Laura Yeager: Writing Through Cancer and Bipolar I Disorder

Laura Yeager has been writing professionally for over 35 years. She began as a fiction writer, studying writing at Oberlin College, Iowa State University and The Writers’ Workshop at The University of Iowa. Her literary fiction appeared in the 1990’s at journals such as The Paris Review, The Missouri Review, Kaleidoscope, and The North American Review. Then, in 2005, she and her husband adopted a son, and her real life became more interesting than her fictional life. She then switched to writing personal essays and blog posts.

Some of her favorite topics today include mental health, religion and cancer. She is a mental health writer for PsychCentral.com. Her spiritual writing has been featured in several venues including Aleteia USA, Busted Halo, The Liguorian Magazine, Canticle Magazine and Guideposts Magazine. She just started a cancer blog—laurayeagercancer.blogspot.com. Laura Yeager also wrote a mental health blog from 2007 to 2009—mentalillnessliterature.blogspot.com.  Laura has taught College English at Kent State University since 1989 and online Creative Writing at Gotham Writers’ Workshop since 2003. She has been married to Steve, a great man, for 19 years and is the mother of Tommy, a hilarious, smart 12-year-old.

What inspired you to become a writer?

It’s in my genes. My father was an ad copywriter in Akron; my mother wrote a religious children’s book that was published. When she was teaching, she also wrote children’s plays. She directed them and made the costumes. I was dancing at the time so I sometimes did the choreography. My brother’s a musician and he wrote the music. It was kind of a family affair. One of the things my mom told me when I was very young was that I couldn’t hate anybody. When you can’t hate anybody, you really have to struggle to see their worth and humanity. I think that’s really important for a writer. Another thing that was instrumental was my best friend’s mother. She read the classics and was very literary. She told her daughter to always strive to say things in new and interesting ways. I was around her daughter my whole life, and she really knew how to turn a phrase, and it rubbed off on me. [Laughs]

When I was about eight-years-old, I didn’t like to play outside. I liked to keep records and I was basically creating characters. I had a whole prison with 100 inmates. Every inmate had a sheet with their crime and sentence, and I’d take my thumb to make the fingerprints. [Laughs] I also had a hospital and kept hospital records on paper. I kept records for a school. I loved writing down information about people. In high school, my teacher wanted to give me an independent study. He thought I had some writing talent. He asked me to write five stories and worked with me. I sent one to Seventeen on a whim and got a letter in the mail. I thought they were asking me to subscribe, but it was a check for $50 because I won an honorable mention in the fiction test.

When did you receive your bipolar I diagnosis?

I was 28. I had three degrees in writing and was teaching at a small university in Pennsylvania. My psychiatrist told me that that was quite late to be diagnosed, but it was good because then it wasn’t as severe.

Well, I know people who received pretty serious diagnoses early in life, which just clashed with a lot of coming-of-age preoccupations.

You’re so right. I felt lucky because I had all my schooling done, was working full-time, and had a sense of who I was. Also, my community knew me as a well-adjusted person, so that helped.

Did you exhibit bipolar I symptoms earlier in life, or did it become acute at some point and came to a head?

It really came to a head in 1991 and kind of blew up out of nowhere. I was in New York City with friends at the time and I wasn’t sleeping. Ultimately, I didn’t sleep for eight days and it was complete mania. By the end of the eight days, my mom felt she really didn’t have any other choice except to take me to a psychiatric hospital. I was really not in a good way.

How did this period in your life affect your relationship with writing?

I was hospitalized for two weeks. When you go through a complete mental health crisis, you basically want to go home, put your head under a blanket, and sleep for two years. But my psychiatrist was actually insistent that I go back to work. My brother drove to my apartment in Pennsylvania and got my textbooks for me. I wrote my syllabus for the semester in the psychiatric ward lounge and I immediately went back to teaching. I was recently in therapy and I said to the therapist, “Why did he make me do that? I needed to cool off and relax.” The therapist said, “If he hadn’t done that, you may have never been a functioning person again.”

As soon as I got back home, I started writing about bipolar illness. The first story I wrote was called “Having Anne.” They used to say you shouldn’t get pregnant while on lithium, which is one of the major medicines for bipolar. The protagonist goes off her lithium and unravels while pregnant. It got published at the Missouri Review in 1998 and was shortlisted for an O. Henry Prize in 2000. So getting bipolar was very tragic, but it was just another thing I had to deal with that ultimately gave me something unique to write about.

So teaching was something of a prescription to help you maintain a normal life.

Exactly.

How does that influence your role as a teacher versus being a writer?

Well, the first time I got diagnosed with cancer, my psychologist also told me, “Don’t quit your job. It’ll keep your mind off of cancer.” One of the reasons I do it is to make a living, but I love teaching. I love informing people on ways to write a story or essay. My writing and teaching are completely intertwined.

You’ve also written about the benefits of workshops and classes. With your education background, you’re obviously speaking from experience.

When I had cancer the first time, I had writer’s block for two full years, which was incredible because I had been writing since I was eight-years-old. I teach at Gotham Writer’s Workshop, and one of the perks of teaching there is we can take classes for free. I went to a one-day intensive with Jennifer Keishin Armstrong. Being in that environment was so stimulating that I immediately started writing again. Being in a classroom is a very creative thing, so I think teaching and taking classes, and writing, are really part of the same pie.

A lot of writers also teach, so there does seem to be something to that.

I studied with James Alan McPherson at Iowa Writers’ Workshop and he told me, “Don’t stop teaching.” When I was accepted to the program, I wasn’t one of the ones who received scholarships or a class to teach. I just had to pay my own way, so I had to hustle and found some teaching jobs at Kirkwood Community College in Cedar Rapids. So, teaching was how I paid my own through the University of Iowa. Also, my mom and my brother are teachers, so teaching is in the family. It just comes very naturally to me.

What is your favorite thing about writing? What is your least favorite thing about writing?

My favorite thing about writing is having people feel the love and get my message. One of the difficult things was we wanted to have a child and I had fertility issues. It’s hard to adopt when you have a mental health issue, so my psychiatrist had to vouch for me that I could handle motherhood. After I wrote about this, women from all over the world wrote to me saying, “I’m in the same boat. I have schizophrenia but I want to be a mother.” What I like about writing is that it is helpful for people.

My least favorite thing about writing…you know, I love it all.

Wow!

In the olden days, I would’ve said getting rejected. Right now, I’m not having to deal too much with rejection, but that is just part of the process.

I think you’re the first writer I’ve spoken with who loves it all. [Laughs]

I do love it all! It’s because I’ve been so in the toilet, you know? [Laughs] Compared to not knowing if I’m going to survive with cancer, writing is a total walk in the park. It’s a complete blessing.

When was the first time you got diagnosed with cancer?

In 2011. It really hit me hard because I had had this mental illness issue, and now I had this big physical problem.

Yeah, like you can’t win. After being diagnosed 2011, it came back more recently, correct?

Yes, it came back in May of this year. In 2011, I had run-of-the-mill stage two breast cancer. I had chemotherapy, radiation, and a double mastectomy. Everything was fine for about five years, and then I noticed this strawberry-colored splotch on my right breast. I went to the radiologist, who told me to have it biopsied. It turned out that the radiation I had five years ago actually gave me the cancer that I have. Before I had radiation, they did warn me that it may actually give me cancer. [Laughs]

Wow…

And it did. It’s called angiosarcoma and I had to have radical surgery. The treatment for this is just to cut, cut, cut. They cut most of what was left of the breast tissue away. They took the implant out that they put in. That was in June, so I’ve just been recovering from that surgery.

What have been sources of comfort to you during such trying times?

Certainly my faith. I grew up Catholic. I wrote a piece called “Born Again Catholic” for Busted Halo last year. Catholics don’t usually talk about being born again, but it was the moment that I accepted Jesus into my heart. I would say taking the Eucharist every week, walking about my cul-de-sac, and certainly prayer [have been comforting]. I have a really excellent psychiatrist who’s been with me since 1999.

People don’t always categorize their time with a mental health professional as a relationship, so it’s amazing to hear how long he’s been with you.

I wouldn’t have my son—who is adopted from Guatemala—if I hadn’t had this doctor. I’d use his name but he says he shies away from publicity. [Laughs]

Much like your creative talent, your faith also comes from your upbringing?

Yes. My mom was a Catholic school teacher for over 30 years. My father and grandparents were also very religious.

How do you reconcile the struggles you’ve had with your faith?

I know that’s a very difficult idea for some of us. Why did God let all these bad things happen? I wrote this piece called “How Having Cancer Brought Me Closer to God” for Aleteia. In the first draft, I wrote that God wanted me to go through this horrible experience for some reason. My editor at Aleteia changed the wording to, God permitted this into my life. That subtle change in wording made me think, it’s not that he wanted me to go through horrible things, self-doubt, and fear, but he permitted it in my life.

It’s not that I’m happy I struggled with bipolar or cancer for so many years, but I am so much of a better person and so much more empathetic than I ever could have been. I relate to anyone who’s been marginalized in any way because I know what it’s like to be completely bankrupt. Having that understanding is a gift.

I think many people feel that finding the good in everyone is a myth, like a superpower that is impossible to grasp.

I don’t have superpowers, but I do try to give people the benefit of the doubt as much as I can. Some days it’s impossible, but when the time is right, you really do have clarity. I wrote a piece called “How to Write a Story” for the Paris Review in 1992. It was about my journey to this Peace Research Institute is Oslo, Norway. I met people from all over the world, from war-torn countries and South Africans living in apartheid.

At the end of the story, I went to a diner in Pennsylvania right after my diagnosis, and a cook was making my breakfast. He took a spoonful of jelly from a jar and plopped it on my plate.  In that moment, I so related to him.  I could imagine him dropping this jelly on dozens of breakfast plates, day in and day out. It was like a mystical experience, like I was completely one with him. The whole thing was one of the strongest moments of empathy I’ve ever experienced. If you want to be a writer, empathy is the key. It’s not about how you organize the story or your character development, it’s about how much empathy you have, as far as I’m concerned.

What advice do you have for younger or aspiring writers?

I would say look for a mentor. Find someone you trust, and it doesn’t even have to be a writer. It could be somebody who’s survived hard, painful experiences, somebody who can teach you about life. It’s also helpful if you can find an editor. The mentor and editor don’t have to be the same person. I have two really wonderful editors, Noah Seaman and my mother, Pat Yeager, and I run everything by them before I send things out. The other thing I would say is you have to go through what life hands you. [Laughs] I have a close friend who says, you have to put your head down and plow through it. You have to go through difficulty.

Travel as much as you can. If you can go to a writing school, it can be beneficial for some people. Watch and see how things are resolved. When I first started writing, I didn’t know how to write conclusions. I was working with Jane Smiley at the time, who said to me, “You’re only 23, so you haven’t lived enough to see how things come around and resolve. As you see how things are (not neatly) resolved, it will teach you how to write conclusions.”

I’ve never heard anyone discuss the critical nature of resolutions like that before.

I give all the credit on this idea to Jane Smiley. You asked me if there was any indication that I would grow up to be bipolar. I think I was always very naive.

What do you mean?

[Pause] Right now I can say I’m in a complete recovery, but when I was ill, you just don’t have it all going for you. That’s the best way I can say it. I had this gullibility or innocence. Am I making sense?

I have heard some people describe themselves as daydreamers, someone who had a different sort of sensitivity, who were focused on other things.

That’s a good way to put it. When I was young, I was very artistic. I was in a children’s dance company. I played the violin in the youth symphony. I was in local dinner theater. I knew I was artistic and I was looking for an art form that would match my mind and body. In ballet, I didn’t have the body type. Practicing the violin gave me bursitis in my shoulder. I was ultimately too shy for drama. With writing, I could do it in the comfort of my own room, I didn’t have to have a particular body type, and it never gave me bursitis.

But living in the artistic world does make you a bit of an outsider. Maybe that’s what I mean. I think you have to be somewhat innocent to be a good artist. I just read this piece about a woman who has schizophrenia. A lot of times, people portray those with mental illness as innocent, but derogatorily. They look at the innocence as a bad thing. That’s why when you’ve been there, you never look down at your characters with mental illness.

Exactly. Since so much of the focus requires a clinical lens, it’s why these conversations are important. At the end of the day, people with different diagnoses are still full people living full, complex lives.

That’s right. 200 years ago I would’ve been put in an asylum. If you happen to have something like cancer or a mental health issue, it’s actually a great time to have them. [Laughs] You can survive them.

Anything else you want to add?

Being successful as a writer or anything else doesn’t always happen overnight. I’m 53 and I’ve been at this since I was eight. Just keep going. If you want to be whatever it is you want to be, God willing (this is very important), you will be that.

 

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