Emmy nominee shares her passion for storytelling

Dr. Murray with her 3 favorite things, a dog, a mocha, and a camera. Photo courtesy of Courtney Smith.

By Mariah Bennett | Staff Writer

Dr. Sarah-Jane “SJ” Murray is an associate professor of great texts and creative writing in Baylor’s Honors College. She is also an Emmy- nominated writer and producer, an award-winningdirector,amultilingual author, a speaker at two TED Talks and a decadeslong academic who began her lecturing career at just 21 years old.

Most importantly, however, Murray is a human dedicated to stories. Whether it is preserving them, telling them or encouraging others to share their own, she said her life revolves around storytelling.

“I’ve loved storytelling since I was a kid,” Murray said. “I think that we often take for granted the stories that surround us. We don’t realize how important it is to think about the stories we’re creating or the stories we’re consuming.”

Murray earned degrees from Auburn and Princeton, as well as a certificate in screenwriting from UCLA. After earning her undergraduate degree at Auburn, she delved into academia as a lecturer in the French department. She said she got a sense of mentoring students outside of class when she took her first French class to Paris for spring break.

“I really realized from that how I enjoyed teaching,” Murray said. “It became a passion. So I ended up applying after that experience to grad school at Princeton … and I’ve been at a university ever since.”

Murray said she fell in love with the Middle Ages and studying ancient documents — especially the context of those who really lived with them — while at Princeton. Her passion knows no bounds, as she even spent 10 years translating “The Ovide Moralisé,” which comes out next year.

“I was living up close and personal with these old artifacts that were the only way that people had back then of preserving storytelling and sharing it with other people,” Murray said. “I became fascinated with what you might call the sort of bestsellers of the High Middle Ages, or what you might think of today in terms of our hit TV shows.”

Murray said her love of great texts is what got her interested in doing medieval studies into film.

“What I’m really interested in is how stories shape civilization, including our own modern worlds,” Murray said. “They can also draw our attention to problems in the world and make people care about them so that we can build from that place to make change.”

Murray said stories can be opportunities to shine light into really dark places. This can be seen in her documentary project “IX,” which is set to come out in late 2023 or early 2024. It was filmed from September 2021 to May 2022 across the nation.

“We essentially built the entire school year leading up to the 50th anniversary of Title IX,” Murray said. “The topic of the film is speaking with young people about dating sexual assault and Title IX, but looking at it from all issues and in a depolarizing way across the political spectrum.”

Murray said they spoke to those who have experienced harassment or assault, experts on the front lines and the small percentage of those who were wrongly accused — along with people all across the political spectrum.

“What was really encouraging is you find that people in America from north to south and east to west are far lesspolarizedthanthenewswould have us believe,” Murray said.

Courtney Smith, line producer and assistant editor for “IX,” is a former student of Murray’s. She said she also saw similar behavior.

“What we saw more than anything … talking to people with different areas, different beliefs and perspectives — they were all willing to come to these conversations and go to new places, listen to each other, to be respectful,” Smith said. “It was amazing because we saw that not just with the participants in the film, but we saw it also with the crew that we traveled with.”

Smith said they were really lucky to be able to find an incredible crew for the course of the project.

“[Murray has] been very instrumental in teaching that one of the things that is often forgotten in a lot of companies is that idea of the triple bottom line, that idea of human capital — if not the most important thing, one of the most important things to foster and to care for,” Smith said. “Because you can’t replace a person who has that passion, has those skills and who has that integrity.”

However, this isn’t Murray’s first foray to shine light. Her Emmy nomination came from the 2013 documentary “Primary Concern,” which covered the primary care crisis in America. She worked with Joanie Livingston, a PBS producer at the time, interviewing multiple doctors and caregivers and even reading the entire Affordable Care Act in her research.

“I’m really grateful to Joanie Livingston and to Renee McKay for giving me the chance to earn my stripes in documentary filmmaking,” Murray said.

Murray went on to be an executive producer on the Netflix exclusive “LIBERATED: The New Sexual Revolution” — a documentary about today’s young adult hookup culture and the stories in pop culture that influence it.

Murray said “LIBERATED” was viewed not as a way to talk down to young people or even to document young people; rather, it was a way to have a conversation about what they want from relationships.

“Young people have to be so tired of hearing older people telling them what they think,” Murray said. “There’s a really easy solution, which is to go ask young people what they think.”

Lubbock sophomore Meredith Neeb is a film and digital media major. She said she thinks it is really cool that there is a professor at Baylor who was nominated for her work in a documentary.

“I think that’s really awesome,” Neeb said. “It’s giving more exposure to film in other departments within Baylor.”

Murray said she encourages students to share their stories through any platform.

“If you have a story inside you, don’t think about who’s going to read it or who’s going to see it,” Murray said. “Pick up your pen and write. Pick up a camera to shoot. Because if you have a gift that has been instilled in you and that can help you make a difference in the world, all you have to do is respond to that invitation. God will honestly do the rest. You have to believe in yourself first.”