Sarah Manguso

Essayist, Short Story Writer,
Memoirist, and Poet
300 Arguments

Readings & Lecture Topics

• An Evening with Sarah Manguso







A mordantly funny, uncategorizable writer. —The Guardian

Sarah Manguso is the author of five books of prose. Her most recent, 300 Arguments (2017), was described by NPR as a collection which, “transcends any category to be something totally its own…Manguso’s captured the argumentative voice of a mind sifting through a problem, circling it, animated by sorting it out….We enter Manguso’s mind—her puzzle, pleased to be puzzled, too.”  Her other books include Ongoingness, a meditation on motherhood and time; The Guardians, an investigation of friendship and suicide; The Two Kinds of Decay, a memoir of her experience with a chronic autoimmune disease, and Hard to Admit and Harder to Escape, a collection of very short stories.

She is also the author of the poetry collections Siste Viator and The Captain Lands in Paradise, poems from which have won a Pushcart Prize and appeared in four editions of the Best American Poetry series. Her essays have appeared in various publications including Harper’s, McSweeney’s, the Paris Review, the New York Review of Books, and the New York Times Magazine, and her books have been translated into Chinese, German, Italian, and Spanish.

Manguso received her MFA from the University of Iowa, and she has taught creative writing at Columbia, NYU, Princeton, the New School, the Pratt Institute, the Otis College of Art and Design, and St. Mary’s College, where she was a Distinguished Visiting Writer. The recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and the Rome Prize, she grew up near Boston and now lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.


Sarah Manguso is the author of five books of prose including her latest, 300 Arguments, a masterful arrangement of seemingly unrelated aphorisms;  Ongoingness, a meditation on motherhood and time; The Guardians, an investigation of friendship and suicide; The Two Kinds of Decay, a memoir of her experience with a chronic autoimmune disease, and Hard to Admit and Harder to Escape, a collection of very short stories. She is also the author of the poetry collections Siste Viator and The Captain Lands in Paradise, poems from which have won a Pushcart Prize and appeared in four editions of the Best American Poetry series.

300 ARGUMENTS (Nonfiction, 2017)

300 Arguments beckons the reader to return, to read a sentence, and put it down again….Her arguments are crystalline and often walloping. —New Republic

300 Arguments, a pocket-sized foray into the frontier of contemporary nonfiction writing, is, at first glance, a group of unrelated aphorisms. But the pieces reveal themselves as a masterful arrangement that steadily gathers power. To read them is to witness acrobatic acts of compression in the service of extraordinary psychological and spiritual insight. Manguso’s arguments about desire, ambition, and failure add up to an unexpected and renegade wisdom literature.

ONGOINGNESS (Essay/memoir, 2015)

Both grounding and heady, the spark of a larger, important conversation. —Publishers Weekly

Nearly every page has a line that knocks the wind out of you. —Portland Mercury

In her latest book that continues to define the contours of the contemporary essay, Sarah Manguso confronts a meticulous diary that she has kept for twenty¬-five years. “I wanted to end each day with a record of everything that had ever happened,” she explains. But this simple statement belies a terror that she might forget something, that she might miss something important. Maintaining that diary, now 800,000 words, had become, until recently, a kind of spiritual practice. Then Manguso became pregnant and had a child, and these two Copernican events generated an amnesia that put her into a different relationship with the need to document herself amid ongoing time. Ongoingness is a spare, meditative work that stands in stark contrast to the volubility of the diary—it is a haunting account of mortality and impermanence, of how we struggle to find clarity in the chaos of time that rushes around and over and through us.

THE GUARDIANS (Essay/memoir, 2012)

Manguso has the rare ability to devastate and illuminate with a single sentence. — The Daily Beast

The Guardians opens with a story from the July 24, 2008, edition of the Riverdale Press that begins, “An unidentified white man was struck and instantly killed by a Metro-North train last night as it pulled into the station on West 254th Street.” Sarah Manguso writes: “The train’s engineer told the police that the man was alone and that he jumped. The police officers pulled the body from the track and found no identification. The train’s 425 passengers were transferred to another train and delayed about twenty minutes.” The Guardians is an elegy for Manguso’s friend Harris, two years after he escaped from a psychiatric hospital and jumped under that train. The narrative contemplates with unrelenting clarity their crowded postcollege apartment, Manguso’s fellowship year in Rome, Harris’s death and the year that followed—the year of mourning and the year of Manguso’s marriage. As Harris is revealed both to the reader and to the narrator, the book becomes a monument to their intimacy and inability to express their love to each other properly, and to the reverberating effects of Harris’s presence in and absence from Manguso’s life. There is grief in the book but also humor, as Manguso marvels at the unexpected details that constitute a friendship. The Guardians explores the insufficiency of explanation and the necessity of the imagination in making sense of anything.

THE TWO KINDS OF DECAY (Essay/memoir, 2008)

A remarkable, clear-eyed account that turns horror into something humane and beautiful. — The New York Times Book Review

At twenty-one, just as she was starting to comprehend the puzzles of adulthood, Sarah Manguso was faced with another: a wildly unpredictable autoimmune disease that appeared suddenly and tore through her twenties, paralyzing her for weeks at a time, programming her first to expect nothing from life and then, furiously, to expect everything. In this captivating story, Manguso recalls her struggle: arduous blood cleansings, collapsed veins, multiple chest catheters, depression, the deaths of friends and strangers, addiction, and, worst of all for a writer, the trite metaphors that accompany prolonged illness. A book of tremendous grace, The Two Kinds of Decay transcends the very notion of what an illness story can and should be.


“The Grand Shattering” (essay excerpt from Harper’s)

I never wanted to be a mother. I wanted to be a person. My identity crisis began at age three, when I wanted to be Popeye but realized that I had to be Olive Oyl instead. I remember throwing myself down on my bed, wondering how I’d ever figure it out. I remember exactly how I felt because I feel that way still.

Bombarded by inviolable stereotypes that distinguished between Mommy and all other roles, I decided that I would be a boy in the shape of a girl, a man in the shape of a woman. My early fantasies were of fighting with the boys in my second-grade class and then making out with them. I wore boys’ clothes well into middle school, and even after I caught on that girls were supposed to peg their jeans and wear sweaters with brightly colored triangles and squares, I wasn’t willing to begin that drag performance. Not yet.

“Short Days” (essay excerpt from the Paris Review)

A great photographer insists on writing poems. A brilliant essayist insists on writing novels. A singer with a voice like an angel insists on singing only her own terrible songs. So when people tell me I should try to write this or that thing I don’t want to write, I know what they mean.

You might as well start by confessing your greatest shame. Anything else would just be exposition.

It can be worth forgoing marriage for sex, and it can be worth forgoing sex for marriage. It can be worth forgoing parenthood for work, and it can be worth forgoing work for parenthood. Every case is orthogonal to all the others. That’s the entire problem.

At faculty meetings I sat next to people who had sold two million books. Success seemed so close, just within reach. On subway benches I sat next to people who were gangrenous, dying, but I never thought I’d catch what they had. That’s the trouble with the idea of success. It mutates hope into hardness.

The trouble with comparing oneself to others is that there are too many others. Using all others as your control group, all your worst fears and all your fondest hopes are at once true. You are good; you are bad; you are abnormal; you are just like everyone else.

Ongoingness (excerpt)

I started keeping a diary twenty-five years ago. It’s 800,000 words long.

I didn’t want to lose anything. That was my main problem. I couldn’t face the end of a day without a record of everything that had ever happened.

I wrote about myself so that I wouldn’t become paralyzed by rumination—so that I could stop thinking about what had happened and be done with it.

More than that, I wrote so that 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.

Imagining life without the diary, even one week without it, spurred a panic that I might as well be dead.

The trouble was that I failed to record so much.

I’d write about a few moments, but the surrounding time—there was so much of it! So much apparent nothing I ignored, that I treated as empty time between the memorable moments.

Despite my continuous effort—in public, in private, in the middle of the night, and in moving vehicles—I knew I couldn’t replicate my whole life in language. I knew that most of it would follow my body into oblivion.

From the beginning, I knew the diary wasn’t working, but I couldn’t stop writing. I couldn’t think of any other way to avoid getting lost in time.

The Guardians (excerpt)

The Thursday edition of the Riverdale Press carried a story that began An unidentified white man was struck and instantly killed by a Metro-North train last night as it pulled into the Riverdale station on West 254th Street.

The train’s engineer told the police that the man was alone and that he jumped. The police officers pulled the body from the track and found no identification. The train’s 425 passengers were transferred to another train and delayed about twenty minutes.

If I were a journalist I’d have spoken to everyone and written everything down right away. I’d have gone to the hospital and met all the people who were on the psychiatric ward at the moment Harris walked out the door, and then this book would be a more accurate rendering of the truth.

If I were to write responsibly, with adequate research to confirm certain facts, I’d have to ask people about the last time they saw or spoke with or heard from my friend Harris. But I’m afraid to ask his parents those questions. I’m afraid to talk with his last lover. I’m afraid to meet his doctors and the man who drove the train.

The Two Kinds of Decay (excerpt)

The disease has been in remission seven years. Now I can try to remember what happened. Not understand. Just remember.

For seven years I tried not to remember much because there was too much to remember, and I didn’t want to fall any further behind with the events of my life. I still don’t have a vegetable garden. I still haven’t been to France. I have gone to bed with enough people that they seem like actual people now, but while I was going to bed with them I thought I was catching up. I am sorry. I had lost what seemed like a lot of time.

I waited seven years to forget just enough—so that when I tried to remember, I could do it thoroughly. There are only a few things to remember now, and the lost things are abso- lutely, comfortingly gone.

I wrote down some things while the disease was happening— there are notes from one hospital stay and a few notes from the sickest years—but it isn’t much.

Sometimes I think the content of those days might not have finished happening. It might have begun then, in 1995, but I needed to save the rest of it until I was stronger.

The events that began in 1995 might keep happening to me as long as things can happen to me. Think of spacetime, through which heavenly bodies fly forever. They fly until they change into new forms, simpler forms, with ever fewer qualities and increasingly beautiful names.

There are names for things in spacetime that are nothing, for things that are less than nothing. White dwarfs, red giants, black holes, singularities.

But even then, in their less-than-nothing state, they keep happening.