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Home » Jessica Lourey: Use Fiction to Rewrite Your Life at TEDxRapidCity (Transcript)

Jessica Lourey: Use Fiction to Rewrite Your Life at TEDxRapidCity (Transcript)

Jessica Lourey

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.

And I run into the room, and his big sister is now in the crib with him. And he’s sniffling; I can tell he’s going to be okay. And her eyes are wide. And I say, “Honey, what happened to your little brother?”

She said, “Mom, I was on the couch reading …” She can’t read, she’s four. “I was on the couch reading, and little brother said, ‘Big sister, will you come and hit me? I am new to this world, I have not experienced hitting yet. I would like to know what it feels like.’ So, Mom, what am I supposed to do? You said he’s my little brother, take care of him. So I go into the crib and hit him. But don’t worry, it’s just two bonks – bonk bonk.” That apparently is a natural-born storyteller, right?

Her brother is two weeks old. He can’t turn over, let alone convince her to join toddler fight club, right? She is a natural-born storyteller, but so are you. All of us are. Humans are born this way. And I’m going to prove to you that you have this ability, right now, with a very short activity. I’m going to give you some seeds to plant when you get home. You should all have a pencil and paper at your table. Please grab them. Nobody is going to see this writing. It’s just for you. If you want, you can fold it in half, and make your own very short book.

Or you can just have it flat out. What I’m going to give you – to reconnect you with your inherent, native storyteller, if you’re out of sync with him or her – I’m going to give you a plot, and I’m going to give you a character, and you’re going to go home and write a story featuring this plot and this character, so you can experience the power of rewriting your life.

Let’s start with the plot. If you’re comfortable, please close your eyes. If you’re not comfortable, this will still work if they are open. If you’re comfortable, envision your last stressful experience. Maybe it was finding your seat in here. Maybe it was getting cut off in traffic. Maybe a fight with a loved one. Just think of that last stressful experience, and then note where in your body you are storing that stress. Maybe your head’s getting tight. For me, my throat always feels constricted. Maybe your stomach is tumbling. Just think of wherever you are storing that stress.

Okay, once you have it, open your eyes and write down three or four words describing the stress and where you stored it. So, cut off in traffic – starting to get a migraine. Fight with my mom – chest is tight. Whatever it is, just a few words to help you remember what you came up with for your plot for your story.

Okay, once you have that, I need you to come up with a character. The character is going to be you; this is the fun part. Think of you, but fictional, but a little bit better. Maybe a dream job you wish you had: pirate, princess, accountant… I don’t know. Maybe a name you wish you had. I made my parents called me Cursive, from age five to seven, you can use that if you want that as your name. Just think of you, but a little bit better. Maybe some qualities – you wish you were kinder, funnier, smarter, bigger, smaller, taller, shorter, whatever it is – just a few qualities to describe fictional you. And write those down.

So, you have your plot, which is your stressful scenario. You have your character, which is fictional you. And what I would love for you to do is when you get home, free write that story. Free writing, if you’re not familiar with it, you’re going to be great at it because it is all about words – it’s all about quantity and not quality. And so what you do is you set your phone for ten minutes, your timer. And you write that story until the timer goes off. Grammar or spelling doesn’t matter; what your English teacher told you doesn’t matter, you’re going to write until the timer goes off.

And if you make time to rewrite this little scene in your life, watch for some remarkable things to happen. Watch for a new perspective on whatever that stressful experience was. Watch for wherever you are storing that stress to begin to loosen. Watch for, if there were any life lessons in that situation, for them to become immediately clear to you.

When I rewrote my life, after Jay’s suicide, when I wrote “May Day,” the life lessons that became clear to me, that were buried otherwise, were things that I get to carry forever. They are that people are good, and they want to help you. They are that secrets are toxic, and if I do nothing else in this world, I need to surround myself with people I can be honest with.

I learned the best gifts in this life come to you in the worst wrapping, and you will not want to open them up, but you should open them with as much gratitude as you can muster. I learned that there is grace in grief. The shame, the fear, that I had been cycling through, over and over and over again, that didn’t serve the story I wanted to tell, not long term. And so I let that go. And you don’t have to publish for this to work.

I have a friend who writes these vignettes a few times a week, when she gets stressed out. She literally burns them; she literally puts them on fire. She stills get all of the healing. All you have to do is write it, and then you get the healing. For the longest time, over a decade, I thought that Jay’s suicide was my greatest moment of impact. I still mourn his loss, and my heart breaks for all the moments in his amazing son’s life that he’ll never get to see. But I now know that my moment of impact wasn’t his death; it’s when I chose to turn it into something different. Something cooked of the same ingredients, but something healing and something whole and something energizing.

And my hope for you – the reason I am here today – is that I would love for you to add the power of rewriting your life to your own toolbox, so you have more resources when the daily stressors add up, or when your personal pain feels overwhelming. It is my hope for you that you claim your right to be defined, not by what happens to you in this life, but by what you choose to make of it.

Thank you.


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