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Baylor Professor SJ Murray practices what she preaches on the power of “insanely great” storytelling

Baylor Professor Sarah-Jane Murray speaks to a rapt audience at TedX in Santa Cruz, CA, earlier this year
Baylor Professor Sarah-Jane Murray speaks to a rapt audience at TedX in Santa Cruz, CA, earlier this year.

An Emmy-nominated and award-winning screenwriter and producer – and Baylor’s top teacher for the 2005-06 school year, Dr. Sarah-Jane (SJ) Murray delivered a widely praised (and viewed) local TEDx talk in San Antonio in November 2014 that sought to explain why stories matter.  SJ graduated with honors from Auburn University with a BA in French and Philosophy (after dabbling for a few years in the engineering school); received the Ecole Normale Superieure Lettres et Sciences Humaines diploma in French and Linguistics; earned her PhD in Literature from Princeton, where she won the Porter Ogden Jacobus Prize as outstanding student of the graduate school; and studied screenwriting at UCLA under legendary department chairman Richard Walter.  A founding college master in the Baylor Honors College Living and Learning Center, SJ has been teaching story design, literature, leadership & creativity, and filmmaking at Baylor since 2003 (including medieval literature and French early on).  

She calls her approach Story Design, a structured approach to outlining “insanely great” stories based on how they affect our brains, create emotional impact, and withstand the test of time.  SJ’s 2014 release of a free Story Design template went viral in 135 countries.  She’s written two e-books – Three Act What? And Hardwired for Story, and will release a paperback this year called Basics of Story Design.  SJ sat down with Line Notes to discuss the things that inspire her.

Dr. SJ Murray
Dr. SJ Murray

What do you mean when you talk about “story rhetoric?”  I believe insanely great stories operate on something akin to a DNA structure. It can shift from medium to medium but some things remain constant. What I like to call story rhetoric represents those principles at work under the surface of the story. And the story design process is the way we go about implementing those principles in the design process.

You were born in Ireland.  What makes the Irish great storytellers?  It’s a really small island where people have lived for thousands of years in close quarters and bad weather, so they sit around the fireplace telling stories, which is a great way to pass time.  The Irish are also really friendly and have learned they can connect with people through storytelling.

Lots of people preach the value of storytelling.  What makes your approach different?  I am building on blocks that others have put in place, with a focus on storytelling traditions in both medieval Europe, in literature, and in film – stories that have stood the test of time.  My Story Design approach helps writers face the blank page and is relevant if you’re planning a novel, film, or documentary…or even a video game.

You’ve lived and worked in a lot of places.  What makes Baylor special?  There is a hunger and curiosity within the student body that is second to none.  You’d be hard-pressed to find a group that is more eager to learn and are teachable – and that’s a big deal in the current world we live in.  There’s an exciting collision at Baylor of students who can be entrepreneurial while showing a great respect for learning.  All too often, entrepreneurs go their own way; they don’t feel that anyone can teach them anything.  That’s not the case here.

What’s your superpower?  My students would probably say it’s my optimism.  But I think it’s my resilience and grit.  People say I seem serene – part of that is my unbridled faith that God is steering the ship – but nobody’s on top of life all the time.  You hit bumps.  I believe that life throws great punches.  Your life will be challenging,  But as Obi Wan told Darth Vader, “Come back stronger than before.”

How do you approach productivity and making progress?  I try to make sure I read at least one new book every week (if not more).  I watch a movie every day.  Leisure time is just as important as the time you spend at your desk.  We get caught up in “busy-ness” – the idea of throughput vs. output (chipping away).  Downtime helps with problem solving, so I never finish a day without reading something, watching something, and writing something.  People say they never have enough time to do something creative, but a novel can be written a paragraph at a time.  You just have to commit to it.

What’s inspiring you right now?  I loved the updated edition of Never Eat Alone by Keith Ferrazzi and seeing how people have taken to the programs in the original version.  I’ve been on a Malcolm Gladwell kick of late and really liked Blink and how he showed that an expert’s gut feelings tend to be validated by the research (although you still need to do the research).  I have been on a fiction binge and have really been enjoying the short stories of Flannery O’Conner, and I love blockbusters and am really excited about the new Star Wars – my brother and I grew up with the original movies and I’m really excited to see where they’re going to take the story – but I also liked a few documentaries at Sundance – End of the Tour, Cartel Land and 3 ½ Minutes, which won a Special Jury Prize.

Does it still feel like a risk when you try something new?  Always.  I wrote my first short story this year, for a literary magazine called CURA.  When I was approached to do it, I thought they wanted me to write an essay about the power of storytelling, but they wanted me to write a short story or poem.  I believe that all skills are transferrable, and that there are a lot of cliffs we walk up to that are scary just before you leap off and fly a bit.  Taking the leap into the world of film was a risk too.  But the payoffs have been extraordinary.  Risk is synonymous with fun and adventure and being willing to do wrong.

Professionally speaking, what’s your best work?  I hope it’s something I haven’t written yet.  I’m really proud of an article on Marie de France that I wrote for Modern Philology.  I’m just finishing up a huge translation project – the first English translation of the Ovide Moralise from Old French for the National Endowment for the Arts.  I have a screenplay in the works that I’m really excited about but can’t really talk about yet.  I’ve got a documentary in the works for 2016 about the importance of preserving the arts and what happens if we marginalize them.  But I’m most proud of my students, who are focused on making an impact and being great.  It’s so cool when you see a class like last semester’s Great Texts in Leadership seminar come together and strike a nerve with the entire group.  It became a place where I was both teacher and student.  Each person wrote me long letters during the term about what the class meant to them, and they each came up with amazing projects.  I’m looking forward to offering it again this fall, but with some tweaks to the texts we read and the films we watch so I can keep it fresh.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever gotten?  Get used to rejection, which I view as “not yet a yes, something that’s not quite right, and very much an opportunity to grow.  Phil Roman, who got his start with Walt Disney as an assistant animator on Sleeping Beauty, told me that if I improve my skill set 1% every day, by the end of the year, I’ll have improved 300+% even if I take off weekends.  And that works out to 1,000% every three years.


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1 thought on “Baylor Professor SJ Murray practices what she preaches on the power of “insanely great” storytelling”

  1. SJ— Was part of the Writers Workshop –Jan ’14–and so enjoyed your presentation—and this article. I have now published my book—and am still involved with this group. Come back and see us sometime. Sic ’em , BEN cell–501-984-0606

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