By Britt Gambino
Gotham teacher Laura Yeager knows all about the art of restarting. When she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2011, Laura stopped writing altogether. “I didn’t write for two years,” she says. “I didn’t pick up a pen, I didn’t sit at my computer. I had no ideas, no impulse whatsoever. My brain just shut off.”
Laura first endured chemotherapy, then surgery, and finally radiation. She could time-stamp the last phase of her treatment by the first ten minutes of Ellen DeGeneres’s talk show, since Laura always had radiation at the same time daily.
“My cancer experience was like an assembly line,” she explains. “They do all this stuff to you, work on your body—it’s like a get-well machine.” (Thankfully, Laura did in fact recover.)
But even in the midst of her battle with cancer, Laura was advised by her doctors not to quit teaching writing, both online at Gotham and in-person at a university where she lives in Ohio.
“It gave me a focus other than cancer,” she says. “Your day job can help keep your mind together.” Fortunately for Laura, she also had an extensive support system—from her husband to other family and friends who helped look after her son and make meals and generally pitch in whenever they could. In fact, she’s been working on a piece that emphasizes the very notion that, as she says, “cancer is a group effort if you’re lucky.”
One day, when Laura was feeling particularly lonesome for all things writing-related, she Googled her name and discovered that her alma mater Iowa State University had published her graduate creative writing thesis, a collection of short stories entitled First Aid and Other Stories
. This was the beginning of the end of her writing hiatus.
Last summer, Laura visited New York and decided to take a One-day Intensive at Gotham, of all places. “It was great to be in a classroom again with someone who cared so much about writing,” Laura says of Jennifer Armstrong’s Article Writing class. “I had had what I call ‘chemo brain’—you’re foggy and you don’t remember things so well. That class gave me materials to write about.”
And now, Laura says her writing has returned in full.
She’s equally at home in a world of fiction as she is in nonfiction. “Basically what happened was I went to school to be a fiction writer and then in 2005, I adopted my son,” Laura says. “Suddenly everything in my real life has become more interesting than fiction.” This is somewhat reflected in her teaching at Gotham as well. At first, all Laura taught was Fiction, but as she delved more and more into nonfiction, she switched to teaching Creative Writing 101, a Gotham course that covers both nonfiction and fiction. “I like the generalist overview,” she says. “I like working with beginners.”
While Laura loves teaching in person, she admits that her writing has sharpened because it’s her sole means of communication in an online classroom. “I’ve noticed that my critical skills have improved since teaching online—and that transfers to teaching in person.”
Having survived cancer—and life without writing—Laura observes, “I feel like I’m on more limited time than I was before.” But, still, she’s found that precious silver lining: “The suffering of cancer enriched my life in a weird way,” Laura says. “It helped me empathize better, which is so important as a writer, when you’re trying to create characters. It actually created a positive thing.”