Rewrite Your Life: Discover Your Truth Through the Healing Power of Fiction

Rewrite Your Life: Discover Your Truth Through the Healing Power of Fiction

by Jessica Lourey


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Write Your Story, Heal Your Life

From the author of the popular TEDx Talk, “Use Fiction to Rewrite Your Life,” comes a new life writing approach unlike any other how-to book on writing fiction.

How to turn life writing into fiction. According to common wisdom, we all have a book inside of us. But how do you select your most significant experiences to write your story―the one that helps you evolve and invites pure creativity into your life, the one that people line up to read? Creative writing professor and popular fiction author Jessica Lourey guides you through the redemptive process of writing a novel that recycles and transforms your most precious resources―your real life stories and emotions.

Writing fiction from real life stories. There’s a creative way to heal your life―writing and rewriting. Based on a method developed in the wake of a tragedy, this fact-to-fiction process doesn’t just provide the essential building blocks of best-selling books, it also transforms your life. Tender, raw, and laugh-out-loud funny, Rewrite Your Life offers both a map and a compass for those seeking to harvest their real life stories to craft a rich, powerful work of fiction. Inside, you’ll learn about the science of writing to heal and the magic of revision, with bonus material like:

  • A scene by scene study
  • A character building table
  • A novel outline template

If you enjoyed books like On Writing Well, Your Story Matters, Writing Down the Bones, or The Emotional Craft of Fiction, then you’ll love Rewrite Your Life.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781573246934
Publisher: Mango Media
Publication date: 05/01/2017
Pages: 264
Sales rank: 784,263
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Jessica (Jess) Lourey is the bestselling Lefty, Agatha, and Anthony-nominated author of nonfiction, YA adventure, magical realism, and crime fiction. A tenured professor of writing and sociology and recipient of The Loft's Excellence in Teaching fellowship, she is also a Psychology Today blogger, TEDx presenter, and leader of writing retreats for women.

She lives in Minneapolis with her family and foster cats (and occasional foster puppies).

Find out more at

Read an Excerpt

Rewrite Your Life

Discover Your Truth Through the Healing Power of Fiction

By Jessica Lourey

Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC

Copyright © 2017 Jessica Lourey
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-63341-051-0



Writing fiction is the act of weaving a series of lies to arrive at a greater truth.

— Khaled Hosseini

All sorrows can be borne if you put them into a story.

— Isak Dinesen

"You should write a book."

Maybe, like me, you first heard this as you shared the story of your daycare lady locking you and your sister in the closet before letting her creepy grown son perform puppet shows for the rest of the kids. Or, perhaps someone suggested novel-writing-as-are-lease after you mentioned how close you'd come to getting car-jacked when your sweet, animal-loving friend pulled her Toyota into an unlit parking lot so you could both stand vigil over a dead dog in New Orleans' Lower Ninth. I call these types of experiences "story food," the life occurrences so remarkable that you can't help telling other people about them.

Here's another possibility: maybe you've never shared your most intense experiences with anyone because you're private, or think no one would believe you, or simply and understandably don't want to relive those moments, even within the safety of words. Yet, some secret, scrappy part of you is whispering to get that story out. If that's the case, I'm telling you what others have told me.

You should write a book.

Sure, it's a pop-off answer to anyone who's had a traumatic or amazing or unbelievable experience, but it turns out there is science behind it.

Mountains of it.


The human need to creatively express ourselves can be traced back to the oldest-surviving painting, scratched into an Indonesian cave forty thousand years ago. (By the way, it says a lot about human priorities that the first plow wasn't invented until thirty thousand years later, a fact that makes me weirdly happy.) Visual art as expression expanded and flourished from there, producing Michelangelos and Picassos and Gentileschis, but it wasn't until 1939 that the therapeutic value of art was established. That year found WWI veteran and artist Adrian Hill recovering from tuberculosis in a British sanatorium. While there, he was asked to teach painting classes to his fellow patients, many of them returning veterans and a lot of them assumedly bored. Hill witnessed firsthand art's healing power on those vets. He brought his discovery to the general public, coining the term "art therapy" in 1942.

Hill believed that the symbolic mediums of drawing and painting busied the hands and freed the mind, allowing the body's natural reparative mechanisms to do their work unimpeded. His hypothesis was oversimplified, but science would soon prove him right.

Writing as therapy began to catch up to art therapy in the 1960s when New York psychologist Dr. Ira Progoff introduced the concept of reflective writing for mental health. He called this process the Intensive Journal Method. As a Jungian, Dr. Progoff subscribed to the healing power of accessing unconscious or repressed memories. Like visual art therapists before him, he witnessed the therapeutic value of externalizing an emotion or experience, encapsulating it in an image or an essay and thereby releasing it.

Innovators Michael White, an Australian therapist, and Dr. James W. Pennebaker, an American social psychologist, built on Progoff's work in the 1980s. White, along with his colleague David Epston, established the narrative therapy movement. The movement's central tenet is that "the problem is the problem," not the person experiencing it, and that externalizing the problem by writing about it is the most effective way to address it. Dr. Pennebaker was a pioneer in the writing therapy, or expressive writing, movement, whose research into the connection between secrets, language, and mental health has been groundbreaking. Pennebaker was one of the first to clinically establish that basic writing exercises can significantly improve mental and physical health as well as work performance. His most famous book, Opening Up: The Healing Power of Expressing Emotions, accessibly demonstrates the connection between writing and healing.


Hundreds of studies have since been conducted to figure out how writing heals, because it does mend and transform. Social scientists have established that expressive writing decreases anxiety and depression; reduces pain and complex premenstrual symptoms; improves the body's immune functions including boosting antibody production; enhances working memory, physical performance, and social relationships; reduces illness-related doctor's visits; improves the physical and mental states of Alzheimer patients' caregivers, cancer patients, and people with HIV; reduces the symptoms of asthma, rheumatoid arthritis, and eating disorders; and positively addresses a host of PTSD symptoms. In fact, a recent pilot study of eleven veterans diagnosed with PTSD found that after a dozen sessions of narrative therapy, not only did over half of the veterans experience a clinically significant reduction of PTSD symptoms, but a quarter of them no longer met the criteria for PTSD.

That's just a start.

Writing makes everything better.

It's tied to how our brains are wired. We are creatures of habit, evolved animals who perceive stimuli, run it through our limbic system, attach significance to it, and then respond.

Stimulus — significance — response.

Here's an example. Let's say you're stuck in traffic. The traffic jam is a stimulus. It's the job of your amygdala, an almond-shaped glob of neurons housed deep in your brain, to process stimuli, organizing events into emotional memories. Your amygdala codes this particular experience with frustration, which is the significance you attach to it. You respond to this emotion by swearing and mentally squishing the heads of the people in the cars around you. This swearing and mental-head-squishing response becomes your established action pattern any time you perceive a stimulus that your amygdala has classified as frustrating.

Stimulus — significance — response.

Traffic jam — frustration — mental head squishing.

But you don't have to remain a slave to this feedback loop. Thanks to your evolved prefrontal cortex, the big chunk of brain directly behind your forehead that governs executive reasoning, you have the ability to break free of this stimulus-significance-response pattern. (Pavlov's dogs were not so lucky.) Still, as anyone who's tried to quit smoking knows, being aware of the best path and choosing it are two different beasts. And the more intense the emotion, the less blood flow to the prefrontal lobe, therefore the weaker our ability to make rational choices.

To add to the problem, it turns out your neural pathways cement themselves in the case of traumatic events. The result is that some people respond to reminders of stimuli, a condition known as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This trauma-induced reprogramming of the brain explains why it's impossible for many veterans to enjoy Fourth of July fireworks, for example. Their limbic system, the creamy nougat center of the human brain where our memories and emotional lives are housed, has coded "explosion" with "danger," and so when these veterans hear fireworks, they react as they would, as any of us would, to a bomb going off nearby.

From the outside, this condition may appear simple to correct. They're fireworks, not bombs, after all. But neuroimaging proves that when people are merely reminded of trauma, blood flow ramps up in the brain structures associated with extreme emotions and decreases in the areas associated with communication. The sufferer essentially becomes trapped in their own fear, at the mercy of neural patterns. The good news is that writing therapy, along with other mindfulness practices, including dialectical behavior therapy, art therapy, yoga, Qigong, tai chi, Alexander Technique, and meditation, allows you to reprogram your brain.

You can literally change your mind.

Drawing on the wide body of research in this area, the three most promising explanations as to how this works are habituation, catharsis, and inhibition-confrontation. I explain all three below.


The effectiveness of habituation (note that the root word is "habit") in changing negative patterns is based on the fact that central nervous system arousal decreases with repeated exposure to a single stimulus. In other words, the familiar becomes boring.

Let me give you an example. Say you show up to your office job next Monday, thinking it's just another day. When you get to work, however, you discover a red-nosed clown sitting in your spare office chair, smiling opaquely at you, his red clown feet so huge that they disappear under your desk.

That would be frickin' terrifying.

You would call people. They would tell you not to worry, that the clown is there as some sort of cost-saving, effectiveness-lacking productivity exercise. You believe them, but Creepy the Clown is still horrifying, particularly because that empty smile remains stapled to his face as he silently watches you type.

Day two he's still there, he'd maybe be a little less freaky, but for sure you keep one eye pinned on him at all times. On day three, because he hasn't killed you yet, you decide maybe it's safe to move both eyes to your computer screen, at least when checking email. Come day four, you're in the middle of texting your friend a photo you've just taken of the front of your shirt, and more specifically the toothpaste smear shaped like a famous singer (#ifoundmintyelvis), before you remember that Creepy the Clown is sitting five feet away.

You see where this is going?

By the end of the week, you're all meh. He's a clown in a chair and you've crap to do.

You have become habituated to the clown.

Like all good programming, habituation has a genetic advantage. If we respond to something that is proven safe with a heightened nervous system, we don't have as much attention to give to what is actually dangerous. Now that we're walking upright, we can use this power of habituation to our advantage. Specifically, by writing about past stressful or traumatic situations, we can gain mastery over them, freeing up room to worry about the actual threats, which are far rarer than our ancient limbic systems would have us believe.


At its most basic, a catharsis is an emotional release or a cleansing. You've likely felt catharsis after confessing to a professional or venting to a friend. My first memory of catharsis came when I was seven. My family had moved from a medium-sized city to the small town of Paynesville, Minnesota, right before I began second grade. I had to hit the ground running. New school, new kids, new rules, and I was the kid wearing homemade jeans and garage sale tennis shoes with teeth stained gray due to an antibiotic I was injected with as an infant. As a scraggly bonus, I fiercely refused to comb any part of my hair that I couldn't directly see, which meant that whoever sat behind me got a real treat.

Suffice it to say, I was not fitting in.

That first day on the playground, three girls, their names mercifully lost to time, cornered me by the slide. The one with rainbow barrettes spoke for them all. "Where you from?" Probably she was only curious. Maybe she was trying to be my friend. For sure, I blew it.

"St. Cloud. My dad's an actor on TV."

That's what's called a BIG FAT LIE. My dad had just quit his job as a cartographer to make a go at his dream of being a full-time alcoholic. What black alley that lie lurched out of, I'll never know.

"No way!"

"I swear on my mom's life." The air rushed out of me as soon as I said it. Whoof. Like I'd punched myself in the stomach. My mom was everything to me — security, safety, food, love, my oasis in a hurricane of a home life — and I'd just lied her life away. Talk about following the shit with the shovel.

You better believe the girls wanted to play with me after that. Everyone wanted to play with me. I should have been thrilled, but I was sick at what I'd done. I spent the rest of the day weeping in the nurse's office. When she offered to call my mom to come pick me up, I demurred, positive that if my mom wasn't already dead, she'd certainly croak on the drive in.

At the end of the day, I could barely drag myself off the bus and into the house. Against all odds, my mom was there, dead lady walking. She took one look at me before bundling me inside a hug.

"What's wrong?"

I rolled over on myself like a professional narc.

And you know what? I felt a thousand pounds lighter, imminent punishment for lying notwithstanding. I'd been hauling that weight all day. It felt great to lay it down.

Catharsis really can be that immediate and that effective. Think of cathartic sharing as removing the lid from a bubbling pot, where the steam is any extreme emotion — guilt, fear, anger — that has been bottled up. Engaging a negative experience by talking or writing about it, or a version of it, releases the more intense emotions associated with it. Catharsis "lets off steam."


According to inhibition-confrontation, the third theory of why writing is an effective pathway to emotional healing, it's hard work to avoid thinking about stress or trauma. This is the inhibition part of the name. Somehow, someway, the negative thoughts and impulses leak in despite our best efforts to tamp them down. This denial leads to chronic stress, which takes a toll on the mind and body.

Confronting these stressors through writing — the confrontation part of the name — produces immediate boosts in mental and physical well-being. The trauma or stress — in other words, the stimuli — still exists in memory form, but when you face it, its significance changes.

Here's an example. Think of your life ordeals as zombies trying to get in through your front door. You spend all your energy shoulder-to-the-door trying to keep them out — inhibiting the zombies' arrival — which doesn't leave much time or attention for anything else. Your very survival depends on keeping that door closed, but you're exhausted; you can only keep this up for so long, so you finally let down your guard. The zombies charge through, and — what?? — you realize there were never any flesh-eating monsters on the other side of the door. It was memories of zombies you were holding back this whole time.

The arts, and specifically writing, provide a protected route for opening that door and letting the memories-masquerading-as-life-threats in. Once they're through, you free up all the time and energy you've spent shoring up that door. For my money, the most exciting part of this last theory is that what we've been inhibiting or holding doesn't need to be traumatic or long-buried. Through writing, we can confront even a minor annoyance and still reap health benefits.

In further good news, it isn't necessary to know which one of these three explanations you're tapping into to be sustained and healed by writing. You just need to write. You don't need to choose autobiography or memoir as your vehicle either, though both narrative therapy and expressive writing therapy are centered on factual writing, often in the forms of essays, journals, and letters.

What I have returned from the dark side to tell you is that fiction writing works just as well.

For some of us, it works even better.


In 1996, when nonfiction-specific writing therapy was gaining traction, Dr. Melanie A. Greenberg crafted a clever study in which she measured the curative properties of writing about a real traumatic experience, an imaginary traumatic experience, and a real neutral experience (the control group). Her findings? People writing about imaginary events were less depressed than people writing about actual trauma, and the fiction writers demonstrated significant physical health improvements. I liken this healing power of directed fiction writing to straight-up art therapy. You don't need to (and most of us probably aren't capable of) painting an exact representation of the issues you want to work through. Instead, you paint/sculpt/ write/sketch an abstraction, and in the act of creation lies the cure.

The specific benefits of rewriting your life make even more sense when you consider Dr. Pennebaker's discovery that two elements above all else increase the therapeutic value of writing: creating a coherent narrative and shifting perspective. These are not coincidentally the cornerstones of short story and novel writing. Writers call them plot and point of view. And identical to expressive writing, the creation of fiction involves habituation, catharsis, and inhibition-confrontation, but from an emotionally safer perch than memoir. While I enjoy reading memoirs and wholly support anyone who wants to write them, and all of the healing benefits and many of the instructions in this book can be applied to this type of writing, writing memoir has never felt like a good fit for me. Writing fiction allows me to distance myself, to become a spectator 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 other people's motivations, and provides us practice in controlling attention, emotion, and outcome. 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 we can let go of.


Excerpted from Rewrite Your Life by Jessica Lourey. Copyright © 2017 Jessica Lourey. Excerpted by permission of Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Introduction xi

Orientation xxi

Recommended Packing List xxii

Part I The Power of fictionalizing Your Life 1

Chapter 1 The Science of writing to Heal 3

Chapter 2 Know Thyself 21

Part II The Tools of Tour Transformation 37

Chapter 3 Read Like a Writer 39

Chapter 4 Pick Your Genre 47

Chapter 5 Choose Your Novel Concept 55

Chapter 6 Craft Compelling Characters 87

Chapter 7 Structure Your Story 101

Chapter 8 Create a Sense of Place 117

Chapter 9 Pull It All Together 135

Chapter 10 The Magic of Revision 157

Part III Your Transformation 173

Chapter 11 A Day in the Life 175

Afterword 185

Appendixes 195

A Recommended Reading 197

B Character-Building Table 199

C Essential Writing Terms 201

D Novel Format 205

E The House on Mango Street Scene-by-Scene Outline 207

F Novel Outline Template 213

Bibliography 227

Acknowledgments 233

Customer Reviews