• Jessica Lourey
  • Worried About Writing Memoir? Make Fiction Your Safe Space
This blog was featured on 04/27/2017
Worried About Writing Memoir? Make Fiction Your Safe Space
Contributor

When my husband committed suicide in 2001, the last thing I wanted to do was write a memoir. His life and then his death were shot with a dark secret. Making that story public would hurt those still living, from the innocent (the child I was carrying) to the guilty.

But if I’m honest, protecting those left behind wasn’t all that kept me from writing the truth. Because I was raised in a Midwestern household full of abuse and dysfunction, the “snitches get stitches” code was second nature to me. The first time I remember my dad coaching me to not tell anyone about the drinking and parties, I was eight. So, when it came to Jay’s suicide, “keep the secrets” was my instinctive response.

But…I had to write.

Jay’s death had left too many holes. I was pregnant, the mother of a 3-year-old, full-time professor, and now a widow. I had to schedule healing around my children’s schedule and work and grief so thick it felt like grave dirt. Writing was the only cure flexible enough, effective enough, private enough.

But not memoir.

That’s when I decided to turn the experience of Jay’s death into a novel. I couldn’t bear sharing the facts as they happened, but I could squeeze the juice out of them, rework them into a character or a scene, and release them that way. I began tentatively, changing the crime from suicide to murder but inserting all my real-life shame and terror. The more I wrote, the less my brain spiraled, and the more I began to feel emotions again, even if they were the joys and sorrows of fictional characters. The result was May Day, my first published novel.

Fiction allowed me a safe space to tell my story, a healing place where I could release my insecurities and traumas and dark secrets behind a protective shield. It occurs to me that healing through fiction is a particularly powerful option for marginalized communities, those whose voices have been neglected or actively silenced, those who fear writing the facts because of the repercussions but who have important stories to tell: women, people of color, those in the LBGTQ community, those who’ve experienced deep trauma.

Fiction provides a safe space for us to tell our story, and telling our story heals us. Hundreds of studies have proven that writing decreases anxiety and depression, reduces pain and complex premenstrual symptoms, improves the body’s immune functions, boosts antibody production, enhances working memory, physical performance, and social relationships, reduces illness-related doctor’s visits, improves the physical and mental states of cancer patients and people with HIV, asthma, rheumatoid arthritis, and eating disorders, and positively addresses a host of PTSD symptoms.

That’s just a start. Writing makes everything better. It allows us to distance ourselves, to become spectators to life’s roughest seas. It gives form to our wandering thoughts, lends empathy to our perspective, allows us to cultivate compassion and wisdom by considering the motivations of others, and provides us practice in controlling attention, emotion, and story. We heal when we transmute the chaos of life into the structure of a novel, when we learn to walk through the world as observers and students rather than wounded, when we make choices about what parts of a story are important and what it is time to let go of. When we write, we also share our voice, and by sharing it, we claim and strengthen it.

But it wasn’t self-awareness that drove my decision to write fiction. It was survival. Through novel-writing, I transformed pain, fear, and shame into creativity and healing. This transformation is available to you, too. You have a story worth telling. If you’ve been afraid to tell it true, come into the fiction fold. There’s room here for all of us.

Jessica Lourey's recently-released Rewrite Your Life: Discover Your Truth Through the Healing Power of Fiction walks readers through the healing process of transforming facts into fiction.

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Comments
  • Alissa Johnson Writing

    This is beautiful, "We heal when we transmute the chaos of life into the structure of a novel, when we learn to walk through the world as observers and students rather than wounded, when we make choices about what parts of a story are important and what it is time to let go of. When we write, we also share our voice, and by sharing it, we claim and strengthen it."

  • While I do recognise and respect that for some, like Pat Conroy, writing his life through fiction was what he felt he wanted or needed to do, how do we as memoirists/writers reconcile the need to get hard things "out there" in the public discourse? I did consider writing my memoir about domestic abuse as fiction, but then I realised that what I had done all throughout my marriage was deny and hide. I made the decision to do a memoir in order to "come out" in the way I couldn't while I was married to my husband. I guess my question is, what does society more good - memoir or fiction, or does it depend on the topic?

  • Nancy Finnerty

    I am just finishing a memoir where the writing of it has created such a turning point in my life, one I never imagined or expected. I have another life story i would like to tell but could never do in the memoir form. I have been trying to reimagine that story as a novel and reading your article confirms for me what my next challenge will be. Thanks Jessica.

  • Thank you, Jessica. Great article. My first novel, Exit Strategy, http://a.co/hKplcLS is a perfect example of what you describe. It's fiction but tells the real story of immigrant women on produce washlines.

  • This may be the closest description to why I write fiction that I've read. Great piece!