Here is the full transcript of author Jessica Lourey’s TEDx Talk: Use Fiction to Rewrite Your Life at TEDxRapidCity conference. This event took place on June 22, 2016 at Rapid City, South Dakota.
Listen to the MP3 Audio: Use fiction to rewrite your life by Jessica Lourey at TEDxRapidCity
Thank you. I am a Midwesterner of German descent. My people do not air their dirty laundry in public. I see some heads nodding. There’s some of my people here, maybe. That’s why it’s really uncomfortable for me to stand in front of you today and share an incredibly personal story. I think the story can help some people, though, and so I don’t get to not share it because I’m uncomfortable. So, let’s do this, you guys.
A little bit of background on me. I wrote my first poem when I was six years old: Grandpas are full of love; Grandpas are full of tickles; But grandpas are especially full of pickles. Right? Nailed it, right? That’s what my aunts and uncles thought, too. I got a lot of hugs.
I was asked to recite it at Thanksgiving, again at Christmas. You can see why I’d want to quickly capitalize on this amazing success and write my first novel — subsequently titled “A Very Short Book.” I got a really good response for this as well. So, I kept up with the writing.
By high school, I was up to four or five hundred words a week — mostly short stories featuring small town cast that I found myself surrounded by: farm kids, misfits, jocks, beauty queens. Without intending to, I was using fiction to make sense of my life.
I kept up the writing through college. I swore that I would always make time to write. Graduated with my master’s degree and promptly forgot about writing. I got hired to teach writing full-time at a rural technical college. Had my first child, and I just got busy, and I didn’t make time for creativity for several years.
And I might have stayed on this path if not for something a friend of mine calls “two-by-four therapy.” This is when you get off your life track, and life graciously comes along with a two-by-four and whacks you back on. Moments of impact – am I right? This is what happened to me.
I met a wonderful man in 2000. He was a DNR scientist, a hospice care volunteer, a volunteer coach at the local youth soccer team, a wonderful man. We fell in love.
On August 18, 2001, we got married. This is our wedding day. Friends and family were there. It was perfect. I can still smell the wild roses that were blooming.
Three weeks later, it’s September 11, 2001. I’m driving to Minneapolis for a teaching conference. I receive word that the U of M is shutting down, everything is shutting down; the country is under attack. I return home early, I find something I wasn’t meant to find. I confront my husband.
We fight. He drives away, and he kills himself. Uhhh… just like that, he was gone. I didn’t know he was depressed. I did not know he had a secret addiction, I didn’t know a person could be a cornerstone in your life and gone forever the next. I found myself spun into a depression of my own. I grew numb. I grew further away from the person I knew myself to be. People tried to help me. Family, friends reached out to help me. But I just kept dropping. And I hit rock bottom about four months later.
It was winter. I found myself in my kitchen, with my hand in the air, ready to strike my beautiful four-year-old across the face. because she wouldn’t put her snow pants on, and I didn’t hit her, but the horror of almost doing that made me realize how far from myself I had come. And that’s when I remembered writing. And I started that night. Not memoir.
I was already spending every waking moment thinking about Jay; I wasn’t going to put more time into that. I started writing fiction — a mystery of all things. I had all these operative emotions, these memories, these questions, the shame — I was crushed by shame.
When your new husband commits suicide there is so much shame, and I poured it all into this book. And what I realized very early on in the writing process was that since Jay’s death, I had become a hoarder of pain. If you’ve ever had a traumatic event, maybe you’re familiar with how you go over and over and over the same thoughts again and again. Writing about them allowed me to put them out on the lawn, so to speak, and sort of take stock of what I had. The process was not quick or easy. I equate it with digging my way out of prison, with a spoon, one word at a time.
But that trick that I’d learned when I had fictionalized my grandpa in the poem, back when I was six years old, it turns out it had the power to save me. I later found out, there’s a whole mountain of research on the healing power of writing. Social scientists have established that writing about what we are experiencing reduces physical pain, decreases anxiety and depression, positively addresses a whole host of PTSD symptoms, strengthens social relationships, and that’s just the start.
Jay’s death was a dramatic loss, but there isn’t anybody in this room who has not experienced some loss in their life at one time or another. Writing helps. There’s not anybody in this room who’s not shoveled some shit in their lifetime, right? Or worse, thought you shoveled it, just to have it keep coming back again and again.
Writing helps you process it once and for all. Much of the research has been done on nonfiction writing. For some of us, writing fiction works just as well. For me, it worked even better. I kept up writing all of 2002. The result was my first published novel: a mystery titled “May Day.”
If you know my story – which not a lot of people do, but now everybody will – if you know my story, the title makes sense. It was my cry for help, my last-ditch effort to rejoin the real world. It’s a story of a woman whose lover is unexpectedly murdered. She has to solve the mystery of his death.
Along the way, she has unexpected allies. At the end, there is closure, and there are answers. It was a deeply therapeutic novel, and it is completely fictional. And the best part of all of this — the reason I am here today, airing my dirty laundry on stage — is that this healing power of writing, this ability to rewrite your life, does not just belong to professional writers.
Humans are born storytellers, and we all have a story. You don’t have to be an archaeologist, with access to forty thousand years of cave paintings and inscribed tablets, to know that humans have always relied on stories. You don’t need to have an advanced degree in mythology to know that humans have always used stories to make sense of what doesn’t make sense. All you have to do is find your nearest four-year-old, ask them what their parents do for a living. Ask them about their first day of preschool. Better yet, ask them who broke the cookie jar. You will see natural human storytelling.
I was pregnant at the time of Jay’s death. About two weeks after our son was born, I left him alone for the first time, in the crib, and I went in the kitchen to make supper. His big sister, who was then four, is on the couch, in the same room as him. And all of a sudden, I hear him crying, and it’s the pain cry – if you’re a mom, you know the pain cry, or a dad.