Eighteen-year-old Phillip was in trouble. He’d fled his overbearing family of Alaskan fishermen to pursue his dream of acting. Now, in the smoke-choked haze of a Los Angeles evening, the dream was nothing more than a mirage. And Mr. Biggs was nowhere to be found. Phillip held grimly onto the sack of cash, while the approaching sirens grew louder.
This is part of the tale that story-teller and writing coach extraordinaire Susan DeFreitas coaxed out of Megan Smith’s Joseph Charter School writing class Thursday morning. A novelist, short story writer, and self-proclaimed fiction addict, DeFreitas is Fishtrap’s 2019 Writer in Residence.
Her most recent work, “Hot Season,” won a 2017 Independent Publisher West-Mountain gold award for Best Regional Fiction.” It is the first of a trilogy that explores the different ways that three different segments of society respond to a threatened river.
DeFreitas has spent most of her life in rural communities, but now lives in Portland. She is a naturally gifted teacher and a perfect choice as writer in residence. Her duties here include presenting talks, workshops, and inspiration for budding writers in local schools throughout Wallowa County .
“There’s never been a human society without stories,” she said. “Some societies have been without wheels. Some without writing. But all of us have stories. … They hold seeds of the truth, of how to understand people, of how to get along in life and with one-another. We wouldn’t know anything beyond our own experience without story.”
In fact, stories seem to be elemental to human biology, DeFreitas noted. “Functional MRI studies show that when we are reading a story, our brain activity is more like we are a participant in the action, rather than an observer,” she said. “That’s hardwired into our brains. So stories are learning experiences. They can heal. They especially can help us navigate social relationships. And they can prepare us to meet threats we haven’t faced yet.”
DeFreitas has three basic guidelines for aspiring fiction writers:
First, every story needs the arc of a plot. Second, the concept of character, especially for the protagonist, is critical. And third, the main character needs to have goals that matter, and motives for achieving them. “If the protagonist doesn’t get what they want, and doesn’t learn anything in the process of the story,” she said, “that’s what we call a tragedy.”
Many students in Wallowa County’s schools have the potential to be exceptional writers, DeFreitas noted. “There is a bit of a fantastical view of the larger world outside of their home,” she said. “But everyone here studies the good, foundational texts, there’s a solid writing program within the schools, and Fishtrap offers a lot of inspiration and support.”
What happened to Phillip? Smith’s writing class will determine whether he triumphs over his evil mentor, Mr. Biggs, and whether he returns contritely to his Alaskan home, or chooses to navigate the even more treacherous waters of an acting career. Stay tuned.