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The Past in Present Tense

In her new memoir, Regents Professor Madelon Sprengnether explores the neuroscience of memory
August 24, 2015
Regents Professor Madelon Sprengnether
Regents Professor Madelon Sprengnether

Twenty years ago, Regents Professor Madelon Sprengnether wrote and shepherded the proposal for the MFA in Creative Writing through various levels of University approval so the Program could begin granting the degree in 1996. What about the MFA Program is she most proud of? "The accomplishments of our graduates," she answers quickly. "The proof is in the pudding." The growing number of alumnae/i publications parallels the feverish output of Creative Writing Program faculty: In 2015, Professor Sprengnether published both Great River Road: Memoir and Memory (New Rivers), and Near Solstice: Prose Poems (Holy Cow!), and she's finishing up another book on Freud. We asked Professor Sprengnether about the genesis of the new memoir, which has to do with lab research on memory.

When and how did you become interested in the neuroscience of memory?

I have been teaching and writing memoir for a long time, so of course anything that relates to the subject of memory is of interest. I first began noticing science items in The New York Times that described experiments (mainly with rat subjects) showing that memories are not fixed or static but rather fluid and malleable. A memory is not a thing, like a data bit stored somewhere in the brain, but an activation of a neural network. Each time we retrieve a memory by animating a particular network, it interacts with current brain activity. The resulting memory is an amalgam of the previously stored network and new information provided by neurons interacting in the present. I was astonished by this idea, which struck me as both poetic and metaphysical. The past (in the form of personal memory) can only exist in the present—a seeming contradiction. In addition, the remembered past, commingled with the present, is constantly changing. This is an amazing way to view memory: I can't get over it.

When did you realize you wanted to relate aspects of the story of your father's death (when you were a child) through the lens of this memory research (for Great River Road)?

The turning point in my thinking came at my daughter's wedding in 2002, when I felt the past inhabiting the present in a way that felt transformative. Both existed simultaneously for me, and that was a mind-altering experience. When I read about the neuroscience of remembering, I thought I'd found the paradigm I was looking for—the coexistence of past and present in the passing moment. Before this, I'd felt disconnected from my childhood memories preceding my dad's death. Now, suddenly they became accessible. It's not easy to describe this process. So I wrote a book about it.

You have been researching and writing about psychoanalysis since the 1980s and are currently writing a book on changes in psychoanalytic theories and practices over the past century in relation to interpretations of Freud. How does that project relate to Great River Road, written over the same period?

I think of my scholarly and creative writing as approaching the same or similar subjects from different angles. I'd been writing about the traumas of Freud's early life, which (in my view) he failed to mourn, when I began my memoir Crying at the Movies, which deals with failures of mourning in my own life. Great River Road moves past trauma, as does my writing about the trajectory of psychoanalytic theory post Freud. I'm now exploring the concept of turning "ghosts into ancestors" an idea articulated by psychoanalyst Hans Loewald, to describe how our culture may think about "mourning" Freud. In my next memoir, I plan to examine this idea in the context of my relationship with my stepfather, a man whom I actively disliked while he was alive, but whose brief presence in my life I now value.

In 2009, you published a chapbook, Near Solstice, Mourning. Was that the genesis of the new Holy Cow! collection, Near Solstice? Debra Marquart has written: "This book is a balm, a guide, a hedge, and a companion against the vagaries of mortality." Did you know you wanted to address that theme as you wrote? How does your poetry writing practice fit amongst your memoir and critical writing?

The chapbook grew out of a series of poems I wrote in the aftermath of my mother's death. These seemed clearly inter-related to me. The other poems came more slowly and follow a more sinuous course, although the theme of death persists, as more people I cared about (including my younger brother) died. Gradually, the poems began to focus on the Kansas prairie (where I spend a fair amount of time), which lightens the collection as a whole. I can't say that I had this progression consciously in mind at the time of writing, but rather as I assembled the manuscript. Debra says this much better.

I tend to alternate between forms of writing—scholarly and creative—and need large swatches of uninterrupted time to get anything done, hence write slowly. I am a terrible multi-tasker, although I do write poems when I am particularly moved by something. Occasionally, a prose poem will expand into a longer piece of prose, as in Great River Road, where the poem "Notre Dame de Bonsecours" becomes an entire chapter.

In your book video for Great River Road, you read: "I think of writing as a form of movement, like walking across a field." More literally, you've been traveling quite a bit, notably to Iran last summer. What does travel do for your writing life?

I never thought of myself as a traveler, yet I seem to get around. When I had finished Great River Road and began to try to describe what I'd done, I realized there is no single chapter that is confined to a single location. What is that about? I think that travel disturbs me in creative ways, causing me to see my life in different contexts and from different perspectives. It keeps me from getting stuck in my own head. Writing does that also, because it's never the same, is it?