George Dawes Green is on a mission. The novelist and poet has helped The Moth, the live storytelling organization he founded, grow from a few friends spinning yarns in his New York living room into something of a cultural institution. Four cities now host regular, often sold-out Moth events, with everyone from Salman Rushdie to Al Sharpton taking the stage, and the group continues to roll through new cities and countries, from Dublin to Turkmenistan. The Moth podcast is currently the fifth most downloaded on iTunes, and the group has adapted its format of true stories, told live without notes to work in high schools, small towns and corporate boardrooms.
But Green, the author of the novels The Caveman’s Valentine, The Juror, and the recent thriller Ravens, says this is just the beginning. With The Moth’s GrandSLAM coming to New York on April 6, where winners of the past 10 StorySLAMs face off, The Rumpus spoke by phone with Green about the organization and the art of storytelling. Here he discusses teaching celebrities how to tell better tales, his writing, and why he thinks raconteuring is the art form of the 21st century.
The Rumpus: It seems like The Moth is everywhere these days. How did your idea for it originate? Did you imagine it would catch on like this?
George Dawes Green: I grew up in Georgia, in a little island off the coast called St. Simons, and we used to go on Saturdays over to my friend Wanda’s house and just sit out on her porch all night and tell stories and drink bourbon. The moths used to come in through the broken-down screens and fly around the porch light, and so we started calling ourselves The Moth.
Then, years later I was in New York and The Juror had just come out, it was a big international bestseller, so I had some extra money and time and I thought, I really want to see if there is a venue that would allow people in New York to express their stories. I knew that there were great stories in New York if we could just create a space for them. That’s why I decided to try it first in my own living room, and then quickly thereafter moved it out to bars.
Rumpus: Almost like New Yorkers are so preoccupied that they need to have a formal time and place to tell their stories.
Green: New York is a tremendously ambitious place, and everybody brings a huge ego into the room. You can’t really tell stories at cocktail parties. People will—vultures will leap in after seven seconds and grab the attention away. Even though the stories can be magnificent, there’s never going to be any time for them.
In the South, when we gather around and just start drinking on somebody’s porch, it’s pretty easy to start telling stories.
Rumpus: So did you intend for The Moth to just be a more formalized version of this art of storytelling on porches and kitchen sinks?
Green: People say we’re representing this ancient art form, but raconteuring— when I say “raconteuring” I mean this particular type of more personal, spontaneous storytelling that we do—has never been respected as an art form.
If you look at those Eisteddfods in Wales where the poets gather from all over Northern Europe to recite their lays, those are very formal, religious stories. Then you know when they were done with that, they would gather around the campfire and tell amazing stories. The same would be true if you look at the African griots. There is a place for this, but the idea of really getting a personal story from someone wasn’t a celebrated art form a hundred years ago.
Even Mark Twain said for his lectures—he was a brilliant raconteur—but he didn’t want to just sail off into his stories, so he would read his pieces.
There has really never been a venue for the kind of stories that we tell, which are the spontaneous tales and the first-person tales that are true, or sort of true, about the narrator’s life.
Rumpus: Do you see any speakers or performers as the precursors or inspiration for this more spontaneous raconteuring that Moth storytellers are doing?
Green: When you ask for what underlays this, Arlo Guthrie, when he told “Alice’s Restaurant,” that was a told tale that he would change every time that he told it. That was my first real experience with the idea of a raconteur and it was just breathtakingly beautiful. I was talking to Arlo Guthrie not long ago, because we are bringing him to The Moth, about how that tale was one of the foundations of The Moth.
Spalding Gray told tales that were written and memorized, but they did have a real measure of spontaneity. And of course, Garrison Keillor. There was just a handful of people who started to experiment and realized that they could tell their stories freeform. Every now and then you would hear a little bit of a story on Dick Cavett or Johnny Carson late at night—I remember Jimmy Breslin was a great raconteur who would actually be given five minutes—but there sure wasn’t much of it.
Rumpus: Do you think that’s beginning to change?
Green: Yes. The sense that it’s just telling stories, it’s not a real art, I think is changing very quickly. I really think that raconteuring is the art form of the 21st century. It’s so simple and fills this human need that all these electronic arts have been getting away from.
Rumpus: With electronic outlets like podcasting, YouTube, or blogs letting people tell their own stories and get them out to people in ways they never could before, do you think that’s part of why personal storytelling is catching on?
Green: I don’t know. I think it’s fueled it because people hate the electronics so much.
We’ve been working with kids lately, going into high schools, and the kids are in love with this art form. It’s really dramatic how much excitement there is from high school students. They love hearing other high school students tell vulnerable stories about being an adolescent in America.
Human beings still need to gather around campfires. They still need to tell stories to each other, and this idea that they can kind of do it through putting on an avatar and going to play in some electronic game room is false. It can be addictive, but it’s never satisfying, and I think what’s happening with a lot of kids is the sense that they have been handed this electronic world. There is a sense of a revolt against this world.
Rumpus: Do you feel The Moth stories lose something when listened to electronically, as a podcast?
Green: Yes. It’s funny, people are always telling me how much they love the podcast, saying, the podcast saved my life, and I’m hesitant to admit to them that I almost never actually listen to it. Once in a while for rehearsal for the radio show I’ve listened—it’s fine, if you can’t get to the real thing.
Rumpus: I was actually just listening to your Moth performance of “The House that Sherman Didn’t Burn” and it has the quality of a story that’s been told and sort of worn in over time. Is that how these stories typically develop, being refined over time?
Green: We always tweak the stories. It’s necessary to rehearse them. That’s something that some of the new raconteurs are surprised by. We had a celebrity who happened to be a well-known playwright and actor, who was insistent that he didn’t need to rehearse. We said, well, you would never put your play on without rehearsing.
Rumpus: You have written some really engaging, page-turning novels. How does writing something like Ravens, where you’re telling of these extreme reversals of fortune, compare with telling something more personal?
Green: I find raconteuring to be a completely different discipline from writing. I take great joy in heightened language and the formal construction of literature, but it’s very removed from these kind of stories we tell on stage where we use so much gesture and something about being in that moment is so electric.
The thing that is so exciting on stage is the idea that the narrator is a human being subject to all the foibles and idiocies and fuckups of human beings, and I think that has percolated into my writing.
I’ve always loved using very constructed forms. I write thrillers, so they’re not personal, although bits and pieces of me get into the thrillers.
Rumpus: Have you had an urge to write something more personal?
Green: Lately I have been working on a story that’s much more of a memoir. Part of that, I suppose, is the muscle you use when you’re telling stories.
Rumpus: How do you select raconteurs? What do you look for in their stories?
Green: When we find a storyteller that we think is promising, we meet and ask him or her to tell us the story at a lunch in a very informal way.
First of all, does it expose real vulnerability? This is absolutely essential. Every great Moth story reveals a vulnerability of the raconteur. We want that sense of a very personal story. A lot of times people will come in with tales that are very interesting, but they don’t really reflect, how did this tale impact you? How did this change you?
Then we start to leave off all the things that are unessential to the tale. Usually the great tales are the stories of the narrator and one other person really, at heart, and their conflict. Then there will be a general rehearsal of all the storytellers of a particular evening, they will all get together and that is usually the scariest time.
Rumpus: Why is that?
Green: The Moth is a very scary enterprise. For a lot of people, it’s the scariest thing they will ever do. It’s not like performing in the sense of when an actor goes up to perform and goes off a script. A Moth story needs to feel fresh, it cannot seem scripted. It’s okay to work on it, but never to memorize it. The raconteur is going up there without a script, without an interviewer, without anything but himself and ten minutes. It’s a terrifying thing to do.
Rumpus: Did you know all this when you started The Moth—that the stories should be about vulnerability, that they should be told in this personal way and last about ten minutes?
Green: No, that was absolutely refined over time. We didn’t know what we were going to get into when we first started. First of all, I assumed there would be more obviously fictional stories, with people telling third-person tales. But those instantly felt frozen and the excitement of someone just standing up and telling a story, as we say, from the heart, overwhelmed those kinds of tales.
I was bringing in a lot of writers, so I thought there would be a lot of fancy language. We quickly found that heightened language doesn’t work in raconteuring. There needs to be that sense that the story is being cooked up in the oven—in the raconteur’s skull right in front of the audience. You need that sense of real spontaneity.
Rumpus: You mentioned the playwright earlier—do you notice a difference in style between the more established celebrities and the people maybe just getting in front of an audience for the first time?
Green: Often celebrities like to tell a story about how they got into a situation that was all fucked up somehow or other, and how they found a way out of it, through ingenuity. But great Moth raconteurs tell the story about how they got into a situation where everything was pretty good, but they were the ones fucked up, that they ruined everything, and luckily other people would jump in and save them. Those were the stories that immediately moved audiences, so you would often have situations where celebrities would come in and fall completely flat and other raconteurs would steal the night away from them.
Tell the truth unglorious. We wish to glorify ourselves, but we always find that when raconteurs go onstage and try to glorify themselves, that they fall flat.
Also, how little setup is needed. We had a brilliant story by a middle-class, African American woman about going down to Atlanta and she was working as a home health nurse and found herself taking care of an old Ku Klux Clan wizard. But when she first told this story, she spent several minutes setting it up, basically telling us that she was a middle class, northern, black woman, and she didn’t need to say a word of that. We knew that when she walked on stage.
In those first few years we really learned what was going to be successful and what wasn’t.
Rumpus: Is raconteuring a skill you can learn? Are people just naturals at it or is it something they develop?
Green: There may be naturals, but I haven’t seen too many. Most people learn and get better by leaps and bounds. People who come to slams, come a lot and they watch and take notes and are constantly experimenting.
There is a handful of greats. I think of Edgar Oliver as our greatest raconteur. But when he began, he was very overly dramatic and we had to talk and say look, just tell the story, let your most natural voice carry it. He has become very, very powerful. Jonathan Ames was always hilarious and to tell the story you began to see that he needed to show his tenderness and his vulnerability, so he became much stronger.
It can’t just be a vulnerable, sad story either—it has to be funny too. It has to have both.