A selection of notes and letters from Jim Weiss
A young fan, named Alex recently wrote to challenge me to a storytelling contest between me and his father! Here is my reply:
When I was a boy, my uncle used to visit us (in Chicago) from Los Angeles. He could not sing to save his life–he could not stay on tune–and he knew it, but still he loved to sing. I, on the other hand, was an excellent singer. As a gag, he used to challenge me to singing contests "for the championship in our family," and my father would be the judge. I would sing, then my Uncle Julian would sing so badly that even he cracked up listening to himself. At the end he would turn and say to my father, "Now, who do you honestly think sang better?"
My father would say (I'm not sure how he kept a straight face while doing this), "I'm sorry Julian, but I think maybe Jim just barely edged you out again this time."
Well, my uncle would pretend to protest, but in the end, he would just say, "Alright, but wait until next time."
You reminded me of this.
I'm sorry, Alex, but I make it a policy never to enter such contests against someone's father. I think a father (or maybe a mother) should always hold the family championship, and I am prepared to concede this contest to your dad. However, I hope I get to see you (and your family) the next time I am performing near your hometown, and I am happier than I can say to know that you and your family enjoy stories. Say hi to the family champ for me, please.
P.S. - I'll bet you are a storyteller yourself too!
The Nature of a Hero
After reading a commentary in USA Today written by Joshua Woods on his interpretation of what makes a hero, I decided to write a Letter to the Editor with my response. As you know I have a lot of stories that profile heroes and heroines, and I am always interested and thinking about what makes one heroic. Here is my response to Mr. Woods' commentary as it was printed in USA Today on Thursday, October 27, 2005.
Joshua Woods' commentary on the lack of heroes in today's society reflects a fundamental shift in our understanding of what constitutes heroism. It is especially poignant because it ws published Monday, the day that Rosa Parks passed away. Indeed, I belive many people have a skewed idea of heroes and heroines ("Where Have All the Heroes Gone?" The Forum, Monday, October 24, 2005).
They are not perfect, and they are not necessarily famous.
By definition, a hero is not someone who reaches a goal easily. Instead, a hero is someone who decides to pursue a worthwhile goal, knowing that the effort will be difficult or even dangerous. Some get only part way to the goal. Human progress is built upon a step-by-step progression, as one person builds on the work of others until that goal is reached.
Rosa Parks is such a hero. She did not change the laws in the USA, but she began the process one day on a bus ride home. Confronted by the demand to give up her seat-something she knew was wrong—she firmly said, "no." That one syllable, spoken quietly, was more powerful than the angry shouts of today's talk show hosts, more long-lasting than damage done by bombs and bullets, more inspiring than demagogues' easy answers.
Rosa Parks was one of us. The great heroes often are average people confronted, as we all are, with moral dilemmas. Mrs. Parks' crisis had great ramifications, and she changed the world by starting the ball rolling. Others kept it going.
A "flawless" hero, if such a one existed, wouldn't help us. Only an "average" person who makes the most of his or her chance to improve the world can serve as a model. True heroes are among us, famous or obscure, if we'll only seek them and have the sense to learn from them.
Perhaps Mr. Woods might reconsider his definition of "hero"; then he can better help his nephew to understand.
"HOW DID YOU GET STARTED?"
One of the questions I am most often asked is, "How did you get started as a storyteller?" The short answer is that I was lucky enough to have a father who told me stories. Long before we were old enough to read the original books for ourselves, my brother and I knew all sorts of stories from hearing my father tell them.
My father didn't use different voices for each character, as I often do; nor did he get up and act out the characters' movements, as I sometimes do in live performances. Like any good storyteller, however, he could bring a story to life because he instinctively knew the most important secret: he told us stories he loved. His love and understanding for the characters and their stories came through clearly and turned us on to those stories. I learned to read early in order to be able to find out more about The Three Musketeers, Greek Myths, history tales, and many others I heard him tell.
We'd sit before the fire on dark winter nights, or on our screened porch on warm summer evenings, listening to his voice in the gathering darkness and watching fireflies making lazy circles of light in the shadows a few feet away. The magic of those evenings has never left me, has shaped me, has set me on a path I continue to walk all these years later with the greatest joy. Whether I'm telling stories to a handful of friends in a living room, performing for thousands of people in a theatre, or creating a recording in a studio, I want my listeners to feel the enchantment I felt so long ago.
I still tell many stories I learned from my father, and they hold special meaning for me because of him. My own daughter now carries the same sorts of memories of my telling stories to her, and knows which ones come to her via her grandfather. She and my wife, and all the friends with whom I have shared stories and who have given me new stories to tell, still are sharing in the magic my father set in motion all those years ago. That's part of the wonder of telling stories you love.