Getting to Know Jim Weiss

December 10th, 2008 by Janet

At a recent conference, I had the privilege of spending some time with storyteller Jim Weiss and his delightful wife and partner, Randy. Chinaberry has been offering Jim’s storytapes for over eighteen years now. If anyone knows the value of storytelling, it’s Jim. He grew up listening to his father tell stories, and the memories of those magical moments never left him. For over 30 years, Jim has been captivating adults and children alike with his own magical storytelling ability. The following is my attempt at recreating our conversation:

Chinaberry: What do you feel are some of the main values of storytelling?

Jim: It’s a wonderful way to learn facts and hard data. Instead of just talking names and dates, tell them the story of Galileo and Beethoven. That gives them something to hang the data on. As they remember the story, they will remember the facts.

Stories are powerful. They carry the value of our culture and what we would like to see in our culture. It’s why someone once said, “Let me write the stories of a nation, and it’s more powerful than passing its laws.”

Telling a story is a great gift the teller gives to the listener. When I read, I am giving you one kind of gift, the sentiments of the author. But when I tell you a story, I am giving you me. It’s a beautiful way to build a bond between people. The walls, which we have all built, fall down. The armor we carry falls off. I have been in schools where 2-1/2-year-olds are wearing more armor than Sir Lancelot due to the horrifying experiences they have endured in their short lives. You can reach people like that through the vehicle of a story. You can reach people at their mental, emotional, and soul levels. Chinaberry readers will know what I mean by that.

Chinaberry: What are the key ingredients in the stories you choose?

Jim: For me, I choose to tell classics and stories from history for several reasons. 1) Some of the most fascinating characters are in these stories. That’s why they have lived for centuries. 2) They give us windows into other eras and other lands. It’s hard to make an enemy out of someone whose stories you know, because you understand that person too well to make them an object.

When Aesop told his stories over 2,000 years ago, he was a slave. The people who owned him thought he was just another object. Through his stories they learned who he was. They then set him free. He earned his freedom through his tales. I look for stories with meanings. I try not to hit anyone over the head with the moral of the stories, but there are always some ethical underpinnings to them. Of course, I look for entertainment value, but also for the meaning. Children are growing up in an age where we need to give them the best of the best.

Chinaberry: What stories are your personal favorites?

Jim: It’s the characters that drive the stories. I only tell stories I love. I loved unraveling all the mysteries in Sherlock Holmes, and creating all those voices. The greatest adventure ever created was King Arthur and His Knights. I have a great appreciation for the meaning behind the Arthurian legend — the nobility of one man’s dream and how it brought out the best in each of them. It’s also couched in great adventure.

Chinaberry: If you could travel back into time for one day, where would you go?

Jim: I would follow Socrates through the streets of Athens. I would watch him as he taught Plato and Pericles, and I would watch the construction of the Parthenon.

Or I would sit at the table with Lorenzo diMedici in Renaissance Florence, and I would look upon a silent 14-year-old sitting at the foot of the table and know that he was Michelangelo drinking in the wisdom of those around him.

Chinaberry: What rejuvenates you?

Jim: My family feeds me more than anything. That, and the knowledge that we’re doing something good in the world. I get letters and phone calls and emails from all over the world. “My child is blind and he knows mythology.” “My daughter is dyslexic and I couldn’t get her to read, but she got so turned on to learning by listening to the stories that she’s now up to grade level.” People tell me about children who were comforted, listening to Sweet Dreams as they died. I have won 44 major national awards for storytelling, but my wife and I both feel that one letter like that is worth more than all those awards.

Chinaberry: What do you see yourself doing in the future?

Jim: The sky’s the limit. I hope we will be doing TV to get the stories out to more people. I also love music, and I hope to sing and write more songs. But I will still want to be spending time with live audiences, telling stories.

Chinaberry: Do you have any tips for storytelling?

Jim: Don’t worry about making mistakes. Your child will be so happy that you’re telling the story, and that is the most important part. Have fun! Take the time and give of yourself. If there are stories that mean something to you, make those the stories you tell. That’s how our children learn.

Start with simple stories with just a few characters. If you want to use different voices, start on an easy level-not too loud or too soft. Have there be just enough difference in the voices so you can differentiate the characters. Once you’re comfortable, you can get more complex.

Sometimes it’s fun with your kids if you let them do part of the stories. Try to pick a story that is age appropriate. Don’t start with something very sophisticated.

Don’t be surprised if your child winds up remembering facts you never thought he or she would remember. When our daughter was 3-1/2 years old, we were playing Trivial Pursuit, and she knew one-third of the answers! She learned them all through our stories.

Chinaberry: Do you have any other message you would like me to share with our readers?

Jim: I would like to recommend to them that they make a recording now of their grandmother or their grandfather. Ask them about their parents or what it was like living at the turn of the century. Get your family stories and history on audio, and make sure they are preserved.

We feel that being in the Chinaberry catalog is like a national award in itself. I don’t know if Ann Ruethling will allow you to put this in, but I know so many Chinaberry readers who purchase their books elsewhere. I would like to remind them Chinaberry is a small company that cares a lot about being connected to its customers. But it is through customer orders that Chinaberry is able to continue doing what they do, so they need your support in the form of orders.

We invite you to listen to soundclips from Chinaberry’s full selection of Jim Weiss audios.

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