Fiction usually refers to something that isn’t true, but novelist Annie Downey credits her fictional creations with teaching her enough about herself to make a complete transformation, from a single mom on welfare to a happily married author and life coach. Downey now uses some simple writing exercises to help her clients springboard from fiction to big changes.
Whether it’s a relationship dilemma or a yearning for a new career, make-believe can lead to real-life reinvention. You too can explore life’s possibilities by writing fiction, even if you’re not a writer. Here’s how it worked for Downey, and how it can happen for you.
Downey’s first novel, a chick-lit gem called Hot and Bothered, explored the deeply autobiographical territory of single motherhood. Now she’s writing a novel about 40-something women sandwiched between caring for kids and parents. “It really mirrors my own experiences,” she says, “and helps me see I’m not isolated and alone in the transition. I’m making some really beautiful connections as a result.”
We can all learn plenty from such connections, and let them guide us forward into new phases and areas of our lives. “As a culture, we are storytellers. Fictionalizing gives us the freedom we need to step outside the reality and constraints of our lives, and see more possibilities,” Downey says.
Dabbling in fiction works, explains Sara Rector, a marriage and family therapist in Thousand Oaks, California, because “when we feel stuck, we so often get caught up in the facts of our situation. So when I ask clients to imagine what their lives could be like, they’ll get hung up and say, `But this or that isn’t true.’ Fiction frees them to create any possible reality they want.”
Beyond that, Rector says it also pushes people to focus on what they dowant, rather than what they don’t, “and that’s the whole basis of positive psychology. Writing, whether in the form of fiction or plain old journaling, helps people clarify their goals.”
Try these simple exercises to get started, and relax. It’s not like you’ll send your musings to anyone for publication (unless you want to). Part of the freedom comes from knowing how private literary fantasies can be:
Five Other Lives Create five stories imagining completely different lives you might have led, doing anything you wanted. What if you had joined the Merchant Marine instead of getting married? Explored Africa in the 1700s? Become a 23rd century farmer? The point is thinking outside the box, Downey says, digging deep into areas that intrigued you long ago. “There is a part of all of us that is much more malleable, in our most childlike minds. What brought you joy as a little kid?”
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These five story lines aren’t likely to lead to a new career, she says, but they do offer clues. “Let’s say one of these lives was to be an archaeologist. It may give you ideas about aspects of that career you can bring into your life right now.”
Why five? “Fiction is like creating one of those vision boards,” she says. “There can be lots of different images and fragments. Consider all of them and see where they lead you.”
Your life, circa 2023 Rector sometimes asks clients to write about a life they imagine for themselves 10 years from now. “I ask them to use all their senses—what will they be seeing? Hearing? Tasting? All those little details can provide clues about things you want in your life that aren’t there now.”
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The Make-Believe Want Ad While Downey says this trick works particularly well for people flummoxed by romance, it can offers lessons for everybody. “I ask them to write a made-up personal ad, not just for who they want to attract, but for who they want to be.”
The Fantasy Do-Over In real life, nothing can erase nightmare marriages, bad-news bosses or ill-considered financial choices. But fiction provides a magic wand, and imagining how you’d use your one precious do-over can offer plenty of insights.
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Can you bring fiction to life? Downey thinks so. “As I was writing my first novel, I was a single mother, very poor and cleaning houses, doing what I had to do as I wrote the book. During the research, though, going back and forth to Boston, I attracted Mr. Perfect into my life. Seeing your life in a whole new way doesn’t take logical thinking, it takes creativity. Writing made my life beautiful.”