I first met Jen Pastiloff when she invited me to submit work to The Manifest Station, a popular online magazine, which features personal writing from both new and established writers. For Jen, the process of writing and constructing personal essays is not a solitary activity (as it is often presented in the media); it’s about actively forging connections and increasing our empathy for one another. Jen is one of the most genuine, loving people I know.
Jen is a self-described Rule-Breaker, Shame-Buster, BeautyHunter, LipReader, WayMaker, TruthTeller, and Bullshit-Eliminator. She travels the world with her unique workshop “The Manifestation Workshop: On Being Human,” a hybrid of yoga, writing, sharing out loud, and the occasional dance party. She has been featured on Good Morning America, New York Magazine, and CBS News. She studied poetry and writing at NYU and Bucknell University and leads annual retreats to Italy and California as well as many other places. When she is not traveling she is based in Los Angeles where she lives with her husband and soon, her new baby, who is now simply called Little Dude. When she is not pregnant you can find her sipping a nice pinot noir. She is deaf as a post and she enjoys laughing at herself, most of the time. You’re most likely to find her these days eating a brownie or on Instagram, and I am delighted that I was able to coax her away long enough to be interviewed here at The Rumpus about her work as a writer, yogi, and soon-to-be mom.
The Rumpus: So much of your work is about giving women and girls a voice. Why is this particular project so important to you?
Jen Pastiloff: Ah, yes. Girl Power: You Are Enough is my latest, and most exciting, endeavor. I have always wanted to work with young women. Perhaps it’s because, like so many of us, I wish I had had someone or something at that age, a place to express myself, a place to call home. Of course, we didn’t have social media then, which creates a whole new world of opportunity for connection and creativity (and also a whole new world of problems). It was during those years, when I was around seventeen, that I developed severe anorexia. It was as if something broke inside of me and I couldn’t get it back, for years. And so much of my adult years have been spent feeling like I am stuck as an adolescent, at that point where something snapped inside of me. I relate to people that age deeply, maybe because that was the inception of such a terrible time for me.
It’s only recently that I have begun to feel like I am healing from that, although I want to make clear how I feel about the idea of healing. I think that many people have an illusion that when you “heal” things miraculously disappear for good. That’s not been true for me, or most people I know. It’s a process. A one foot in front in front of the other, one breath at a time, process. So I knew I wanted to work with young women but I didn’t know how. I lead these workshops around the world, which I call The Manifestation Workshop: On Being Human; they are pretty spectacular. Not necessarily because of me, or what I am doing, but because of what happens in the room. It’s an experience like nothing else I have had, or imagined. People move their bodies and write and share and laugh and go inward as well as outward, and I challenge them to be silly and dorky and “give less fucks.” People can’t believe the vulnerability that transpires in such a short period of time, and yet it does. I call it “bypassing the bullshit.” It’s not airy fairy or woo-woo, either. But anyway, I wanted to have this experience with young women and they simply started showing up at my workshops. Teens would be in the room and when I would ask them how they ended up at my workshop, most would say, “Oh, my mom follows you online and sent me.”
One of the things that comes up most frequently at my workshops is the prevailing belief of “I am not enough.” Doesn’t matter what city I am in or the age group. When the teens started showing up at my workshops, I decided I wanted to create a movement and a workshop just for them, the core message of it being: You are enough.
I launched the first set of workshops in New York City and Princeton in September with my friend Lara Heimann. It was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life, and as I sat there listening to these amazing young voices, I realized just how important this experience was for them. And for me. To really hear them and to listen to what they were saying was life-altering for me. And truthfully, I didn’t water it down. It was almost the same exact workshop I do with “adults.” The girls went crazy for it. I think they also appreciate that I treat them as interesting humans and not as children. I have received (unsolicited) advice to curse less with the girls, and although I may have cut back on the F bombs, I stayed true to my voice and said exactly what I would say when I lead my workshops. I had Ashley C. Ford come to the NY one and give a lecture, and you should have seen these girls writing down every word she said about books and creating your own normal. One of the things I have taken a look at over the past couple of years is the tendency women have to apologize all the time. This message of “You are enough” is about being unapologetically yourself, about taking up space, something that many of us, as women, are taught NOT to do. It’s inspiring to witness these girls realizing things that some of us still haven’t realized in our forties and fifties.
Rumpus: I know you teach yoga workshops, in addition to facilitating a lot of online dialogue—what is the difference that you’ve found between sharing our stories online and in person? Do you think the Internet allows us to connect in new ways? How does your use of online spaces shape the work that you do?
Pastiloff: My workshops are “yoga” workshops in that they take place (usually) in a yoga studio and on a yoga mat, but really, that’s just to give it context. I have found it is easier to get people to open up once they have really connected to being in their body. Also, in my experience, it’s easier in the context of sitting on a mat rather than being restricted to a desk or chair—there is less confinement. There is yoga but just in the sense that I encourage you to move your body. I am not attached to what that looks like, per se. Lately, most people that come are not “yogis.” I have people who have never done yoga, people who are in wheelchairs, or dealing with cancer and can hardly move. It doesn’t matter. It’s about being in the body. This is one of the reasons I work so well with Lidia Yuknavitch, whom I lovingly call “Wifey.” She is, in my opinion, the master of what we call Writing & The Body. I digress a little here, but you should take a class with her if you are reading this, especially since she is doing online classes now. She is a generous genius. I want everyone to experience her.
So many of us, myself at the top of the list, are often disconnected from our bodies. I wrote an essay for this site, in fact, about my ectopic pregnancy two years back and my tendency towards starving my feelings out rather than experiencing them. Here is an excerpt from The Rumpus essay, “Ruptured”:
I shook there on the sand, both because I was freezing and because I had let something come undone inside of me, something I had been carefully guarding for years. Once I opened it, it wouldn’t close.We had moved back to New Jersey after my mother divorced Carl in 1988. I zippered up my pain and eventually found a way to starve it to death. I shrunk during my late teenage years. If I started to feel something, I would eat my own pain until it was gone. I also ate seaweed, grapes, and laxative tea.
People share quite openly with me on social media (Instagram and Facebook) and also on my site, The Manifest-Station, which Angela G. Patel helps me run. It’s pretty phenomenal to me the way people seem to be so wiling to be open and vulnerable with me, not just in real life, but over the internet. I can only assume it’s because I am so open that it somehow feels more permissible. There is something to be said for sharing our stories in person, there is nothing like knowing someone is right there with you, nodding along, crying, whatever it is they give you so that you know they are listening. But I have found that I have been able to build almost that same level of intimacy online.
I believe we all have things (or at least one thing) that we’re good at, as well as many things we absolutely suck at. I suck at cooking and cleaning and typing and being organized and drawing. I am good at making people feel safe. I don’t know why, but it has been that way for as long as I can remember. I believe I have found a way to facilitate my gift. It’s not that I am doing anything extraordinary, except maybe it is. Maybe allowing people to feel seen and heard, giving them a safe space, so to speak, maybe that is extraordinary. All I know is that at the core of what I am doing, or facilitating, is a place of storytelling and listening. Fierce listening. There’s this quote I say a lot by Freud (people often misquote it and say it’s mine but alas, it isn’t). The quote is: How bold one gets when one is sure of being loved. I think maybe that’s it. That’s how such magic, since a good deal of what transpires in my workshops is magic, can flourish. It’s not about being a good writer or yoga pretzel. It’s about listening and allowing for room to fuck up and to get messy and to make noise and to be seen, in all our imperfections and perceived flaws.
Rumpus: One way you encourage emotional openness is by sharing your own stories and struggles. Have you always felt comfortable being open about your personal experiences? Why do you view self-expression as so fundamental to human growth?
Pastiloff: I feel like I have always been that way, but definitely more so since I started doing this work about 5 years ago. I think that when I was younger I didn’t know much different. My parents both treated me like an adult and overshared with me. I am sure my mom is reading this and grimacing, but it’s true. There wasn’t much that wasn’t said or that I couldn’t say so I never felt that tug of “Oh, I shouldn’t talk about that.” Having lost my father at such a young age, I was used to saying, “Oh, my dad? He died.” As I started studying poetry freshman year of NYU, I began to really write about myself and my anorexia and depression and my father’s death with more freedom. It made more sense to me than therapy at the time (although looking back, I wish I had gone to therapy, ha!), and I wrote my way through those years. I thought for sure I would be a poet and teach poetry workshops at the college level in between writing my poetry books. Instead, I left NYU with one year left of being a scholar, and I took a semester off in California. The semester turned into thirteen years where I worked at the same trendy LA restaurant as a college dropout. I think my sharing also came from a place of deep loneliness. One way I felt less afraid was when I realized that other people also had pain or trauma or loss. I spent so much of my youth, and even twenties and thirties, being afraid. When I would find someone who would say, “Yes, I understand you. I hear you,” I would feel less alone. I suppose that is what I am attempting to recreate with the work I do. “Yes, I understand you. I hear you.” Also, I can’t ignore that I am a Jew. I think there is something in the way I was raised that was inherently expressive (lots of talking with the hands, big emotions), as opposed to, say, my husband’s family, who is a lot more reserved. I grew up talking. Lots of complaining too (ha!) but I am working on that.
When I started really sharing who I was, about the fact that I was on anti-depressant meds, about my profound hearing loss or struggles with an eating disorder or my ectopic pregnancy, I think it opened up a whole world for people waiting for someone to create a space or a place where they too could share without any stigmas. Look, I would never call myself inspirational. That kind of makes me want to barf, actually. But, there is something to be said as to how others see us. I know the people that “follow” me, the people that still think of me as a “yoga” person, and how so many of them think that because they are spiritual or do yoga or teach yoga, that they can’t be depressed or say fuck. I was terrified when I made a video saying I went back on anti-depressants last year but I got about seven-hundred thank you emails. No joke. Can you imagine? That many people feeling less ashamed about who they are because someone talked about it? I emphasize the part of my workshop that is called On Being Human. That is what I am most concerned with. Nothing else. And to experience that, within ourselves and with one another, I do believe we have to be willing to be vulnerable and share our stories. So many people are taught to stuff everything they feel inside or to swallow it. What I am proposing is exactly the opposite. But to be clear, it is NOT therapy. It is simply listening. Which I believe to be one of the most powerful things we can do in our lives. The irony of me being almost deaf isn’t lost on me, either. I am also not suggesting that people overshare all the time or tell everyone their secrets or that to make a great essay or memoir you need to simply shock with your shit. I am talking about being comfortable in who we are, no matter what. Sharing what you want to share, but not hiding the parts of you that you feel ashamed of because quote frankly, those are usually the most interesting.
Rumpus: You wear so many different hats—as writer, yogi, teacher. Do you see all these different roles as interconnected? How do each of your roles inform one another?
Pastiloff: I see them all as interconnected. I used to get upset when people would say I was a yoga teacher. I wanted to clarify and explain and say that although there was yoga in my workshops I wasn’t a yoga teacher in the sense they were thinking, but I realized that this was exactly what I was teaching people not to do. I encourage people to bust out of the “just-a” box, which is what we put ourselves (or other people) in when we say things like, “I am just a yoga teacher. I am just a mom…” What I do is indefinable—I mean, after a workshop ends, say in Chicago, where there were seventy people, I will ask, “So, what would you call this thing we just did for three hours?” They all say they don’t know. They loved it yet they had no idea what the hell they just did. And yet, it’s sold out whatever city I go to. So, I am doing something that doesn’t fit inside a box, just as Lidia does with her writing, and it’s working. So when my ego screams (and yes, it’s my ego), “But I am not just a yoga teacher,” it has to take a back seat and remember that it doesn’t matter as much what I am called as what it is I am doing. Maybe one day I will have more clarity but as for now, I made it up, I blended together a whole bunch of things and created a thing in the world that didn’t exist before. I wish I was writing more. I put off this interview because I was afraid you’d ask me what I was writing. I am not doing much these days except binge-watching shows on Netflix and Showtime. I am not sure if I have been depressed or, for the last few months, adjusting to being pregnant, but I haven’t been writing much. I do see all the hats I wear as being interconnected as the way I am able to fill my workshops (besides word of mouth) was through my writing. I developed a pretty big online following for my blogs and essays and from that, people starting showing up in real life to my retreats in Italy or Bali and to my workshops. The yoga part is important in that, as I said earlier, I think the more dialed in we are to our bodies, the easier our stories are to access. I also think it is deeply important to be in our bodies, to feel things, as opposed to exercising feelings away, or having sex to make them go away or eating them away. All things I have done, yup. So now, being four months pregnant, I’m all, “So this is what it is like to really be in your body.” I am not over-exercising or over drinking or starving anything away. I am not obsessing about those things right now. It’s actually really great and I am learning so much during this time. So yes, they all inform one another. I try not to look at anything in the traditional sense. I make up my own rules as far as what it means to be a writer or yogi or teacher.
Rumpus: My biggest creative nonfiction secret is that sometimes (actually, often!) I’m scared to tell the truth about myself to an outside audience. I admire the ease with which you do share your personal truths. Was this something that came naturally for you, or something that you learned over time?
Pastiloff: This was always easy for me but it became much easier once I started leading these workshops. I found that I was able to get people to open up, whether in their writing, or simply in life, just by sharing who I was and what I had gone through. Don’t get me wrong, there are times after I have written something where I panic and want to vomit and take it back. I think Brene Brown calls this a vulnerability hangover? Needless to say, I have found that it has allowed me to make the most progress as a person and in my career—this willingness to be so open. Naturally, there are some things, many things, I do not share. I find that the freedom that comes with being so open has allowed me to be really creative In my endeavors as I am never trying to be anyone but Jen. Of course, there is a danger in living this way, and that’s everyone thinking they know everything about you or assuming they are your best friend. It’s hard to create boundaries sometimes but over the years I have had to, otherwise I would be swallowed whole. I think of writers I admire, writers like Cheryl Strayed, or Emily Rapp, for example, who write so candidly about themselves, and how when we read them, we think, “Ah! My soul mate. This could have been me talking.” It’s easy to confuse that feeling of kinship or connection with something else. I look to writers I admire, or women doing things in the world that make a difference (like Christy Turlington Burns, in the photo below, who runs Every Mother Counts), women who inspire me by how they are living, and how they navigate those boundaries between public and private. Also, and this is a confession, in fact I am writing an essay about it now, I have trouble feeling things. I feel numb a lot. Like I don’t know how to access what I am feeling or where to put it. Writing or sharing out loud in my workshops (as well as the listening of others stories) often helps me to understand my own emotions. I can’t tell how many years I have felt like a walking dead person.
Just like feeling, writing makes me look at things when all I want to do is look away. I tell the people in my workshop to be unflinching. Do not look away, I say, even when the snot is dripping down someone’s face and they are in obvious pain. Do not look away so you don’t have to feel their pain. Stay with them. Be unflinching.
When it comes to myself however, I look away. I throw things where they don’t belong. I hide. I watch The Walking Dead. I feel nothing. I am a shell. I am getting better though. Like I said before, being pregnant is helping because I self-medicate less and I really listen to my body. Also, when I do finally sit down to write, when I remain unflinching, I allow myself to stop being numb. There is a freedom I have always had in writing that I will never understand fully, and I prefer it that way. It makes it feel holy. I just wish I was holy more often lately!
Rumpus: What have you learned the most from working with so many diverse women the world over?
Pastiloff: I love working with women. I would say 95% of the people who attend my workshops are women. There is an old idea that women are bitchy when they get together—people ask me how I deal with so many women and all the drama. That is not my experience. I experience a group of nurturing and powerful women who want to lift each other up, who want to listen to each other. That is what I am interested in, so I suppose that is why I make sure to create that environment. I choose to partner with women I admire and respect and who make me want to be better. I have done three retreats with Emily Rapp, who is not only one of my best friends but one of the finest living writers today, in my opinion. Almost every essay I have written for The Rumpus has come from Emily’s teaching in some way, or her classes at our Vermont retreat. She doesn’t have any precious ideas about what it means to be a writer. With Lidia Yuknavitch, I have learned what it means to be generous. Lidia, I’m convinced, isn’t even human. She gives so much as a teacher, as a writer, and as my partner in our retreats. I am so excited because we have only done them in California so far, but this March I am flying to Portland so we can do one of our Writing & The Body workshops there, in her hometown. Lena Dunham, who invited me to be part of a talent show she was part of last month after following me on Instagram, stood with me onstage in New York and asked me questions about what I was doing in the world and then stayed onstage with me as I read an essay. I said this to her while I was up there, but she lifts up every woman around her and I love what she is doing with her site Lenny Letter. I think the common theme of women I choose to partner with, or simply surround myself with, is their generosity. Angela G. Patel who helps me run my site, The Manifest-Station, is the most selfless person I have ever met. She reads the hundreds of submissions and helps me edit and format and gets everything up on the site. She does more in a single day than I do in a month. No joke. Women who believe there is enough for all of us. It’s been so inspiring and encouraging to witness what is possible with the support of other women. Look, I am not saying you have to like everyone, we all know that that will never happen, but we become some much more powerful with support. I’m excited by the women who show up at my workshops and by the beauty they possess, every single one of them. It never fails to move me. I have learned how to be a stronger woman, how to stand up for myself, how to ask for what I want and use my voice, and how to help other women. What better lesson is there to learn from others but how to be better? How to be more generous in all we do? How to listen? I feel so fortunate by the women I have crossed paths with this past year. Trailblazers like Ashley C. Ford, Suleika Jaouad, Emily McDowell, Michele Filgate, Lara Heimann, Justine Clifton, Melissa Shattuck, Laura Bogart, Rachel Brathen (aka Yoga_Girl, who has almost 2 million followers on Instagram), and Amy Ferris (she edited Shades of Blue, the anthology on depression that I have an essay in). There are so many women I haven’t listed whom I have collaborated with, dreamt with, clinked glasses with, published on my site. It is humbling, to say the least. Here is the Girl Power Manifesto, in fact, that Emily McDowell drew up for me.
Rumpus: What upcoming projects are you working on?
Pastiloff: My beloved agent Adriann Ranta wants to know the answer to that. We are currently coming up for my next book idea. In the meantime, I am nesting, as I said. I give birth to a baby boy in June so that is my biggest project. I am about to lead a retreat for New Years in Ojai, California and then I go to Tampa and Vancouver in January to lead workshops. In February, I head to the Berkshires of Western Massachusetts to lead a retreat at Kripalu and then I fly my pregnant ass to Aruba to film classes for One O Eight TV. In March I do a workshop in NYC and Atlanta and then I am the guest speaker at Canyon Ranch in Massachusetts before I head to Portland to do the retreat with Lidia. April is Dallas and Seattle followed by my Mother’s Day retreat in May in Ojai, Calif. After that, I slow down because my little dude will be here. The next retreat after that is Tuscany in September at a brand new villa. Ashley C. Ford and I are doing a retreat together in Vermont next October, too. As far as writing goes, I am going to finish this essay I am working on and then think about my book. Girl Power: You Are Enough has my heart right now and watching it grow has been a joy. So may exciting things in the works with that platform. Running my site, which Angela and I do singlehandedly, is a pretty big job, but a tremendously rewarding one. The caliber of work on the site, especially over this past year, has been off the charts. I am focusing on doing some online classes and seminars, especially because once the little dude arrives, I don’t know what my life will be like and how much I will want to travel. I’m doing a lot more private workshops, too, where people commission me to do a workshop for a few friends or a group or an office. Lidia Yuknavitch and I are also about to put together an anthology of “Writing The Body.” There’s a lot in the works if I can just stop bingeing on shows (and pizza). But it’s okay. One of my favorite prompts to ask is, “What are you going to let yourelf off the hook for?” The answers often bring tears to my eyes, actually. We are so damn hard on ourselves! But for me? During this time? I am letting myself off the hook for all of it. Even though I “healed” from anorexia this is the first time in over twenty years that I feel this free with food, that I have no guilt. I am letting myself watch as many goddamned TV shows as I want, eat whatever I want, feel however I want. It’s quite liberating and I actually think this freedom is making me a better teacher. But I could just also be telling myself that. Either way, my cookies and The Affair are calling me.
Lastly, we are launching an interview series on The Manifest-Station where women interview women who inspire them. Upcoming we have Suleika Jaouad interviewing Cheryl Strayed, Ashley Ford doing Lidia Yuknavitch, Lidia doing me, and some other really fascinating people. I am so looking forward to this.
All images provided courtesy of author.