Jen Grisanti is a script consultant, public speaker, writing instructor, author, and take-no-prisoners entrepreneur. Basically? She’s a go-to for writers who are seeking to take their work to the next level (a.k.a. employment).
A friend first introduced me to Jen’s work a couple of years ago. As a writer, I’m always looking for inspiration to improve upon my craft—be it books, interviews, or podcasts. And as someone who’s hyper self-aware and a hardcore Oprah “Super Soul Sunday” devotee, I am also always on the lookout for resources to improve my potential and myself.
So what a gift it was when I was introduced to Jen’s first book, Story Line: Finding the Gold in Your Story (she’s also written Change Your Life, Change Your Story: A Path to Success), which is able to do both. Jen uses the elements of story, along with profound insights, to help guide her readers to a new awareness of their strengths and weaknesses, so that they can align their personal and professional self. Jen knows what she writes. She offers personal stories of her own "all is lost moments" (the end of her marriage, the loss of her job after 15 years with two sister companies) and how she turned them around and found more meaning in her life.
Despite her busy schedule (this year, so far, she’s participating in The Big Island Film Festival, The TV Writers’ Summit, The Story Expo, Comic Con, Wonder Con, and The Great American Pitchfest, all while continuing her tenure as instructor for Writers on the Verge at NBC), I was able to get a hold of Jen to discuss her unique perspective on storytelling and how we can all (both writers and non-writers) find the gold in our stories.
Why is storytelling so important?
Storytelling is so significant because it connects you with your audience. It allows people to hear your voice. This helps people to know you, and in turn, to access things about themselves. That is one of the big things storytelling is all about: connecting to the human experience. The ability to tell a strong story transfers to business and in life. By understanding how to tell and sell your story, you increase your chances of success.
Your book, Story Line: Finding the Gold in Your Story, explores how a writer can find the "gold" in her life experience and to apply it to fiction to enhance its authenticity and emotional depth. How do you feel that translates for the non-writer? Does everyone have "gold" in their life?
We all have “gold” in our stories. Our gold can be found in our moments of greatest joy and deepest sorrow. For the fiction writer, it is about mining these moments for the emotional truth that emerges. For the non-writer, the way that we respond in these moments defines who we are. For example, when our life takes a turn for the worse, we have two choices. We can either fall victim to the turn or we can become an active hero in our own story. Action defines our character in fiction and in life.
Our emotional truth is revealed in these moments. In life, we can use this emotional truth to communicate our story in a way that can lead us to success on all levels.
One of my favorite exercises in Story Line was identifying my Universal Life Moments. Can you talk about what they are, and what makes them so vital to our lives and the stories we tell?
Universal life moments are moments that everyone can connect with in the life process. Moments like falling in love, experiencing a broken heart, getting married, having children, getting divorced, graduating from school, getting your dream job, losing your dream job, etc.
In your book, Change Your Story, Change Your Life: A Path To Your Success, you discuss moving from ego to spirit. I know this is something that I struggle with, both as a person and writer. Could you explain the difference between the two, and how one moves from one to the other in life? Where do we see it in terms of storytelling?
Yes. I do love this part of the character arc in life and in story. Our arc of growth happens as a result of the obstacles that we hit. Typically, when we want to achieve a goal, it is for ego related reasons. We want to get a perfect job. We want to get married so that we find our “happily ever after.” We want to achieve so that we feel validated. It is during these pursuits that we hit obstacles. When we hit obstacles, we become humbled. When we are humbled, we begin to see the pursuit in a different way. If I achieve this goal, it won’t be just about me, it will be about helping the greater good. The achievement becomes about more than just the ego. It evolves into spirit in this process. When we can see the goal in terms of how it will affect others, it goes into the greater good.
In Story Line, I gave the example of Ryan's character in Up in the Air (played by George Clooney). In the beginning, he does not want to lose his high flying single lifestyle because he believes that we should go through life carrying an “empty” backpack, symbolizing non-commitment. He wants to achieve his goal of his company not firing people on the computer so that he can continue to get his “miles” and continue his single lifestyle. During his pursuit, he hits several obstacles including falling into the water with the picture of his sister and her fiancé (symbolizing his biggest fear—commitment); he also has Natalie (the character that brought in the idea of changing the company) tell him that he “puts himself in a cocoon of self banishment.” Slowly he begins to see that his philosophy is no longer serving him.
Eventually Ryan realizes that his motive of not being grounded is no longer about his keeping his single lifestyle—it’s about firing people in person so that the compassion can be there. His decision to be stay "up in the air" becomes about serving the greater good.
Your books discuss change, growth, evolution. A lot of people have to hit rock bottom in order to make substantial change in their lives. Why do you think that is?
Part of my intention with writing Change Your Story, Change Your Life: A Path To Success was to illustrate to people how you can turn your “all is lost” moment into a new beginning. I think this is because this is what I did in my story. I took what I once thought was the lowest moment in my story (the loss of a job after 15 years with two sister companies while in the middle of my pursuit to run a studio) and I used it to redefine my direction and create a whole new path that has brought me greater success on every level. The ironic thing is that I always knew that I wanted to be an author and teach storytelling around the world. But instead of my trigger incident moving me away from this goal, it actually moved me toward it; in fact, it's the very reason that I am teaching storytelling all over the world and have written three books. It also led me to teach storytelling from an authentic place of only wanting the story to be the best that it could be versus being driven by what the studio or network wants.
On a personal level, the result of my last trigger incident of losing my job also led me to find the love of my life. I met him while speaking in Hawaii at The Big Island Film Festival. None of this would have happened, if my “all is lost” moment hadn’t happened. My message is that you can turn your darkness into light by being an active hero in your story.
What is the first step in someone becoming the active hero in her life?
The first step to someone becoming an active hero in her own life is defining a goal. I think one of the hardest things in life is defining what we want. Then, it’s about putting it out to the universe through our words and our actions. Define what you want. Set a goal. Take actions toward the goal. Understand how your personal dilemma connects with your professional pursuit and use it to fuel you toward your destiny. By this, I mean understand what you have to lose if you do not attain this goal. This is the why behind your what. If you understand your why, you can use it as fuel to get you toward your goal.
At the end of Story Line, you ask, "What message are you sending out?" How important is it for writers, and non-writers, to have a message? And why? How do we begin to find our "message"?
I believe that one of the most important things about writing is having a clear message. What do you want your audience to walk away with? When I see films and watch TV, I am always asking myself, “What are they trying to say with this?” If it’s not clear, the story is not as strong as it could be. This goes into why you want to tell this particular story. You find your “message” by simply understanding what you want to say and why you want to say it. More advanced writers understand how to weave this in through the link between theme, symbolism and message.
If there is one thing that you wish your readers (both writers and non-writers) would get from your books, what would that be? What's your message?
If I were to narrow my books down to one message, it would be that when it comes to story on the page and in life, you can create your success through understanding how to tell and sell your story. I would also say that belief is the key ingredient to all of success.
You have a thriving consulting business. You teach. You write. You're an international spokesperson. How do you find the time to balance it all—plus, manage a personal life?
I go to bed at 9:30 p.m. and wake up at 4:30 a.m. This helps me to keep everything in balance. The first thing that I do in the morning is meditate. Then, I plan my day. Then, I go to the gym. I make lists of my top priorities for the day. I block out my time for reading for my meetings on my calendar.
With my personal life, I am in a life place where I understand the significance of making time for this. It is a major priority. With a creative person, it is important to understand that your personal life is where you find your inspiration. I have found the love of my life. He also has a demanding job and is very ambitious. I feel like we have similar levels of intellect, joy and spirit. This allows us to communicate in a way that keeps everything in balance.
What inspires you most in life?
I would say that I am inspired most in life by the breath and just being and embracing all that is. We are exactly where we are supposed to be. By being completely conscious and present, I am able to absorb all that is around me including the beauty of nature, the people in my life and the stories that surface from all that is. I’ve done yoga for over 20 years so that is also a big source of my inspiration.
In Story Line, you ask your readers to create a logline from moments of their life. What's your current logline that best describes where you're at right now?
When a woman who is plagued by loss on many levels meets the love of her life and they are separated by distance, she discovers the key to true intimacy is coming from the heart and realizing that after loss, there is so much to gain.