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Back to Her Roots

Jane Fink, storyteller

by Cynthia Furlong Reynolds

Published in April, 2018

"Louis Armstrong was my first introduction to jazz music, and he became my jazz hero," Jane Fink recalls. "He made every member of the audience feel like the great jazz master was playing just for them. I clearly remember the night I watched and listened to Louis and Velma Middleton sing 'Baby, It's Cold Outside.' The two of them filled the air with seduction and yearning and flirting and laughter. It didn't matter that we were all crowded into a small outdoor music venue on a beastly hot summer evening. They convinced me that it was freezing outside and she 'better stay'..."

Fink smiles, closes her eyes, and seems to relive the moment before she finishes her story about "almost meeting" the great jazz trumpeter. This tale is one of several she is in the process of revising, editing, and polishing for future storytelling performances.

Fink practices an ancient art that stretches back to the dawn of language. "There is something so magical about sitting around a campfire and spinning a tale," she says. "Not so long ago, everyone knew that. But times have changed. We have to reintroduce storytelling to new audiences ... Often people come up to me after a concert and say, 'I had no idea this is the way you tell stories.'"

Like any art, storytelling isn't easy to master. Storytellers must know their material thoroughly, select the best words and phrases carefully, tighten and revise constantly, and practice frequently. They must eliminate tics they didn't know they had ("playing with hair, injecting unnecessary words, and a host of others," Fink says) and carefully consider any possible politically or socially sensitive interpretations. Storytellers also make use of facial expressions, body language and, occasionally, accessories to help tell a tale.

"Every storyteller chooses a method based on their personal style and comfort," Fink says. For her, the story unfolds before her eyes as she speaks--"I 'see' a combination of still pictures and a kind of video

...continued below...

as I tell their story."

A Chicago native, Jane Evans met Karl Fink when she was an undergraduate art major at the U-M and he was a law student. They married and built a house on family land outside Dexter forty-three years ago, just before their first child was born. While raising six children and welcoming thirteen grandchildren into the family, Jane managed to earn a master's degree in child and family development from EMU, became certified as a social worker, opened a psychotherapy practice, and worked with young mothers suffering from substance abuse. After retiring in 2000, she began selling homemade granola at farmer's markets and wondering about her next venture. She decided to return to her storytelling roots--which run deep.

"I grew up surrounded by books and story-loving relatives, particularly the grandmother for whom I was named," Fink says. As a child, she instructed friends to sit in a circle and then she regaled them with made-up stories--"some successful, others not," she says, laughing. "My family was very encouraging--and very forbearing. I'm Welsh, and like the Irish, the Welsh are natural-born storytellers."

She knows the power of a good story. "Three books changed my view of the world when I was young," she says, listing Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings' The Yearling ("Until then I thought all children lived where and how I lived"), Marguerite Henry's Brighty of the Grand Canyon ("the first book I spent all night reading"), and Welshman Richard Llewellyn's How Green Was My Valley ("connecting me to my family roots").

So, what makes a good story a great story to tell?

"An engaging beginning, an exciting crisis, a thought-provoking resolution after the climax, and an ending that's satisfying," she says. "I tell three kinds of stories: personal stories; stories based on great literary works; and what I like to call tribute stories, which rely on memories that bring someone you know or knew to life."

Each type has its own challenges. Retelling literary stories often involves altering them in some way, often updating language or shortening the story. ("The optimal length is between twelve to eighteen minutes.") Tribute stories are the trickiest, she says, because "you have to be careful that it has an appeal beyond its value to your life. Otherwise your audience will shrug their shoulders and decide, 'I guess you had to be there.' That's not the reaction a storyteller wants to achieve."

She performs "whenever and wherever" she's asked, starting each event with a moment of reflection. "I recognize that God gave me this talent. Before I start, I pray that my gift will bring someone something--a chance to laugh, a thought to ponder, or a moment of peace. I tell stories as a gift to my hearers."

On March 24, Fink will join Steve Daut and Susanna Zoumbaris on the Encore Theatre stage for "Jane Fink & Friends," an annual fundraiser for the theater (see Community Events--Performing Arts).

"We all cherish the oral tradition," Fink says. "Without that, unique cultural traditions fade and ultimately disappear. Oral traditions are immensely important in helping us determine and define who we are, who we were, and what happened in the past."     (end of article)

[Originally published in April, 2018.]


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