Judith Wynhausen– Storyteller

What made you want to become a storyteller?

My mother told me lots of stories when I was young, and I was always making up and acting out little plays when I was a child.  When I grew up, I studied music and theatre in college, and wanted to be a director and actress.  However, acting in plays takes a lot of rehearsal time, usually in the evenings, and that is difficult to do with a family.  When my third son was small, a friend asked me if I would tell stories at a festival for children she was helping organize.  I had always thought it would be fun to tell stories as Mother Goose, so I made a costume, made up some stories, and performed at the festival.  I had so much fun, I knew I wanted to be storyteller.

Was the journey difficult? 

I don’t think of journeys as being “difficult”–only interesting.  The main obstacle has been my tendency to get involved in too many things, so I don’t have time to really devote to any one thing.  In addition to storytelling, I have a wonderful family.  I have four children, ranging in age from 36 to 10; the last child was born when I was 50 years old!  I also love horses, and have three horses on our property.   I am still involved in music–I play with an African marimba ensemble that performs locally.  I also teach Sunday School, and am a substitute teacher with the Joplin schools.  All these other parts of my life also demand time and attention, so I am not able to fully devote my time to storytelling.

I have received help from many storytelling friends.  I subscribe to a listserv called “Storytell” (www.twu.edu/cope/slis/storytell.htm) that hundreds of storytellers worldwide subscribe to.  This is like having a huge storytelling family to support you; they answer my questions, give advice, share their own experiences, cry with me when I need comfort, laugh with me and cheer me on when I share my own success.  There is also a national storyteling organization, NSN, that sponsors national conferences and puts out an excellent newsletter.  Being a member of NSN has helped me in my journey to become a professional storyteller.

What were some of your favorite stories growing up? 

I loved the stories my mother made up, usually to elicit some change in my behavior–like one about the “The I Can and the I Can’t Sisters.”  The “I Can’t Sisters” would always approach any new challenge by saying “I can’t” so of course they never got to do anything.  The “I Can Sisters” would always say, “I can do that,” and they would try, and always find out that they could!  She had a fantastic story about a little boy being taken away to “bathland” by his bathtub because he didn’t like to take baths.  Other stories that were special were family stories that my mother, father, grandmothers, aunts and uncles would tell.  They would tell about when they were young, and all the things they used to do (my grandmother once was dared to ride a pig, and she did it!). These stories gave me a wonderful view into the lives of my relatives.  Of course I also loved the classic fairy tales and children’s stories that were in a big book with beautiful colored pictures.  One of my favorities was Cinderella.  Mother also read several of the Oz books to us when we were small, and I carried on this tradition for my own children.  I think all these stories were “special” because of the love with which they were shared.

Is there a difference between writing a story and telling a story?

A story that is written down is preserved in that form, and while a person reading the written story can add his/her own nuances to it, it still retains the exact words and structure that the author gave it.  A storyteller, on the other hand, is not just telling a story, he/she is interacting with the listeners in a dynamic way.  The same story told to different audiences will be different.  While some storytellers memorize a story word for word, and always tell it that way, many storytellers memorize the basic outline of the story (sometimes called “the bones of a story”) and then tell it in their own words, embellishing and changing certain parts in the moment of telling, so the story is dynamicand always changing.

If you could be one character in a story who would you be and why?

I am already one character in a story–that is “Old Mother Goose.”  I love being Mother Goose because she is a storyteller, and she “wanders” around.  She loves children, and enjoys meeting them and telling them stories.

If you could have coffee with one famous storyteller who would it be and why?

I would love to have tea (don’t drink coffee) with Garrison Kiellor.  I have enjoyed his storytelling on the radio for many years.  I love the way he can spin a tale from simple, everyday people and happenings.  I also enjoy listening to his rich voice, both speaking and singing.  He seems like a person who would enjoy listening to what I have to say, too, so the conversation would be shared, not just him talking and me listening.

What inspires you as a storyteller?

I am inspired by listening to other storytellers, both “professional” and people who are just sharing stories from their lives.  There are certain stories that really grab me; stories that make me think about the human situation and involve me emotionally.  I’m also inspired by my audiences.  When I stand in front of a sea of eager faces, smiling, and attending to my stories, I know that I’ve found the right profession for me.  I’m inspired by the hugs and waves I get as the children file out from a performance.  I’m inspired by the drawings and letters I receive from children following my visit with them.  I also get inspiration from meeting with other storytellers, either on the Storytell listserv or in person at conferences and festivals.

What advice would you give a storyteller faced with writer’s block?

Pick a character, flesh it out, and put that character in a situation where he/she has to interact with other characters and act in some way.  Then start telling the story, and let it unfold.  Let it surprise you!  One fun exercise is to take a painting or drawing that has people in it, and start telling the story that the artwork depicts.  Or, tell a story from your own experience–recall all the sensations you felt when it happened–what did you hear? what did you see? what did you feel? what did you smell? what did you taste?  Describe those sensations fully.  What other people were involved?  What were they like? What emotions were involved in the experience?  Did the experience have a crisis? How was it resolved?  Then begin to tell the story of that experience–create a beginning, a middle, and an end.

What stories are you working on presently?

I am in the process of translating my Mother Goose stories into Spanish and telling them bilingually.  My brother, Bill Carter, is a professional translator and interpreter, and he has helped me translate 38 English Mother Goose rhymes into Spanish.  Now we are working on the stories that I tell involving those rhymes. I am planning to create a DVD especially for students of Spanish, and also one for students learning English.

Where can kids and parents find out more about your work?

My web site is www.judithtells.com

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About Jolene Owen (Editor-at-large)

Jolene Owen is an interactive journalist working in the transmedia sector. View all posts by Jolene Owen (Editor-at-large)

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