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Please welcome new Writer Unboxed contributor Susan DeFreitas to Writer Unboxed today! Susan is the IPPY-Award winning author of the novel Hot Season, the story of “an outlaw activist on the run” and most recently the editor of Dispatches from Anarres: Tales in Tribute to Ursula K. Le Guin. She is also the creator of Story Medicine—the course for writers who want to use their power as storytellers to support a more just world, and a Founding Coach for Author Accelerator. Her essays have been featured in the Writer’s Chronicle, LitHub, the Huffington Post, the Utne Reader, and elsewhere.

As an independent editor and book coach, she specializes in helping writers from historically marginalized backgrounds, and those writing socially engaged fiction, break into publishing.

You can learn more about Susan on her website, and by following her on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.

When Story Is Medicine

There are many different kinds of stories in this world.

Stories that stoke our curiosity with tantalizing clues and tricky plot reveals. Stories that touch our hearts with “aww, isn’t that sweet, the world isn’t a total flaming Dumpster fire” sorts of moments. Stories that linger with us for a few days, and then lift off and drift away.

There’s nothing wrong with those types of stories. But to my mind, the very best stories do more than that.

The very best stories act as medicine, delivering some emotional insight or understanding that changes who we are, on some level, and the way we operate in the world. And they stay with us much, much longer.

These types of stories often come to us at our hour of greatest need, and one came to me in 2015, when I was recovering from cancer: Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things.

On the surface, this novel offers a fine escape from reality: It’s a historical novel, set in the 1800s, and chronicles the life of a female botanist and her ill-fated marriage to a pious lithographer with an almost otherworldly sense of goodness about him.

For me, it was the perfect novel to read while on the mend from the surgery that, as it turned out, would save my life: immersive, transportive, funny, intellectually stimulating, and even a bit sexy at times. (It also clocks in at 500 pages, which is a great length for putting reality firmly on hold.)

But there’s a message at the heart of this novel (and my sharing this with you won’t spoil the story, because as with any story, it’s the journey, not the destination, that ultimately matters). This message is that being good, being pure of heart, being selfless and giving and kind—being all those things that women especially are taught to be—may get you into heaven but will not save you here on earth. Because here on earth, it is often the toughest that survive—the ones with the strongest will to live, the strongest love for life itself, in all its messy, earthly glory.

You can imagine how visceral this message was for me, at this time in my life. Elizabeth Gilbert gave me a great gift with that novel, and that gift was the emotional, bone-deep understanding that life is not, in fact, fair, but it is precious—and sometimes, if we want to hold onto it, we have to actually fight for it.

There’s an indigenous concept of story as medicine—the idea that the right story, at the right time, can actually heal you, in spirit and maybe even in body. For me, The Signature of All Things is such a story, and like all of the novels I’ve loved best in my life, I carry it with me, inside me, wherever I go.

As a novelist, and as a book coach specializing in socially engaged fiction, I’ve spent a lot of time studying what gives certain stories this extra dimension, and the potential to actually change lives.

Here, to my mind, are three characteristics of such novels:

They Reflect the Hard Truths of Reality

Novels that offer story medicine are not just built around car crashes and jewel heists, or fantasies of romance and happily ever after. Such novels take a clear-eye look at the hard truths of reality.

In The Signature of All Things, one of the hard truths the author grapples with might be paraphrased with the title of a Billy Joel song: “Only the Good Die Young.” The protagonist’s husband is so good, so generous and kind that he verges upon saintly, and he essentially dies because he’s too good to fight back. It’s really not fair, and that’s the point: How are we to live in a world that is inherently unfair?

This is a theme echoed by the fact that the protagonist’s work as a botanist is all but dismissed in the time she lives in, simply because she’s a woman. How is she to live in such a world? How are any of us to?

It’s only by staring down the hard truths of the world and reckoning with them that we can offer our own hard-won truths as the antidote, the cure (or at least the coping method), and offer our readers that medicine in our work.

Further examples of novels that offer story medicine, to my mind, include A.S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book, which grapples with the horrors of WWI, Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, which wrestles against the siren song of nihilism in a universe full of random (or maybe even not so random) violence, and (lest you think these sorts of novels only come in the form of door stoppers) Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower, which deals with the long and complicated aftermath of childhood sexual abuse.

 They Offer Real Emotional Insight

Of course, almost any garden-variety novel has some kind of trauma, violence, or injustice at its core—but these types of stories generally just describe, catalogue, or even exploit that sickness. They don’t actually attempt to offer a cure.

To do that, you have to go deeper. You have to dig into why these sorts of injustices exist in the first place, and how they’re perpetuated—the chain of events in your antagonist’s past that made them who they are, the backstory that leads your protagonist to continue making exactly the wrong choice.

Often, this means digging into the truths of your own heart, your own emotional journey as a person—the things you’ve learned through adversity, and the things you know in your own heart of hearts to be true. Because those are some of the most valuable insights you have to offer your reader, and they’re where the unexpected answers to life’s most persistent questions often lie.

They Chart a Convincing Path to Transformation

Finally, stories that act as medicine take their protagonists through a convincing arc of change—from seeing the world one way to seeing it another, and often from a place of disconnection or illusion to a place of connection or clarity.

And that part about the path being convincing is critical, because if the transformation comes across as unrealistic—meaning, if it doesn’t actually touch on the real challenges that arise for someone grappling with those hard truths, and doesn’t move in a realistic way through all of the emotional gears involved, it won’t ultimately produce a real sense of catharsis or revelation for the reader in the end.

And that, ultimately, is the goal of this type of story: To deliver real insight with the force of strong emotion—because that, in the end, is what makes them unforgettable.

What are the hard truths that your novel grapples with? What emotional insights does it offer? And what is the path your protagonist must traverse, in order to reach their point of transformation?

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About Susan DeFreitas

Susan DeFreitas is the author of the novel Hot Season, which won a Gold IPPY Award, the editor of Dispatches from Anarres: Tales in Tribute to Ursula K. Le Guin, and the creator of Story Medicine—the course for writers who want to use their power as storytellers to support a more just and verdant world. Her work has been featured in the Writer’s Chronicle, LitHub, the Huffington Post, the Utne Reader, Story, Daily Science Fiction, Oregon Humanities, and elsewhere. An independent editor and Author Accelerator Founding Coach, she specializes in helping writers from historically marginalized backgrounds, and those writing socially engaged fiction, break through into publishing. She divides her time between Santa Fe, New Mexico, and Portland, Oregon.

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