There are few people naturally gifted with the ability to teach but Laurel Yourke is one of those people. Last year she retired from the Department of Liberal Studies and the Arts at UW-Madison where she received the Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Teaching in 1997 and the Council of Wisconsin Writer’s, Christopher Robert Scholes Award for Encouragement of Wisconsin Writers award in 1999.
In addition to her teaching career Laurel found time to publish in two genres, poetry and writing instruction. Her book, Take Your Characters to Dinner is, a must read for any writer wanting to develop characters in depth and characters that readers will care about. Her poetry, Waiting for Beethoven, covers numerous subjects which reflect her electric mind. Writing in two very different genres and bridging the gap between them is a normal day for Laurel, how does she do it? “Clarity is the thing that’s at cross purposes I these genres: you want a poem to be accessible, but never, ever to clear, whereas nonfiction has to be clear or it’s useless. What helps me is what I’d call ‘cross pollination.’ Personally, I use nonfiction to ground my poetry, because as a poet I tend toward the obscure. As a nonfiction writer, I try to add imagery, metaphor and even melody to make ideas more vivid and easier to hang on to.”
Laurel believes that the amount of research needed for either poetry or nonfiction depends on the topic and the author: “This depends on the poet, doesn’t it? My book, Waiting for Beethoven, is rather personal and very character-driven. So no research went into it at all. Currently, though, I’m writing about Plato, Aristotle, gourmet cooking, Isaac Newton and quantum mechanics-or at least trying to. Since I’m a novice at every one of these subjects-especially the cooking-an enormous amount of research goes into each poem.”
Laurel taught the necessity to pay attention to detail detail, voice, characters and quality of writing. She has a keen sense of purpose and specific goals which guide daily activities. “Like most writers, I have things I’d like to say and take great pleasure in fussing over how I express things. In nonfiction, I’d like to create a helpful book for advanced writers trying to polish their novels and secure agents. In poetry, I’d like to find ways to render accessible feelings about the heroes in my life – Aristotle and Wallace Stevens – and the topics I struggle to understand- like mortality, dementia, particle physics, the Trojan War, metaphor and how one can write about such things with a strong sense of humor-especially about oneself.”
In addition to classroom and online instruction Laurel has facilitated many critique groups and it is from these groups that she has had memorable teaching experiences: “Two of those are with the rather young and rather old. For a while I worked with an amazingly gifted nine-year-old and had the pleasure of watching her bloom as both poet and short story writer. I also worked for many years with a superb memoirist who was still attending my critique group when she was over 90. She remains an inspiration to us all, not to mention, one of my most favorite people in the world.”
Laurel slides between the roles of teacher and mentor easily. She is enthusiastic about helping those struggling wannabe writers to find themselves and learn the craft. “What I love about teaching writing is helping writers find their voices – watching them move from mediocre to good or from very good to superb. I’ve been totally blessed in my career as a writing coach and I attribute much of this to my years with Chris DeSmet—how we influenced each other and how well we worked together. She’s part of my memorable writing experiences.”
Laurel has recommended reading for those wanting to learn both the craft and art of writing. While she is much to humble to admit it, Take Your Characters To Dinner, must be included on the list. Other books she suggests are: “My favorite writing books are John Trudy’s, Anatomy of a Story, Robert McKee’s, Story, Aristotle’s, Poetics, Sol Stein’s, Stein on Writing, Debra Spark’s, Curious Attractions, and T.S. Eliot’s, The Sacred Wood.”
One of the well attended and respected writing programs at the Division of Continuing Education is Write- by- the- Lake Writer’s Retreat, a five day writers retreat usually in June each year. One of Laurel Yourke’s legacies to all writers and the UW-Madison Division of Continuing Studies is this annual retreat. “ . . . the original seed idea for Write by the Lake was mine – to be honest, because I selfishly wanted a place where I could spend five consecutive three hour sessions with a small group of super-serious writers. The first year we tried this offering, Marshall Cook had five people in fiction, I had three in poetry and Chris DeSmet had no one in screenwriting. By the year I retired, we had twelve thriving sections with folks returning year after year to sample different offerings.”
Another of Laurel’s legacies is the critique groups she nurtured, cajoled, guided and taught over the years. “My other legacy is the many sub-groups that have spun off my critique workshops, along with the many, many writers who’ve won contests, published, found agents, or simply gone on and on writing because of the community I helped create.”
While no longer teaching full time it certainly is not accurate to describe Laurel as “retired”. True to the goals she has set for herself she is working on major projects in both genres. “One major project is a book about revising the novel at a deep rather than surface level . . . I finally feel ready to put together my thoughts about how novels use character arc, causal plot and, dearest to me of all, character/narrator relationship, to create worlds appealing to readers.”
Along with her nonfiction work devoted to the craft of writing, Laurel is following her poet’s muse: “I’m also giving myself the time and space to take myself seriously as a poet, which requires an astonishing amount of time.”
Laurel Yourke has certainly lived a life where she wrote her own destiny and she became what she does.
For more information on writing and other programs of the Division of Continuing Education go to: www.dcs.wisc.edu.
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