Jennifer Pastiloff visited the Unlocking Your Story workshop this spring and infused us with a kind of creative energy that felt invigorating and liberating. One of my students went home that day and whipped off an essay that had been brewing inside of her. Just like that, it flowed out of her. It's amazing to witness the power of giving ourselves permission, of transcending any negative self-talk, and simply embracing the story that wants to be told.
Jen's debut memoir ON BEING HUMAN hit the shelves last month and it is already a national best-seller. She has cultivated an enormous following on Instagram and travels the world teaching her On Being Human workshops. To glean some of Jen's magic and wisdom, scroll down to read our full conversation about everything from what it means to expose yourself in your writing to identifying your “bullshit story” - the thing that's holding you back. And if you want to experience her live, there are still a couple spots open in her France retreat next May!
Jen Pastiloff travels the world with her unique workshop ”On Being Human,” a hybrid of yoga related movement, writing, sharing out loud, letting the snot fly, and the occasional dance party. In addition to founding the online magazine The Manifest-Station, Jen leads annual retreats to Italy and France and co-teaches Writing and the Body workshops with author Lidia Yuknavitch. She offers scholarships to women who have lost a child through The Aleksander Fund.
Her debut memoir On Being Human (Dutton, 2019) is the story of how a starved person grew into the exuberant woman she was meant to be all along by battling the demons within and winning. She has learned to fiercely listen despite being nearly deaf, to banish shame attached to a body mass index, and to rebuild a family after the debilitating loss of her father when she was eight. Through her journey, Jen conveys the experience most of us are missing in our lives: being heard and being told, “I got you.”
Karin Gutman: How did this book come to be? I know it carries the same name as your popular On Being Human workshops.
Jen Pastiloff: Actually the book came first. I always was a writer from the time I was ... I mean, I started writing stories at six or seven. My dad died when I was eight, and I was doing that before he died. And then when I went to NYU, I was a poet, and I had a fellowship at Bucknell University for poetry. And then, when I had one year left of college, I was about 21 years old, I basically had a nervous breakdown. My mom had moved back to California from New Jersey, so I went there to take a semester off to feel safe, and be with my mom.
I got a summer job at this trendy Hollywood restaurant, and that lasted for almost 14 years, and I never went back to school. And I just got stuck. I got stuck in this rut of feeling worthless, and waiting tables but not doing anything creative, maybe writing one poem every God knows how often. I was doing a lot of yoga, which helped with depression, and I thought I would die there. I mean, I wanted to die. I was that depressed. But I also thought that was my life. I saw no escape route, I saw no possibility. I thought I was old, which is hilarious. I was by this point in my early 30’s—that's hilarious to me now, you know? I was pretending to be an actress during those years. And by pretending, I mean I was waiting at the restaurant for someone to come discover me. That didn't happen.
So, I had all these stories about myself.
I was doing yoga, and my friend suggested I become a yoga teacher. “Why don't you do that as a way to get out of the restaurant? Start doing that.” It did not sound appealing to me. I did not want to be a yoga teacher. And then I finally went on anti-depressants, and my whole life opened up. I thought, “Maybe I will do a yoga teacher training.” Not because I wanted to be a yoga teacher, but because I saw it as a possible way out of this rut of waiting tables at the same place.
So I went to yoga teacher training, and I started teaching yoga, and I got successful really quickly, because I was good with people, not necessarily because I'm this amazing yogi. And then, I started writing again, and I started writing blogs. And then I started writing personal essays, and really just telling the truth about depression. This is ten years ago now, and I was telling the truth about depression and anti-depressants, which nobody was doing back then, especially not a yoga teacher. It was so weird. I was this anomaly.
I was like, “I don't do yoga that much, and I drink wine, and I curse, and I drink coffee.” I was telling the truth, talking about grief, and anorexia, and my hearing loss. And then I started doing that more and more, and I developed this really popular blog, The Manifest-Station. I started creating this workshop, which was at first just yoga, and then I started adding writing prompts.
As my hearing was deteriorating more and more, I started really realizing what an amazing listener I was. I was learning other ways to listen with my whole body. I started getting more creative with this workshop, so it became less and less yoga. So now it's hardly any yoga at all. And I always wanted to write this book, this memoir, and I didn't know what it would be. That was the hardest part, that's what kept me for years not writing it, because I got so stuck in the ... What is it? What is it? What is the structure?
Finally, I sold the book on proposal, but my editors really helped me, saying, “Let's form it around the workshop. Let's use that as a structure.”
Karin: How did you manage to sell if off of a proposal?
Jen: Well, let's talk business. I was an exciting person I think to buy a book from, because they look at me as someone who already has this built-in following, right? So, I think the workshop was always going to be somehow some kind of selling point, because that's where my “celebrity” comes in, and I did not want to talk about the workshops, because again, I said to myself, “I don't want it to be self-help.”
So the first draft wasn't so much about the workshops. And then my friend Emily Black helped me, because my editor at Dutton asked, “Can you weave the workshops in?” And somehow we did it. And I was so not into doing that. But I listened, and it worked, and it ended up perfect. But really, I just didn't want it to be at all like any kind of self-help, I just wanted it to be memoir, or essays, you know?
But really the book always came first. The workshops were by accident. This was always what I want to do, which is really exciting for me. The other day I was thinking about making this meme, like, “What if your dreams all came true but they look different than you thought they would, and they happen at a totally different time?”
So, two weeks ago I was in New York, sitting onstage at the Center for Fiction, sold out, standing room only, standing ovation. And I was sitting there with this big thing behind me that says, Center For Fiction. And I thought, “My God, if my 25-year-old self—who's dropped out of college, who thinks that I'm going to be waitress forever, that I'm the worst garbage pile of a person—could see me at 44.” I just made up my own timeline. I just had no way of knowing how I was going to get there. But I got here.
Karin: You sure did. How does it feel?
Jen: It feels really, really good. The book launch in LA on June 4th was the best night of my life. And then, a couple of days later I went to Portland at Powell's, and I was like, “Wow, this is the best night of my life.” And then in New York, it also did. So those were the three best, besides my son being born, but vastly different, you know? It's going amazing. I hit a wall a week in, because the bad organizer that I am, I scheduled a retreat to France and a workshop in London. My book came out the day I got back. It was the highest high of my life.
And then I crashed. I got sick; I came down in bed, like “Oh my God.” It's a national bestseller, it's doing really well. The emails I'm getting are mind-blowing. It doesn't feel real. Just all over the world, people sending me so many messages.
Karin: Is there a common thread or theme?
Jen: Yes. Almost every single one says, “I feel like you're in my head. I feel like you wrote this for me. And also, I can't stop crying.” And also, people saying, “And this is my second and third time reading it,” which is really wild.
Karin: How incredibly rewarding.
Jen: Yeah. There's something that I talk about in my workshop all the time. I call it the 1 on the 100; it's a chapter in my book. And that's if there's 100 people in a room and everyone loves you except one, who do you focus on? I'm well aware of that tendency, and so I have to keep getting myself in check. Like the other day, I must have been following the hashtag ‘On Being Human’ on Instagram. I didn't even know you could do that. And somebody took a picture of my book from the library and didn't like it, but tagged On Being Human. And so it popped up on my feed, I wasn’t seeking it out.
And it said something like, “I really wanted to love this book. Yeah, not feeling it.” I thought, “Man, I don't need to see that.” But also, it got stuck in my head all of a sudden. So, I'm keeping myself in check with that human tendency, and also to realize that none of it matters either way, really, which is why when I get that email full of praise, to be touched by it, but not make it mean too much. Except, “Oh wow, human connection. That's wonderful.” But not, “Oh, I'm great,” or “I'm really successful.”
It's dangerous, because then my whole self resides upon how other people feel about me. My worth is all about what list am I on. We already live in a world that's like that. I'm not going to contribute to that. I'm here to say, “Actually, no. It's not that way.” So I have to really keep myself in check, because I'm also a human with an ego.
Karin: And what made those three launch events the best days of your life?
Jen: Well, first of all, I've never finished anything. Well I finished having a baby. It was incredible to see my book in the window. That is wild. And you'll never have your first book again. So that was just mind-blowing. And all those people gathered there to celebrate me, and to listen, and Lidia Yuknavich, who wrote the forward in my book was on stage with me, she flew in from Portland. And she started sobbing, because she was so touched, and grateful, and loved me so much. And so that was just ... Oh God, so profound, and intense, and beautiful.
People were there that I've known since childhood, new fans, people who saw it in the LA Times, whatever. But it was just this like, “Wow, I did this thing, and it's touched people.”
And then in New York, at the Center For Fiction, I was the most nervous, I think because when I was a poet, when I was at NYU, to me New York is always the literary end all be all, and my imposter syndrome was really kicking in.
So many writers were there, huge editors, my whole team. I was on stage with my friend who won a Tony the night before, and it just felt like ... I mean, I literally was shitting my pants. But then once I started talking, it was great. I even got them to do this thing called ‘dorking it out’. We played Journey, and everyone stood up and sang—all these New Yorkers, strangers. People in the audience were weeping. It was surreal. And the fact that I didn't float away, that I just stayed in my body, which is something my book is about, and just sat with it, was so wonderful. It just felt fucking wonderful.
Karin: Given that you were intimidated by this audience, was it still easy for you to dork it out and do and what you do so well in your workshops. Were you afraid, wondering if it would fly?
Jen: Of course I was like, “Give me a whiskey.” Once I got present, then it was. And once I just connected with people. And also, I told them how nervous I was. So that's the thing that I do, I said, “You guys, this is New York, and I'm so intimidated by all of you.” I was just so honest about it. And then, once I got them to dork it out and start singing, I was like, “Nah, they're just people. This is great.” The idea of the thing is always much scarier to me than the thing. So I was psyching myself out the first two minutes, but once I started talking and was just really listening and connecting, it was perfect and easy.
Karin: What about the exposure piece for you? In terms of revealing parts of your life with a wide audience and publishing it. I'm assuming that wasn't as much of an issue for you, because you are so open and transparent in your blogging and workshops. Is that aspect inconsequential at this point?
Jen: In a way, but don't forget, when I first started doing this, I wanted to throw up in my mouth every time I hit publish, every time I wrote something vulnerable. It's less so now, yeah, because I am so open in my workshops and in my writing. But still, it's still terrifying.
The things that I chose to share aren't random or haphazard. And not that anyone does in a memoir, but I felt really good about, okay these things I'm okay with putting out in the world. And there were things that I couldn't, and so I didn't, and probably won't until certain people are dead, you know what I mean? I wouldn't say it's inconsequential. No. But I'm okay with it. I don't want to die every time I publish something anymore.
Karin: I know you co-teach a workshop called ‘Writing and the Body’ with the great Lidia Yuknavitch, author of The Chronology of Water among others. How is that the same or different than the On Being Human workshops that you do?
Jen: It is the same, except she's added to it. We really ricochet off each other and work so well together. So we do mine in the morning, and then we have lunch, and then we do hers. With hers, there's no body movement, she gives prompts, and it's just writing; whereas mine uses the body and then I have you stop, drop and write. We both know our bodies carry our stories.
I actually use body movement, whereas Lidia just has a way of tapping in with her generosity as a teacher, with the wacky-ass way she looks at the world. So she will give prompts, things that are just so out of the box, that are really dipping into the imagination, and breaking rules. But it helps when we do my stuff first. The reason I use the body is because what I discovered is, the more that we are connected to being in our body, the less cerebral we are, the less armored we are. And so your walls are down a bit more, you're not as guarded. You're more willing to be vulnerable. One of Lidia's questions she asks all the time is, “And what's underneath of that? And what's underneath of that?” And it's a lot easier to get there I think when you're fatigued, or you're more connected to being in your body.
In France, I did a poetry workshop, and it was so incredible because none of these people considered themselves “poets,” and some of the poetry that came out of it was just astounding. It's cool because a lot of people who have labeled themselves as not a real writer, or perhaps they don't want to write for any endgame, being published, but they still want to write or create art.
Karin: That comes up so often in my workshops, when people say, “I'm not a real writer.”
Jen: It’s so insidious. I talk in the book about bullshit stories, and my big bullshit story was, “I'm not a real writer.” And so, now I'm holding up a book by a big publishing house, so can I say that anymore? But what I said on a podcast last week was, I was always a real writer. Unfortunately, it took me having a book to realize the fallacy of that. I don't know how to type. I type with two fingers, that's one reason that I'm not a real writer. I don't have a college degree. I don't have an MFA…
Another thing I talk about in the book is the ‘Just A Box’, like, “I'm just a yoga teacher.” “I'm just a mom.” “I'm just a memoirist.” So when I started doing all this work and started becoming successful with these workshops, it was so tricky for me, because everyone was like, “Yeah, Jen's this yoga person.” When in reality, I never wanted to be a yoga teacher. It's just hilarious. So I got labeled. And now, I swear, I could give a shit how you think of me. That's your business.
Karin: How did you let go of that?
Jen: I really started listening to the people that I was affecting, and it had nothing to do with putting a label on me. I started thinking, “Oh, you know it's about human connection. It doesn't matter.” Somebody sent me a stupid review—the person wrote, “This is not a literary memoir.” Well first of all, I beg to differ. But also, I never said it was. Nowhere is it marketed that way.
Another way I let that go too—and this is stuff I learned just from putting a book out there and going through the process—at the end of the day you want to sell books. So after I wrote the book, I said, “It doesn't matter to me what you call it. Just get it and read it.”
Also, I really work on being congruent as best as I can, meaning, if this is what I'm teaching in the world, then I have to do whatever I can to really walk the talk and believe that. I have to, otherwise I'm just full of shit.
One of the ways I healed from an eating disorder was… when I was teaching yoga and I started doing these workshops, all these people were coming to me, because I was writing about it as if I was healed, and I was not starving myself anymore, but the mental stuff was still there. I thought, “Oh, I'm just an asshole, because I'm still hating myself, and doing all this bullshit.” And I realized, “If I want to be who I say I am…” which is why this mantra, “May I have the courage to be who I say I am,” is my most important. Because everything I teach, and I say, and I write, I believe, at least in that moment. And a great epiphany of my life is, you get to change your mind. So I look back at things I wrote ten years ago, and I've changed my mind. So that's okay too.
Karin: How do you manage being a mom while writing a book and traveling around doing your workshops?
Jen: That's the hilarious part. I'm in a one-bedroom, we co-sleep. We share a bed, my husband, my son and myself in a fucking one-bedroom. I'm happy, and I'm blessed, and I'm content. Do I wish we had another bedroom? Yes. So it's hard, you know? When he was still breastfeeding, I brought him everywhere. Before he was one, he had 20-something flights, literally.
So I bring him as much as I can. Next week I have a reading in Denver, and I'm bringing him for a couple days; in Massachusetts, D.C. and North Carolina in July. But when I do the retreats to Europe, I can't bring him, because I pay a shit ton of money for his school, and because it's so much money to fly; it's also harder to do my work when I also have to be a mom. And so, I have a couple moments of guilt, but then I really do think, how cool, that my son came to my launches in LA and Portland. He won't remember most likely, but that'll be in him somewhere.
How cool that he gets to see his mom out there doing stuff, living, and her whole identity isn't a mom. I think that is so important, and it really makes me proud. I had a kid older. I was 41 when he was born, so I do think I'm wiser. Do I wish I was younger when I had a child for reasons just like it would be easier and I wouldn't be as tired? Yes. But I like myself so much better, and I feel like I have insight, having him at 41 that I would not have had at 31.
Karin: I recently watched your Love Forward Talk and I really appreciated you talking about the power of being witnessed and bearing witness to others’ stories.
Jen: I always talk about that.
Karin: And yet it’s often such a foreign idea to people, this idea of ‘holding space’.
Jen: This is why I'm successful, this is why my workshop works, exactly because of what you said, because it is so powerful. So, I don't do any magic tricks or anything, I just provide the space where people are able to really feel seen and heard. And it is so rare, and magical, and disarming, and amazing that people want more of it. I think because most of us walk around with so much armor on, and we're so afraid that someone won't like us if they know the real us, so we have just gotten used to not being fully ourselves.
And so, when we sit and just listen to someone without an agenda, like, “I'm not trying to fix you, I'm just here.” Which I really think, especially for grief, is what people need. It's the most powerful thing ever, because there's nothing for the other person to do. Oftentimes when someone—especially with grief—tries to placate you, or make you feel better, then you have to end up making them feel better. Like, “Oh no, it's okay.” The way we live in the world, we're not used to letting ourselves be seen because we're so afraid of being judged. We're all so addicted to being busy that we don't stop and just listen.
We don't realize how powerful silence is, that it's like, “Oh, you just listening is so huge.” Everything is about being busy, and as long as I'm making noise, or bullshit. I mean, being heard is everything. And the irony of me, I am deaf without my hearing aids, is beautiful. My favorite words are, “It's going to be okay.” And so to me, when someone is listening, or seeing you, however you want to phrase it, that's what it feels like.
I think most of us are afraid. We're afraid to really take our armor off, and then when we do, that the person won't stay because they won't like us or they'll turn away or whatever. And so when someone just sits there with us, and they don't vomit because they think we're a disgusting person, because that's what we've been telling ourselves, it's so powerful.
Isn't it amazing, the most simple thing is the most powerful, and it is so rare. And that's just to be seen and heard.
Karin: What do you think the key is to unlocking your story?
Jen: What I say in my workshops—which are always in yoga studios mostly— is, you only need two things. Forget yoga. You only need two things: Listen and tell the truth. What does that mean? Well, listen to yourself, listen to quiet, what happens when you sit down with a pen and paper or open a blank document. And tell the truth. I'm not suggesting that you overshare or tell everyone everything, because that's not right, that's not memoir. But tell the truth as it pertains to you, and as it feels true to you.
And then, the third bonus really would be to release yourself from the opinion of others. Which is hard, and I haven't done it yet. But I'm working on it, of letting go of, “What will they think?” So one of the things I say to myself is this. “It's worse than you think. They're not thinking about you at all.” Have a sense of humor. You have to have a sense of humor. If you don't have a sense of humor, you're dead.
I used to be obsessed with Wayne Dyer. And he used to say, “Release yourself from the good opinion of other people.” I don't know, it just sounds holy.
On Being Human Retreat
with Jennifer Pastiloff
May 30th - June 6th, 2020
Only three spots open
Wake Up, Live Real, & Listen Hard during this wonderful retreat, On Being Human. We will spend time ‘going deep and embracing all the things that consume us’. There will be yoga and meditation with Elizabeth Conway and we will also share time with other guest teachers. For the yoga practices, no yoga experience is required. Jen always says, ‘stop being assholes to yourself’ so you'll spend this time together learning to stop. By the way, Jen owns the domain ‘DontBeAnAsshole.net’.
For more info or questions, complete this form with France Retreat in the subject line.