The Joyful Power of Storytelling for the Homeschool Family (with Jim Weiss)

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As a child I remember listening to Jim Weiss tell stories via cassette. What a delightful, surreal moment to get to chat with him on the podcast all about the powerful joy of storytelling! Jim shares read aloud tips, valuable insights into why stories are more important now than ever, and even tells a few of his favorites. I hope you love this conversation as much as I did!

Be sure to check out all the other interviews in our Homeschool Conversations series!

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Who is Jim Weiss?

Jim Weiss was born and raised in Highland Park, Illinois. A graduate from The University of Wisconsin, Madison, Jim entered the sales and marketing profession. However, at forty years old, he realized that he was unfulfilled and needed to make a career change. With a lot of prayer and reflection, Jim and Randy decided to trust their intuition that a line of storytelling recordings told-not-read, would provide a wonderful way for children to appreciate classics at an early age and encourage them to read the classics. Jim Weiss and his wife, Randy founded their company, Greathall Productions in June, 1989. To date, Jim has recorded 70+ recordings and received 100+ National Awards.  Via the Well-Trained Mind,  Jim now records two recordings per year. Jim and Randy reside in Tucson, Arizona and are the parents of one daughter and son-in-law, and a six-year-old grandson.

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Watch my Homeschool Conversation with Jim Weiss

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Amy Sloan: Hello, everyone. Today, I am delighted to be joined by Jim Weiss. Jim was born and raised in Highland Park, Illinois, and graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He originally entered the sales and marketing profession, however, when he was 40, he realized he was unfulfilled and needed to make a career change. With a lot of prayer and reflection, Jim and his wife, Randy, decided to trust their intuition that a line of Storytelling Recordings told, not read, would provide a wonderful way for children to appreciate classics at an early age and encourage them to read the classics. Jim and his wife, Randy, founded their company Greathall Productions in June 1989.

Since then, Jim has recorded over 70 recordings and received over 100 national awards. Now, via the Well-Trained Mind, Jim records two recordings per year. He and his wife reside in Tucson, Arizona, and they’re parents of one daughter and son-in-law, and a little grandson. Jim, I’m delighted that you are here with us today. I know I gave you your a little official bio, but would you like to expand on that? Tell us a little bit about yourself and your family.

Jim Weiss: Oh sure. Well, let’s see. First of all, let me say thank you so much for asking me. I’m just delighted to be doing this and I love what you’ve been doing online your work and these things all tied together in such a meaningful way, I hope for people who are home educating in particular. Yes, I can tell you a little bit about myself. I grew up in a family, you mentioned Highland Park, Illinois. I was blessed to grow up in a town which is the summer home of the Chicago Symphony. The Ravinia Music Festival was three blocks from our house. Ravinia is one of the great music festivals in the country so you had the opportunity to listen to all the great classical and jazz and popular musicians there.

I remember going four years in a row or five years in a row to watch Ella Fitzgerald live. I remember watching the different conductors working with the Symphony and how each of them had a different vibe, a different energy, and the musicians played differently for each of them. It was just a fascinating way to learn about the arts.

At the time, of course, we didn’t really appreciate what a gift we were being given. We thought everybody has this. It was only later when we had our daughter and we were living in California and educating her there that I realized how extraordinary it was. I think it’s one of the things that motivated me because I came to really love learning.

My grandfather used to tell us stories. He had a repertoire of about six stories that we knew so well that we would chime in on some of the sentences with it. My mother read to us all the time. My other grandmother, if there was a gift to give for some occasion it was almost inevitably a book.

My father told us stories at bedtime either in front of the fire, in the living room if it were winter, if it was summer, we would be sitting out in the screened-in porch in the dark, and dad would tell us in his own words a story from classic literature or a story from history. He was not a trained storyteller, but he instinctively knew some of the rules, and I think there are only a couple of rules for this.

Rules for Storytelling

The first one is you only tell stories or read stories aloud to me that you love yourself because if you do pick up on that and I’ll come to love stories too, and you’ve got an 80% chance, whoever it is you’re telling that story to will get picked the turned on by your enthusiasm. Start with the story you love.

The second thing is always think to whom am I telling this? I know you have a wide range of ages in your family of your kids. I think you said 17 down to 7 and you can tell the same story a lot of different ways depending on who it is that’s listening.

Think of yourself as a translator of that material whether it’s classic literature or history or family story of your own and think, how do I convey this to a child who’s three or a child who’s nine or whatever? There’s some details you might want to leave out. If there’s violence, you may want to soften it in some way. A story, if you think of this is one that I think is better if I read it aloud, but there’s a section in there, which might be too intense, too scary.

Give yourself permission to rephrase that one page in your own words. You’re not doing something wrong with what the author wrote. You’re giving your child a chance to get that story later on she or he, they will read the original.

The other thing my father knew to do was to have the book nearby if possible. I think I read that one of my stories that you like listening to is The Three Musketeers. It was one of the first recordings I ever did. My father told that to us when my brother and I were kids, over the course of a number of nights because it’s a long story. He said to me, “This is one of my favorites, Jim.”

When I first read this, I was up under the sheets till 3:00 in the morning with a flashlight because you can’t stop. When you’re reading Alexandre Dumas, especially The Three Musketeers once it starts, you can’t get off the ride till the last sentence is over. He’s got your hook.

He tells the story to us and I say to him at the end, “That’s the greatest thing I ever heard,” and he said, “I’m so glad you love it. If you love the way I just told it to you, wait till you read the book, it’s 100 times better, and by the way, honey, it’s in the next room on the bookshelf.”

Well, that started me with a lifelong love of Dumas and of history. Finally, I was a good enough reader to read the original book to take it down. I’d look every few months. Finally, a few years later, I said, “I could do this.” Now, rush upstairs, and the next morning my father comes in, and it’s 1:30 in the morning and I’m sitting up reading and he said, “What are you doing? It’s 1:30, you got a full day ahead of you tomorrow. You were supposed to be asleep hours ago.” I just held the book up.

When he saw what book it was, he got this wonderful little smile and said to me, “Have a good night,” and he left the room. That was one of the first recordings I made in 1989 because I wanted everybody else to love D’Artagnan and The Musketeers the way I did.

That’s what you can do, you can turn somebody onto a lifelong love of learning through the stories.

Long answer with your question.

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The power of stories to connect us with other people

Amy: No, I just love hearing that story and the connection that you had with your father, grandfather, these stories that grabbed your imagination. That makes me think of my own dad growing up. He would make up stories for us or he would tell us over and over again. We’d say, “Oh tell us the story of The Big Mouthed Frog.” We wanted to hear that one over and over, but our favorite was always the stories he would tell us of his own childhood. We especially loved the story of how when he was a mere lad of six on a tractor, he saw the fire coming and knew it was up to him to save the field. He plowed the fire break, and it would get very dramatic.

What I love is my own son, when he was taking a writing class, they were supposed to write a story, a family story or something they had experienced, or maybe they were supposed to interview someone about a story from their childhood, and he picked that story his grandpa had told him that the same story. To see that how stories impact through the generations, I think is such a beautiful thing.

Jim: I think it’s important also because whether it’s a made-up story of somebody in the family or a true one, you get a feeling of who that person is also through these stories. I think all stories, or really all the great ones let me put it this way, certainly are built around the people in the story. To me, when somebody says, “Well, what draws you to this story and does not draw to that story?” Usually, it’s the people that fascinate me.

That’s true whether I’m talking about fiction or whether I’m talking about the great historical characters.

It’s one of the great things about a story because you’re not only learning, let’s say you keep telling a history story, you’re not only learning about what George Washington did or Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine did, you’re learning about what was meaningful in their lives. Can I read you something?

Amy: Oh, please.

Jim: Hold on. This is a 2000-year-old book, not this particular copy, [laughs] needless to say. This is written by an author named Lucius Plutarch, who was Greek but who lived in Rome 2000 years ago, and who wrote the lives of the great Greek and Roman leaders up to his own time. He would pick a Greek and he would pick a Roman who in some way their stories were related to parallel and he’d tie each of those stories and then in the third section, he’d compare them.

Harry Truman said when he was president, this is his secret weapon in the White House because if he couldn’t figure somebody out, he’d take down his copy of Plutarch and start reading, thumbing through, and he would always find somebody just like the person he was having trouble with or a situation just like the situation he was having trouble with. Then all he had to do was read Plutarch and find out how Caesar or Socrates or whoever had dealt with it. He said I would try the same thing and 90% of the time it worked because human nature does not change.

This is what Plutarch writes when he was about to compare Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar. “In writing for this book, the lives of Alexander the King and Caesar the Conqueror of Pompey, I have before me so much material. I should make no other preface but debate my readers not to complain if I do not relate all their celebrated exploits or even anyone in full detail but in most instances abridge the story. I am writing not histories,” this is a great statement, “I am writing not histories but lives and the person’s most conspicuous achievements do not always reveal best his strength or weakness.

“Often the trifling incident, a word, or a jest shows more of his character than the battles where he slays thousands, his grandest mastering of armies, his sieges of cities. Therefore just as portrait painters work to get their likenesses from the face and the look of the eyes in which the character appears and they pay little attention to other parts of the body. I must be allowed to do well, especially on things that express the souls of these men and through them portray their lives leaving it to others to describe their mighty deeds in battles.”

I am a Plutarchian all the way.

My latest recording is a bio of Theodore Roosevelt whose life was packed with adventure and exciting incidents. Just amazing, only person in history to be both a Congressional Medal of Honor winner as a soldier and a Nobel Peace Prize winner, and in our country, one of the two fathers of the environmental movement. I put in all the stuff you need to know about Teddy Roosevelt but I was really looking also for those incidents, those quotes, those moments that would reveal him that you don’t usually get. That would suddenly make you say, “Ah, that’s what’s distinctive about this person.”

I especially dealt with this when I did a bio of George Washington because Washington has been turned into a marble statue. You can’t learn anything about how to live from a marble statue. You have to learn it from a human being who overcomes challenges. That’s what all stories are about, somebody facing challenges. That’s what I was looking for. I wanted to tell you the stuff you needed to know about Washington but also show a sense of humor, which they never talked about. His volcanic temper, which he kept under wraps because he thought it wasn’t a good leadership thing but when he let loose, well, you shouldn’t want to be the one on the other end of it.

This is what you’re looking for. It’s a hook into who that person is and it gets somebody else interested, your daughter or your son. One more thing, I would say about that is I tell stories from classic literature that goes back 5,000 years or more. I tell stories about composers, musicians, scientists, architects, painters, sculptors, engineers, kings, queens, explorers, whatever, because you never know which of those things is going to turn on your particular child.

I’ve been doing this professionally for 33 years. Long enough to have people come up to me and say, “Mr. Weiss, because of your recording Galileo and the Stargazers, I’m a scientist. Because of your Masters of the Renaissance, about Leonardo and Michelangelo, I’m a sculptor. Because of all the prefaces prefixes in which you told us the stories of the authors who wrote the classics, I am now on my third published book. Thank you.” You never know which one is going to be.

Amy: Yes, and that’s the power of story, to connect us with those universal human things that we can relate to one another. Whether it’s a fictional character or a person in history I think realizing, especially when we’re talking about people in history, being able to love our neighbor because we know them. Like you were saying about George Washington, not some marble statues, some idealized version, but a real person. A real person. Even then a fictional character who can teach us some bigger truths about what it means to be human and we can recognize those emotions or those motivations, those poor choices sometimes in our own hearts as well.

The life lessons we learn from stories

Jim: Those poor choices are important too. Also, those stories especially history stories where the person doesn’t make it to the final goal, they get part way. That recording I mentioned a moment ago, Galileo and the Stargazers, covers 19th centuries through the stories of seven science geniuses. The first half is about the great Greek Archimedes, who’s the father of seven different sciences, but the whole second half covers six European scientists all working on the same science challenge over the course of 17 and a half centuries and each one getting a piece of it right moving the thing forward and then handing on what he has done to the next one.

In one case literally handing notes to the next one and saying, “I have taken this as far as I can take it. Now you run with it.” It ends with Galileo and Kepler making the discovery and being able to prove it but not knowing how to explain why it works. The year Galileo dies, Newton is born, the great theoretical thinker, and he is turned on to becoming a scientist having studied Galileo as a boy. He picks up where Galileo leaves off and explains why it works that way and changes all of science in doing it. All of the physical science changes it with that discovery.

One of his contemporaries says, “Sir Newton, you tower over the rest of us. You are such a genius. You tower over us.” Newton famously answers, “If I seem to tower over my contemporaries is because I’m standing on the shoulders of giants.” He’s saying, “Yes, I put the maraschino cherry in the whipped cream on top of the sundae but they built the sundae.”

That’s what the great ones teach you ,but what is important is to go back to some of those earlier ones who didn’t get all the way but who knew they did not fail. They said I’ve done something that will ultimately allow somebody to make this discovery. I didn’t fail, I got part way there. I contributed.

That’s an important life lesson. Those lessons are all in the stories. This may be the most important thing I say today, okay? If you want to double the impact of whatever you’re teaching your child, whatever topic/subject it is ask some questions at the end. Say, “Do you think she did the right thing, or what else could he have done.” That is going to turn into the series of the best discussions you’re ever going to have and it makes the story your child’s story. If it’s a story where they’re totally captivated, don’t pop the bubble at the end by sitting there saying, “Now what do we learn from all this?”

Let them go all the way and then move but if it’s a story like that and if it’s one where you’ve reached a point where the character has to make a decision, if I could see somebody’s just locked into the story, it was listening to me, but in some cases, I will actually stop and say, “Wow, what a decision to make.” I’m just curious, honey, if that were you instead of King David, where do you think you might’ve done? Then you talk about it for a minute and then you say, “Wow, that’s so interesting. I don’t think I would’ve thought of that.”

Let’s go back and see what you really did. Then you go back, “Oh, where were we?” Oh yes, we were in the palace. You always want to get back into the scene, you want to say, “Oh yes, we were in the palace.” Then you finish a story and then say, “Okay. What do you think you gave me an idea and King David had a different idea. What do you think?”

What happens is your child starts to look for the life lessons in every story and you don’t have to do that after a while. You don’t even have to discuss it and they’re doubling the impact of whatever they’re studying because they’re talking about it as a life lesson.

Amy: Yes, I find sometimes you were saying, sometimes you’re in the story or there’s the magic the big pause at a symphony and the orchestra has just finished this beautiful piece and there’s that pause before everyone begins clapping. That’s how you know it was really great, right? Because everyone’s still in the moment. Then sometimes you have that same experience with a story. You don’t want to ruin it by, “Okay. Wow. Let’s all analyze it.” Sometimes then you just come into it later.

A lot of times you’re in the car, the kids are already strapped in: “I’ve been thinking about that story we read yesterday. Wow. What did you think?” and ask those questions at a remove and don’t be afraid that, that somehow doesn’t count? I guess sometimes homeschool moms, you can feel something has to count and it has to be able to be checked off on our list if this was literature for the day or whatever.

Sometimes it can just come more naturally, give it a pause, give it some distance from the read-aloud time and just have it, that natural conversation. Then it’s not the kids, “Oh man, mom’s going to make us ask these, answer these questions,” but it’s more than discussion. It’s part of just who we are as people and the talking together about something we love.

Don’t Go for Perfect in Your Homeschool or Storytelling

Jim: You wanted it to be more organic and as you just said, less of a task. I remember years ago at a home education conference and we were in the Q&A part of it. I think it was one of the sessions that I was doing, especially for dads because dads have such a, in many cases, have a much more limited amount of time to directly be involved with the education. You want that time to count. I advocate sharing some of the stories that dad especially finds meaningful.

There was this one father who kept asking questions and he was so intense and I don’t know where this came from, but I stopped. I finally said to him, “I have to tell you something. I love the fact that you love your child this much, that you want to get it “right”. You want to do this the best it can be done. That’s ever been done but you can’t. Perfection is overrated. You can’t go for perfection.

All that happens if you try that is you fail. Because nobody does it perfectly. You’re going to get migraines out of it. Your child will find less love in learning and you’re going to teach your child that the only way he or she succeeds is if they can say, I did this perfectly, you’re setting a child up to fail. Don’t go for perfect. Go for good or excellent or meaningful, but take that pressure off yourself and off your kids. You’ll find that they’ll still learn this stuff, but it’ll be more enjoyable and it’ll stick with them longer.” I’m on the same page as you with this.

The value of storytelling in a visual world

Amy: Yes. That’s really good encouragement. Well, we’ve already started touching on a lot of this next question I have for you just the value of the art of storytelling. It’s not anything new. It’s been valuable for generations thousands of years. Especially now, as I think about our modern culture digital flashy visual, distracting, what would you say is the special value of storytelling now? Maybe more than ever, or maybe uniquely now.

Jim: There are a few things that come out.

First of all, you learn to listen. This is, as you just said, a very visual age and our kids are often not getting listening skills and they’re going to need them later. The part of your brain that’s involved. If I give you a visual image on a movie or TV screen or a computer screen, or even holding up pictures to go with a story is an entirely different physical part of your brain from the part that’s engaged. If you are filling in the visuals with your imagination, you’re hearing me tell a story or you’re reading it in a book, two different parts of the brain, which ultimately get involved with two entirely different kinds of creative thinking that you’re going to need later on.

If all of your training is on the visual side, the other side doesn’t get built up and you have to build it up the way you build up your muscles. First of all, there’s listening.

Secondly, the brain scientists have discovered what we knew all along. There are a few thousand years later than the rest of us. Okay. They have proven that the brain is wired to learn through the structure of stories. Part of what you learn is you learn cause and effect, you learn how personalities affect decisions and how events in turn affect personalities. You’re learning a lot of things besides the information inherent in that particular story, what Thomas Jefferson did, what, Harriet Tubman did. You’re actually learning how to learn.

Also, it gives you an opportunity to engage somebody in speaking themselves, in writing themselves. On my website, JimWeiss.com, one of the sections there has to do with handouts that I give out at conferences when I teach. One of those handouts has the whole structure of a story that almost every story follows. Don’t keep it a secret, teach it to your child and say, “You know what, if you want it, I know you’re writing now. This is the stuff that has to be in this story. Everything else is detailed to make it richer and more colorful. This is what you have to have in your story.”

Why keep that a mystery? They’ve got that thing to work with for the rest of their lives, whether it’s in a story or whether it’s in a business presentation. There are a lot of things that have to do with the story, in addition to the information, it’s actually getting your brain to work better in everything.

Amy: Don’t we all need to learn how to listen to one another more, not to do whatever’s on our minds.

Jim: I’m sorry. Would you mind repeating that? I don’t think I was listening.

How can stories connect us with people who are different from us?

Amy: Going along with that, I guess a follow-up, I would say is what about as we think about learning to really listen to other people, like people may be from history or people from other cultures, how can stories help us connect with people who may be different than us?

Jim: That is one of the things that’s more important now than ever in history, because as we all know too well, it’s in the news every day, every night, we are so connected with people all across this country and all around the world. One of the things I love about stories from different cultures and different eras is that in the same story, you’re going to find what’s universal.

What’s the same between these people in Ethiopia or these people in Peru and me, and at the same time, what is distinctive about Ethiopia or Peru and where I’m living how we might look at things differently.

It’s an opportunity to learn about different people, as you say, and in a time of such divisiveness, as we’re going through in our country, in our world, this becomes more important than ever before in all of human history. The story of the Tower of Babel is to create problems and complications communicating, we’ve been working on ever since trying to build them back again.

It’s vital also because whether you’re talking about international relations or whether you’re talking about two kids in the neighborhood or two siblings. Part of the power of this story is, as I mentioned earlier, it’s always built around the nature of the personalities, the characters, and the more you get into a variety of characters and a variety of circumstances, the more flexible you become when you encounter something in your own life that you’re not used to. Also, when it is something that relates back to some story where you can go, “Ah,” the little cartoon light bulb goes on over your head and you go, “Oh, yes, that’s like that story of King Solomon, isn’t it?”

Now you know what to do. It’s like Truman reading a flowchart and knowing how to deal with some senators who were on the other side. Yes, those are more important than ever and I will say this, too.

I love telling stories from all over the world and cultures, but here’s a word of warning.

One of the things I teach is how to make different character voices, but I always say at the end, be careful when you’re telling a story from another country if you are somebody who, like me, loves to do accents.

Now, this may not be as important if you’re doing this around the kitchen table, telling a story, but I have often told stories in concert performances, where I’ve used an accent and then at the end, somebody comes up to me from that country, and says, “Oh, I’m so glad you told that story.” I’m thinking to myself, “Man, I hope I got that accent right.” Because if I did, that person says, well, the storyteller loves my people, loves my culture, loves the way we talk. If I got the accent badly, there’s a chance that person walks off thinking, “Jim Weiss is making fun of my people.” I never want that to happen.

If you tell stories with accents, make sure to say to your child, be aware of this honey because you may think well, so what? I didn’t get it right, but then your child goes off and starts telling that story with an Irish accent to friends in the neighborhood and one of them just moved here from Dublin three weeks ago and gets really ticked off or really hurt. It’s a teaching moment. Be sensitive to other people’s language and to their culture.

Amy: As someone from the south, who normally my accent does not come out, but when it’s with family, suddenly, it’s like I’m a whole different person’s voice. When you hear someone trying to do a southern accent and you just feel, I think you think we’re all ignorant yokels. [laughs] You can tell if someone’s really trying to communicate a love for a culture or if they’re just going to the least common denominator for a quick laugh or whatever. Yes.

Jim: Having said which, if you’re telling Pecos Bill, you’ve got to sound like Pecos Bill. You can’t sound like a character from Jane Austen, “Oh, do pass me that canteen, careful of that cactus.” That’s not yet, but that’s a story where– and you can always introduce it by saying I’m going to go way over the top on these voices. These are caricatures. This is a tall tale and it’s part of the fun. Okay? I tell the story in Texas. I risk my life and tell this story to Texans, but it’s just for fun. Then you’ve taken the sting out of it.

Amy: Yes, definitely. Oh, that makes– okay. I’ve got to ask you another question, but I’m going to put a pin in this. If you have never read the McBroom stories by Sid Fleischman, they’re American tall tales, some of the funniest read-alouds ever. Those are definitely where I go crazy voices with the kids because it’s just more fun. It’s supposed to be silly and ridiculous, right?

Practical Read Aloud Tips for Homeschool Parents

Well, let’s talk about read-alouds though because I think this can be a place where it can feel a little intimidating. Again, going back to that idea we talked about earlier, we’ve got to do this right. We have to make sure we’re getting it all perfect.

Then we’re dealing with the squiggles and the squirms, and then our voices start getting tired. I have a lot of words in general as an extrovert, and then I’ve got a lot of kids and I’m talking to them all the time and mom’s going to take a break. Do you have some tips for moms as we’re either reading aloud or telling stories, how we can keep the kids engaged, not grow discouraged, and also maybe not ruin our voices?

Jim: Yes, I do. The first one is should be so obvious that I’m embarrassed to say it took me 60 years to figure it out. That is don’t schedule the time when you have the most intense talking for the end of the afternoon when you’re most tired already. Dah. Do it when you’ve got some energy, all right?

Secondly, I suggest to anybody that does a lot of talking in her work or his work, whether it’s a homeschooling mom or a courtroom attorney, if you can do it, find a local voice teacher and say, “I would just like one or two lessons with you. I’m not here to learn how to sing opera. Can you teach me how to breathe and can you give me some scales to sing?”

Before I met you online here today, Amy, I was vocalizing as I trained as a singer. Before I record, before I go to perform, I spend, it could be 10 minutes. With me, it’s more likely to be half an hour, and still, I’m doing it, singing, warming up my voice. If you do that, you’ll find at the end of the day, you’re less exhausted and your throat’s also exhausted. What happens otherwise is this. You start working hard and you start working harder from here getting the voice out. The more you’re working from here, the more tired your whole body gets. The more tired your whole body gets, the more you have to work from here. It’s a vicious circle.

If you start to get tired, it’s okay to say, “You know what, let’s finish this tomorrow.” It’s also okay if your kids start squirming to say, “Hey, let’s go out and throw a ball around now. Or let’s do something.” Get up and do some exercises, or something else and change the subject.

You don’t have to always finish the story that same day, but it’s helpful if you can say, “Let me finish this page,” because that’s a good logical place to stop.

Authors know this, by the way. Hemingway said that when he was writing, he would write each day until he knew what was going to come next, and he would stop before he wrote it.

Then he said, “My writer’s well would refill that night. The next morning, I go back, read what I’d written the day before, and I didn’t have to think, what am I going to write now? Because I already had decided that before I stopped the day before. I could just pick up the rhythm and keep going.” He consciously would do this.

It’s okay. Then you pick up again the next day, but always by saying, “Now, let’s remember where we were.” St. Hildegard was dealing with this and so in the church and remember she had just said to the Queen tada tada, tada”. Then you pick it up again. It’s okay to interrupt the story.

Now, there are some kids, that I was one of them, who loved to interrupt and say, “Oh, yes, that’s going to–” because you feel like, “I know this part. I can tell this.” My grandfather, who was a world-class eyebrow archer, if I interrupted, my grandfather would stop arch that eyebrow, and turn to me and say, “Who’s telling this story?” Which is Grandpa’s lovely way to say, shhhh!

If they have a question, that’s one thing. Sometimes you can stop and answer it.

If you have a child who just loves to shoot questions at you, it’s okay to say, “If you really need to know that because this isn’t clear, I’ll answer it now but otherwise, it’s a good question. Otherwise, let’s wait till the end because I think maybe the story is going to answer it for you anyway. If it doesn’t, you can ask me that.” It’s okay to do that. Is this helpful?

Amy: Yes, this is very helpful. I was actually thinking, my teens are hoping to take a few voice lessons here over the next few months. I was thinking, “I’m a podcaster. I should go get some voice lessons too or start singing scales before I do my interviews.”

Jim: Well, it’s interesting, people don’t– I remember reading some years ago that James Taylor was talking with Tony Bennett, I think maybe when they were doing a duet for one of Tony Bennett’s duet albums. Here’s James Taylor who’s been a star since the 1960s, right? Tony Bennett said to him, “What do you do for your voice? How do you warm-up?” James Taylor says, “Well, I don’t. I just start singing.”

Tony Bennett said, “Oh, no, you can’t do that. If you want to keep doing–” This is Tony Bennett, who at the time, I think was about to turn to 80. Now he’s 94, and he can still hit his notes, but the fact is he said, “No, you got to warm up, or you’re going to lose your instrument.” The next day, James Taylor, in the mail got a cassette from Tony Bennett with exercises on it. He said, “I’ve used it ever since. It’s preserved my voice.” Yes, as I say that the goal is not to become a great singer. The goal is to preserve the instrument and your energy.

Amy: Oh, wow. Side note here, James Taylor, total rabbit trail, but my husband and I listened to the audiobook of his memoir. He narrated it himself, and it was just a memoir of the first 21 years of his life. It was a little insane how all of the songs that you know and could sing off the top of your head, he had written them before he was 21 just about. It was amazing, but yes, I would recommend that audiobook to the adults listening to this podcast anyway.

Jim: I would add, based on what you just said, one of the great things you can do if you’re going to share a piece of literature– in particular because we tend to do this more with history- look up the author, and see if you can find some little something about the author. Either may be something that conveys why or how she or he wrote this particular book or just something, in general, to make the author come to life.

The man that wrote the Sherlock Holmes stories, Arthur Conan Dole, the story of how he came to write them is one of the greatest stories I know. How he came up with that whole methodology is a great story.

Treasure Island: Robert Louis Stevenson married a woman who had previously been married and had a son. It was an American woman.

Stevenson and the boy just adored each other. No surprise because Stevenson had a lot of child in him, too. One day when it was raining, they couldn’t go out to play, they started drawing together, just sketching indoors. Stevenson, for no particular reason, started drawing a picture of an island, and the boy who was 11 at the time looked over and said, “That’s cool.”

Stevenson said, “Oh, you think so?” Kept at it, and he started, for whatever reason, naming the little hills and bays, so the boy got really interested, so Stevenson started making up a story about it. The next day, when the boy went out to play in the sunlight, Stevenson sat down and started to write, and that was Treasure Island. He wrote it in 3 weeks.

Amy: That’s amazing

Jim: Three weeks. It was the only time in his life it ever happened. He wrote to his publisher halfway through, and he said, “This has never happened to me before. As fast as I can move my pen across the page, the words are pouring out. At the end of the day when, as always, I go back to make corrections or changes, I hardly have to change a comma. It’s rolling through me onto the page.” At the end of three weeks, he’d written it, and he sent it off to be published. That was the book that first made him world-famous. By the way, Long John Silver, the peg-legged pirate, was based on one of Stevenson’s friends who wrote one of the most famous poems of the 20th century.

The poem that Nelson Mandela used to recite to himself to keep himself going when he was in jail for 20 plus years as a political prisoner in South Africa. Stevenson’s friend had had to have a leg amputated for health reasons, and he refused to let it get him down. He lived a thrilling life, introduced people like Yeats to the reading public. He was one of Stevenson’s friends, and Stevenson said, “This is the basis of my character Long John Silver.”

Now that makes Treasure Island even cooler, to me, to know those stories. Anything like that brings it to life, so look for that. You won’t always find something, but 90% of the time, there’s something about the author or the particular book that adds to it.

Amy: I love that. Oh, Treasure Island is such a delight. In fact, that reminds me, I think my youngest son probably doesn’t remember the last time we read that together, so I’m going to have to get that one back out. That’s the thing when you have lots of children over a wide age range, you sometimes forget the youngest one hasn’t heard the book, but it just means we get to read it again.

Jim: Also, there’s an opportunity, and it’s not always there, but sometimes it is, for one of the older ones to do some of the reading. You talk about giving your voice rest. Ask one of the older ones to read that day or say, “You know what? I’m going to read until my voice starts to get tired. Honey, how about you pick up for this and finish the chapter for me?” It’s also something that brings your older and younger kids together.

I’ve seen that work in school settings, too, where the seventh graders will come in and read to the kindergartners. It creates a community in that school setting. The same thing can happen within one family, obviously, but it’s a lovely thing. It also adds some pride for your older kids saying, “Hey, you know what? I helped her get into this. Again, I helped teach her this.” Makes the older ones feel good, and the little ones are going, “Hey, I’m hanging out with the big guys. This is cool.”

Amy: Right.

Jim: Yes.

Jim Weiss shares a favorite story

Amy: Jim, do you have a favorite poem or story excerpt that you’d be willing to share with us today?

Jim: Oh, sure. Do I want to tell a poem, or do I want to tell you a story? Do you have any preferences? Otherwise, I’ll tell you what. I talked about trying to find a hook for something. Just a couple of years ago, I did a recording called Genius Times Four in which I told the life stories of four of the greatest scientists in history, Einstein, a Nobel prize-winning American Gertrude Elion, Madame Curie, and the Curie family won six Nobel prizes in two generations. She won two. Her husband won one, and the kids won some.

Amy: That’s-

Jim: Six.

Amy: -amazing.

Jim: It’s mind-boggling, but this is the way I began. Do you mind if I read this one? I haven’t told this one live so long. I’m just going to read it. Is that all right with you?

Amy: Oh, that’s wonderful, thank you.

Jim: This chapter’s called “The Lion.” In his lifetime, he would prove himself a master detective risking life and limb in a long, dangerous game against cunning, desperate criminals, but on this occasion, as on so many others, he would solve a mystery of a different kind with a genius perhaps unmatched in all of history. It all began with a letter. Pause, there’s your hook.

The letter was waiting when he arrived home. His niece, Catherine, with whom he shared a home in London, had set it on the table with his other mail, but when he saw that this letter came from the scientist and mathematician Jean Benoit, he left the rest of the mail and carried this envelope to his desk. He noted that it was postmarked just a few days earlier, January 1697.

He opened it and read this note from Jean Benoit, the Swiss mathematician. “Six months have passed since I sent these two problems to the leading mathematicians of Europe, challenging them to find the solutions. All who have tried to find the answers have failed or have failed to answer, which I assume is the same thing. Only Leibnitz in Germany has claimed success, but I notice he has revealed nothing of his supposed solution, so now I send these to you in England. See what you can do with them. Bon chance,” which is French for good luck. “Benoit.”

The other pages in the envelope contained the two problems that had baffled the other mathematicians. He looked at them briefly, interesting. Removed his coat, folded it over the back of a chair and then, making sure that he had plenty of paper and a full bottle of ink and a pen handy, he sat down at his desk and he began to do what he did best, think. He didn’t worry about his dinner. He knew Katherine was so used to his getting lost in problems. She would simply bring a tray at some point in time and she did, although he didn’t even notice it. He was so involved in these two problems.

He kept at it, and much later he set down his pen, stretched and yawned. Then he looked at the clock and he noticed it was 4:00 AM. He had been working for 12 hours, but he’d been in another country all together. In the 12 hours, he had solved both of Jean Benoit’s mathematical riddles. He sent a copy of his work to a friend of his at England’s Royal Society, the greatest astronomer Edmond Halley of Halley’s comet fame.

He said to Halley, “Please publish this in the society’s quarterly magazine without saying that the work is mine.” He was a very, very shy man and didn’t like too much attention. When Halley published the work in the society journal and the journal reached readers across Britain and Europe, they all knew at once there was only one person who could have done this work. Jean-Benoit, who had posed the problems, quoted to his colleagues an old Roman saying, “We recognize the lion by the print.” It could only be one person. It was Isaac Newton. Now, having heard that, would you like to know more about Isaac Newton?

Amy: Oh, definitely. It sparks your imagination, right?

Jim: That’s what you’re after. Now, that’s one of the older kids’ stories obviously, but you can do the same with anybody and you put it on their level. You’re looking for something that’ll draw them in right away. Then you can go back and you can say, “Now, let me tell you about this person,” or whatever it is that’ll lead you back.

Amy: Oh, thank you so much for sharing that story. Were those problems when he figured out calculus? I’m going to go, I am. I’m like, “Forget this interview. I need to get out my biography of Newton and find out this story.”

Jim: You know what? I have to say it’s interesting, too. You’re looking for parallels in history. When Newton made his famous discoveries or realizations, let’s say, about gravity that changed everything, seeing the apple falling. He was teaching at Cambridge University in those days and he hated teaching because he was almost pathologically shy and he was terrified of public speaking. Everybody knew he was a genius, but you couldn’t hear him past the third row of desks, so he was not a popular teacher with most of the students. He was home when the apple fell. It was a tree in his backyard. He wasn’t at Cambridge because there was a pandemic.

The plague had struck England as it did periodically, and they closed down Cambridge and Oxford and all the schools and theaters and places where people gathered in groups. It was because he was home to avoid the pandemic that he was sitting in the backyard and he saw the apple fall and began to wonder why and began to think is there a way to explain and to determine the force of that apple. That led to all his greatest discoveries. Now, I think it’s interesting.

Shakespeare wrote his sonnets because they’d closed the theaters for a while because of the plague in London in the late 1500s. He couldn’t be writing plays. He wrote his cycle of sonnets, among the most famous poems ever written in history because he couldn’t be writing his plays. Then when the theaters opened up again, he went back and wrote his plays. This stuff ties it together. My favorite example George Washington. From the time he first read this story as a boy, one of Washington’s favorite heroes was the Roman hero, Cincinnatus– right, you know this story- who was at the pinnacle of power in Rome and some of the other leaders were afraid he was trying to seize power.

They found a way to cast him down from power. He lost his fortune. He lost his position in Roman Senate, everything. He and his wife went from mansions and servants to a farmhouse and one farm field that Cincinnatus plowed. Then Roman territory was invaded and Cincinnatus was the greatest general in Rome and the invaders were headed straight for Rome. The people that had pulled him down from power went to his house, found him out in the field halfway down a furrow, ploughing. Got off their horses, explained that Rome was in peril and begged him to take power and he did. He embraced his wife knowing he would probably never see her again because the odds were so against them.

Rode off, saved Rome. Then his opponents said, “Now he’s going to take power. He’s a national hero. He just saved all of Rome. The Romans will do anything he wants.” Cincinnatus gathered his troops together and said only this to them. He said, “I have done what Rome has asked of me.” He turned his horse and he rode home, embraced his wife once more, took off his armor and finished ploughing the field. Great story. What makes it greater is George Washington read it. When he became our greatest hero having won the revolution for us as the head of our military, there were officers who wanted him to declare himself king of the new country. He could have done it and he chewed them out.

He said, “How dare you? This is not why we fought this revolution to make the same mistakes they made in Europe.” That was one out of two or three times when people offered him the presidency for life or a crown and he always turned it down. How did he know how? Cincinnatus. He knew the story of Cincinnatus and he had taken it to heart.

Amy: It goes back to Plutarch, full circle. Beautiful story structure from this conversation. [laughs]

Jim: Isn’t it?

Amy: Yes, it is. I think one of the greatest things that president Washington did was to step down after two terms. Jim, this has been absolutely wonderful. I have enjoyed our conversation so much knowing that I was able to listen to you on cassette as a child and now, my children are listening to digital MP3s of your stories and now to get to talk to you myself is really a treat. Here at the end though, I do want to ask you a question. I’m asking all of my guests and that is just, what are you personally reading lately?

What Jim is reading lately

Jim: I’m usually reading more than one thing at a time. Right now, after not having read this book for I don’t know how many years, I’m starting to reread Carl Sandberg’s biography of Lincoln. The one that Sandberg wrote that won him the Pulitzer or one of his Pulitzers. The other one was for his poetry.

By the way, big recommendation. Go find Carl Sandberg’s collected poems. I happen to love his poetry, but even if you don’t love his poetry, read the preface. The preface is the best thing I’ve ever read about the mystery of how creative people create, whether it’s Babe Ruth hitting home runs, who is quoted in it, or painters or poets. it’s marvelous, so go find that.

I’m starting to reread Sandberg’s Lincoln.

I just finished reading a book called The Rivalry by John Taylor, which is about professional basketball in the time of Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain. Wilt Chamberlain was the greatest individual player. Once scored 100 points by himself in a game, and one season averaged more than 50 points in a game and didn’t get the most valuable player award because Bill Russell got it, greatest defensive player in history and one of my personal heroes and a brilliant man.

Russell is the greatest champion of any sport in history. Played in the pros for 13 years and his team won the world championship 11 of the 13 years. Failed in the finals in the 12th year because he hurt his leg and he couldn’t play in the last games. Never been a champion like him. The rivalry, and then the friendship between these two rivals, great story.

I’m reading poetry by Mary Oliver and by Edna St. Vincent Millay, and I’m just starting a new book about writing, I’m always reading what other writers have to say about writing. By the Italian author, Italo Calvino called Six Memos for the Next Millennium, notes for a lecture series on writing. I’m always reading something from history. I’m always reading something about writing itself and I’m always reading some fiction.

Amy: Those are some wonderful selections. As soon as we’re done here, I’m going to see if my library has that collection of Carl Sandburg’s poetry because that introduction sounds absolutely fascinating.

Jim: Anybody that can start his preface on the creative process by recalling his interview as a reporter when he was starting as a journalist with Babe Ruth and then moved directly from Babe Ruth to William Butler Yeats, possibly the greatest English language poet since Shakespeare, has gotten my attention.

Find Jim Weiss and His Stories Online

Amy: Yes. All that’s amazing. Jim, where can people find you and your recordings all around the internet?

Jim: Well, you can go to JimWeiss.com. If you do that, you’ll find three listings of my recordings. The first one just is recordings and it lists them sort of by age appropriateness and there’s a write-up about each one. You can hear a bit of each one and then you can choose right there do you want to order it off of Amazon or iTunes or from The Well-Trained Mind, Susan Wise Bauer’s publishing house, which is now my publishing house.

We licensed the recordings to them a few years ago. You could also find recordings timeline, which shows which stories happened when in history, so if you’re starting a particular time in history, these are the stories you can go to from the various recordings that take place, both the history stories and the literary classics that take place during that time in history.

The third list of the recordings tells which stories offer examples of different values and virtues. That’s one place to go, or you can go to Well-Trained Mind, which has all the recordings, or as I say, Amazon carries them. Itunes has most of them. Audible has some of them. We’re getting them on there now more and more. My website has all of them and also has other information like those handouts I mentioned at the beginning, which you could find useful and share with your kids and would help you as a teller or a reader, I hope.

The last thing I want to say in regard to all this is this, I’ve been doing this a long time all over the world, and of course, the recordings have gone places I have never been in the world, which is always fun. I get to someplace and somebody says, “I’ve been listening to you for 25 years,” and I’m thinking, “This is Hong Kong. This is really interesting.” If you have a question about any of this stuff, if you ever run up against the wall and you don’t know what to do, email me, it’s okay.

There’s a place to contact me on the jimweiss.com website and feel free to do it. If you learn something that you think I can share with somebody else– next time you and I are talking, Amy- send me that too because I’m still learning. That’s where you can find me.

Amy: Wonderful. I will have links to all of those things you just mentioned in the show notes for this episode at HumilityanDoxology.com. Thank you again so much, Jim. I look forward to chatting with you again sometime.

Jim: I hope so. I love what you do and I’m so glad you’re doing it. It’s so important. Thank you, and my best to everybody out there. Tell your own stories. Bye-bye.

Check out all the other interviews in my Homeschool Conversations series!

Homeschool Conversations Video Interviews Podcast HumilityandDoxology.com Amy Sloan


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