it.”
Sarah Manguso has been an avid writer of daily journals for over 30 years—she started writing in 1989 at the age of 14 and continues to this day. Her dairy is over 800,000 words long and documents the minute details of her everyday life, from the small events—what she saw while walking to a Greyhound bus stop—to large, life-altering events—her first pregnancy and the new life she lived after her son is born.
Her daily, documented attentiveness to her life began as an outlet for her compulsion to preserve the life she was living, for fear of it disappearing. What does one do when memory fails to hold up to the relentlessness of passing time? My own journaling practice began this way, when, as a teenager, many of my extended family passed away, some suddenly, some after months of illness. For me, it was the anxiety of grief that propelled me to keep a daily account of my own life, the life of my family, my friends. Our daily activities—eating dinner together at the table, my father helping me with homework, my mother and I weeding her rose garden together—felt so precious they necessitated recording by my hand. In many ways, it was about control: I couldn’t trust my own memory to preserve these moments the way I wanted them preserved: in amber, in polyurethane, in glass and metal, in writing, in permanence.
For many of us, our initial call to daily writing will be fueled by grief, anxiety, curiosity, or compulsion. But our propulsion toward journaling may very well change as years pass. In Manguso’s case, as evidence by her journals themselves, her initial approach was forever altered when she was pregnant with her first child. She notes that during her pregnancy, her memory failed her, failed to the point where she could no longer even document accurately what had happened during her day. She experienced the very fear that drove her to journal in the first place. It had a profound effect on her and her journaling: her journals continued but became chaotic. She notes: “How could I have believed that if I tried hard enough, I could remember everything?… Perhaps all anxiety might derive from a fixation on moments—an inability to accept life as ongoing.” She began to realign her practice not as an act of preservation, but a way of building momentum that acknowledges and accepts the forward thrust of time—that works with instead of against its rush. The title of Manguso’s book, Ongoingness, reflects this new approach to daily writing.
The call to write every day is varied and ever-shifting. Our daily writing can be both an act of preservation and an act of forward motion. During the most recent months, many of us are left with an open expanse of time as we social-distance, or shelter-at-home, during the covid-19 pandemic. Perhaps there is a faint tickling at the back of your neck to endeavor something new; perhaps a desire to reflect on the present circumstance of your strange new life. That feeling, your desire, is your call to write.
The First Thing You Write and the Next
The first thing I wrote in my journal at the age of sixteen were the stories my father told me about my grandparents. I sat down at my desk before bed, already warm in my flannel pajamas, and recounted what my father told me after dinner that evening. He told me stories about my grandfather’s boyhood antics (he had a bad habit of playing cards with older kids in the fields before school and would always be late), about my grandfather’s carpentry skills (he once made a wagon out of a neighbor’s door that he “borrowed” after it blew off in a storm), and about my grandfather’s strange food quirks (he had a penchant for eating green dates off the date tree in his front yard).
My life was shaped by those stories and by my father’s act of telling them. I remember feeling like my life had changed a little after hearing them. There was nothing I wanted to do more than record them, to keep the stories that had changed my life, safe. For many of us, our practice of daily writing will begin here, in recording the stories of others, told to us by people in our lives. It is likely that we were drawn to these stories in some way: they hooked us, captured our attention. They feel worth writing down.
But the idea of needing something “worth” writing down, when practicing daily writing, can be tricky. There might be days when seemingly nothing has happened, when no stories have been told or heard, when no major moments, or divisive conflicts, have occurred. What, of these days, might be worth writing down? I would encourage a turn to the everyday, to the small moments of a life lived. Jot down the way a loved one prepares a meal, or how the sun filters through the window at midday. These things are filled with richness, weathered from the repetition of experience. Try to make them fresh and new in your daily writing, as if encountering them for the first time. The stories of my grandfather that I remember most vividly are the stories about his ordinary life: his routine walk to the market for apples, the brightness of his summer vegetable garden.
Jotting down the things you notice during the day can help coalesce the everyday into meaningful moments. Write down the sights, smells, or sounds that you encountered today; write down the smell of the restaurants you pass on your walk; write the conversations that gave you joy, the street noise or radio song that ticks you off. Write these small details on a notepad, in your phone, on scraps of receipt paper, or on napkins. At the end of the day, you’ll have a little pile of memos that you can reference to bring color and vibrancy to even the most mundane moments.
Your daily writing will thrive if carefully attended to, if made routine. It can feel intimidating, sometimes, staring at a blank page: you have so much to say—and you can’t find the words for any of it. Instead of investing writing with this gravity—and anxiety—bring to writing the same simple pleasure you would bring to a cup of caffeine in the morning or a stretch after an invigorating run. Mark a designated time and place for your practice; set aside a few minutes every day for it. I always write before bed (sometimes in my bed), in an off-white unlined notebook. I will sometimes tape or glue the memos I collected during my day into my notebook and write around or over those memos. For me, daily writing is not just about the words written, but is about the activity of writing that soothes and rewards. By writing about the simple, mundane facts of everyday life, you’ll find your way into the bigger questions, the poignant memories you want to record: once you start writing regularly and unselfconsciously, they’ll come naturally flowing out of your pen.
Shaping a Life into a Story: the Question of Audience
But the old fear and anxiety might creep back in when you imagine someone else reading your diaries, notes, or memos. Author Zadie Smith notes how she struggled to keep a journal in her youth because she could not stop thinking about an outside audience for her journals: “I was never able to block from my mind a possible audience, and this ruined it for me: It felt like homework. I was always trying to frame things to my advantage in case so-and-so at school picked it up and showed it to everybody.”
But there are times when it can be productive, even inspirational, to consider your audience as you write—especially if that audience is familiar, such as a grandchild, a close friend, a niece or nephew. Holding that person, or group of people, in your heart as your write might help you focus your writing, strike the right tone, or capture the right image. Keeping your daily writing alive is often about striking a balance between personal intimacy and the desire to share with others.
Maybe at some point, you’ll feel compelled to show some pages of your diary, some memos you’ve kept, to a loved one. That person has been curious about what you write every day. They’re someone you trust, there isn’t any harm. Maybe they’re amazed at what you’ve recorded, the stories you’ve preserved, the sense of scope in a life documented over the course of years. They urge you to share your story with the world, because it is of value, and of importance. Perhaps your journals—filled with your thoughts, the details of what you’ve tasted, smelled, touched—should exist out in the world, in your community, in someone else’s hands and hearts.
How does one translate the essential intimacy of journals, memos, diaries, into a book? This task expands the focus of daily writing into something else, something bigger. Think about who might benefit from hearing your stories, the lessons you’ve learned and documented in your journals. If you’ve been writing to a loved one in your journals, think about who else might benefit from hearing your words. How might your writing be valuable for others?
bioGraph is here to help you take that sometimes challenging step. We can help you consider fundamental questions—like, who is your audience? Who do you want to read your book? Whether you’re interested in reaching a wide readership in the present or you want to create a family heirloom that will endure for generations—or both—our team of expert writers and bookmakers are standing by to help you realize your vision. We will help you curate your journals and diaries into a book that is accessible and valuable to others. Our writers will read your materials with care and dedication, connecting narrative threads, drawing out themes and ideas—all the while working with you to strike the right tone, perfect the details, make sure your story is as bright, colorful, full of life, as you are.
When you’re satisfied with the shape of the book, when each detail vibrates with life, we will design the book in collaboration with you, finding the paper stock, typefaces, and cover design that best express your vision and your voice. And, if you want to reach a wide audience, we can help publicize and promote your book. At each step along the way—from composition to publication—bioGraph’s team is here to help. We take the anxiety and uncertainty out of making a book. We give you the freedom to focus on the parts of writing that are most rewarding and productive for you. Together, let’s answer the call to tell stories, let’s seize the opportunity to turn memos into memoirs, diaries into masterpieces.