George Dawes Green is a bestselling author and the founder of the Moth.
I first wrote to George a few years ago when I was immersed in the Moth podcast, listening all of their stories, one episode after another. It was sor of a fan letter. Here, we talk about creativity clashing with responsibilities, how the Moth grew so large and what’s the key to good leadership.
How did The Moth come about and how did it grow so large?
I started in my living room 20 years ago. It was an instant success, although the first Moth was really terrible. It was just boring, long stories. Nobody knew how to end their stories. People just didn’t know really how to tell stories in public, in an open setting. They kind of felt there had to be a moral to the story.
The first evening was a disaster, but I thought, it’s all right. We’ll figure it out. We kept trying. We would bring in new elements and very quickly I began to think about what it was that made a powerful story. One of the things is a sense of vulnerability and a willingness to be a fool, a willingness to fail. The stories that were always powerful were the ones where someone was saying, “I was a total clown.” The stories where people would tell about their successes were never very interesting. We learned that very quickly.
I remember there was a story by Jonathan Ames, maybe the third Moth. Jonathan Ames is a writer. He has gone on to be a big success with his own HBO TV series. But he told a story about when he was 12 years old, he masturbated for the first time and he was so excited by what he had produced that he went running into the kitchen to show his mother. She was very proud of him.
What I was amazed by was he told this in rehearsal and I thought, okay, I don’t know how this is going to work. Then when he told it on stage, it was a huge hit. Everyone loved Jonathan Ames. He was a star. He was a genuine rock star because of that willingness to expose everything. There was nothing that he was afraid of. That was a great lesson to me in how to approach The Moth.
But it just began to grow quickly. There had never been a forum for people to tell stories on stage, these personal unscripted stories, the kind of stories you tell in the kitchen or on the porch or wherever. Now we were bringing them on stage and saying this is an art form.
Once we got the stories good and once we sort of knew what we were doing, then it’s just grown exponentially. Now we have people starting Moths all over the world. We have our own Moths and then there are Moth clones. There are people who came and said, “Oh, I want to start a Moth.”
—Once we got the stories good and once we sort of knew what we were doing, then it’s just grown exponentially.—
I’ll go to Moths in weird places and it’s always great, I’ve done that every now and then.
What’s the weirdest place you’ve been to?
Well, let me see. The strangest Moth – I guess, it was in the mountains of Tennessee. We climbed a mountain. I don’t know how we got the van up there. At some point it started to go off the side of the mountain. Then there were about eight of us and we all kind of yanked the van back onto the mountain and managed to get up in the middle of the night.
Then had a Moth on top of the mountain with all these local folks, some of whom had been coal miners. There was one guy who just told a story about being trapped in a coal mine and assuming he would die. He was down there for four days, just an amazing story. All of the stories were amazing. They came out of nowhere.
You can go anywhere in the world and get great stories. It’s not just interesting things, but you’ll find people who really know how to tell a story. This is the story they’ve been telling over and over so they really know it. Yeah, that was great.
I feel you have the need helping people to tell stories or empowering them with the right tools, so to say. Why do you think that is? Why do you do it?
Just because, honestly, I really love stories. I grew up in a little island off the coast of Georgia in the South. We used to tell stories all the time there. When I was a young man, we’d go over to my friend Wanda’s porch and drink bourbon and tell stories all night. Everyone was willing to do this.
When I got to New York and realized nobody would take the time and people would be interrupted if they tried to tell a story. You just couldn’t get more than 30 seconds into a story so that’s when I kind of thought I would see if I could hold a night where people would have to shut up and let other people talk.
—When I got to New York and realized nobody would take the time and people would be interrupted if they tried to tell a story.—
That has turned out to be great. But I did it just because I wanted to hear stories. I would go to these parties and I’d feel like I would have no connection with anybody. I knew that people in New York could tell great stories.
I think it came from my childhood. I used to watch late night television. Every now and then you’d get people like Jimmy Breslin, who was this old, Irish, New York City columnist. He’d come on the late night TV and he’d tell about characters he had met. Normally late night TV is celebrities and he wasn’t telling that. He was just telling about the people he knew.
I remember just thinking, “Oh my God, there are all these people in New York who are up in bars and telling these stories.” I didn’t realize until I got to New York that nobody was telling stories because nobody was being allowed to. That’s when I started The Moth. There clearly was this need and hunger for this. But I didn’t really know that. I sort of guessed there might be.
Why do you think we need stories and why do you think a good story can help us feel included in a way?
I don’t know. I’m really interested in this.
I went on tour a couple of years ago. We just got an old school bus and we drove around the South. There were sort of like groupies, like Moth groupies, these kids that would come from town to town following us. I’d say they were about 19 or 20, 22. I hadn’t known they existed. They don’t go online ever. They don’t have smartphones. They don’t ever go online except when they’re working.
I was amazed to see that there was this whole community. I don’t even know quite how they found out about us because we used social media, but they did. It was interesting to see how many of them there were. Then I wondered wow, is this a movement that’s going to sweep the country. Well, I don’t think it is, but I wonder. It’s out there. It could grow. I do think that Facebook and social media in general is a delusion.
I do feel that eventually it will get overthrown, if the young people coming up will say no.
What makes a story art?
Well, there’s a lot of things. But one thing I think is that when you understand that stories are about decisions people make. Too many people don’t understand that.
I always get people coming up to me and they’ll pitch a story to me. They’ll say, “Oh, this is an amazing story,” and then they’ll tell something. It might be about how they got in this terrible car accident and all this horrible stuff happened and the car slid and turned over and went over a bridge or whatever. It’s interesting in a way, but it’s not really compelling because they don’t do anything.
There’s this one guy who was telling me that story and then his car did go over a bridge, and then he went under the water, and then he didn’t know the windows were rolled up, but he thought, “Well if I’m going to get out of here I have to unroll the windows, but if I unroll the windows all of the water is going to come in.” Instantly the story becomes fascinating because he has to make a decision. It’s not about things that are happening to him. It’s about his relationship with the world where he has to make these decisions. That’s the key I think to understanding a great story.
You were talking about the idea of leadership. I’ve often found that a really great leader understands the story of his company, or his enterprise, or her enterprise in a powerful and clear way and understands that that story is about a decision, if you can find the decisions that you made.
—I’ve often found that a really great leader understands the story of his company.—
I always think that one of the reasons Apple is such a successful company is that Steve Jobs really understood this powerful story behind decisions he made in the beginning, and then the decision of the Apple board to fire him, and then to rehire him. Those are all extraordinary decisions and a sort of purity of purpose that he kept. He wasn’t always Mr. Successful. There was a time when he was a true failure, so we can sort of feel that about him.
It’s the fact that he had this powerful story. That story kind of gets into all Apple products. That’s what Bill Gates doesn’t have. He just kind of has a bland story. Now that maybe can turn around. But, at any rate, I just find the ability to understand decisions that underline your story is the key to being a great storyteller.
You’re first and foremost a writer and maybe I’m wrong, but I feel that writers, what they do is they create characters and then let them be in a way or let them make decisions on their own. How has this influenced you as a leader, as a founder of a large organization?
My great ability to delegate is a key to the success of The Moth, but the ability to delegate on my part was simply that I wanted to do other things. I had to find people that I trusted.
I also felt that The Moth would have to find its own way in the world. The Moth doesn’t always reflect my idea of what great storytelling should be. Sometimes it does and sometimes it goes off and does stuff that I think, “Oh, I would never do that.”
But I had from the very beginning put together a team of people and give everyone a sense of their own autonomy, a director of a show. We began by each show would have its own separate organizer. I could go to a friend of mine that I trust and say, “Will you organize a night of stories about World War II, for example?” I think the key to our success was finding those good people.
We’re working within a framework so that storytellers had to come to us and rehearse their stories so we could work on them. But that idea of reaching out immediately to people around me and allowing them to make decisions was key to the success of The Moth.
—I think the key to our success was finding those good people.—
But how did you find those people that you started The Moth with?
They were my friends. The people I had known for years, I realized when I began The Moth, that I had a tremendous number of friends.
Somebody had done a study on lucky people. It was really interesting. People who seem to be luckier, consider themselves lucky. He had gone to interview a bunch of actors who had all started out around the same time. I guess the late ‘40s. Then he wanted to see what the difference was between those actors that had become successful and those that had fallen away. He thought that the difference was that the people who were successful knew more people.
I think he used the example of Kirk Douglas. He had come out of the army and had done some acting in the army. He had a bunch of friends who were all really skilled actors, but he had risen. Kirk Douglas thought it was because he had just made so many friends, there were so many people there.
I really felt that when I started The Moth. I just had this sense where I had been in New York for a while and I just had friends I could ask about anything. I could easily fill up a room with just my friends and that’s what we had to do in the beginning.
—I could easily fill up a room with just my friends and that’s what we had to do in the beginning.—
But do you think there’s also a slight conflict between the writer you, the creative soul, and the founder of an organization who has responsibilities?
Yeah, absolutely. There is a terrible conflict. It doesn’t work. I have to get completely away from The Moth and from all those side projects that I do because I do a bunch of them. I’m always tempted to do them, but when I want to write, I really need to wake up in the morning with no telephone calls and be able to write. I try to stay away.
People keep trying to ask me to do things and I always want to say yes, but I can’t. Entirely different spaces that you have to be in to really succeed as a writer, you really need that sense of a big chunk of time that is absolutely around that nothing will touch, that there’s no chores or nothing nagging you.
I guess you need to have a lot motivation to write. Where does your motivation come from to create?
Well, I write for a living, so I need to eat.
That’s the motivation?
I really have to pay the rent. I feel like I might have lost my motivation if it weren’t for that. I guess I could have done something else.
It’s very tough. It’s tough to sit and write, sit in a room for hours, not see anybody. I’m very social. I really love people, so it’s very tough for me not to see anybody, but I do it. I’m good.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever gotten?
That’s the kind of question that I’ll probably have to think about for a while.
Here’s advice that I never took from my father, who was an artist and a writer. He wasn’t very successful. He was kind of drifty and dreamy. He saw that I was also drifty and dreamy. He told me, he said at some point, “You know-“ I was getting to be about 17 or so,, “You should join the army.” He said, “I know it sounds awful. You have to get up in the morning and do all this stuff that you don’t want to do, but,” he said, “Do it for a few years. It will really, really be helpful to you. It will just show you that you can produce disciple from within and it’s not quite as hard as you think it is.” I was very undisciplined.
Not a week goes by that I don’t think that was good advice. I should have taken it. I should have joined the army for a while. I bet I would have done well and I bet it would have given me an extra sense of direction. On the other hand, then I wouldn’t have done other things. I don’t really go around without regrets.
I guess another thing though I would say is I had written a book and I was showing it to people. I showed it to my friend Andrew Klavan, who is a successful writer. He said, “No, this is really, really good and you’re going to be successful.” I said, “Yeah, but nobody wants to buy it. Nobody wants to - ?” He said, “Well, all you need is one person to get behind you.”
—All you need is one person to get behind you.—
Eventually that happened. I found the one person and instantly then doors were opened. I was a best-selling writer. It felt instant. It felt so magical. But until you find that one person who will champion you, you don’t feel successful. It’s the same thing in relationships. You look at people who seem successful in their relationships and they’ve found the one person.
What’s been your biggest failure or what’s been your biggest lesson you’ve learned from?
My biggest failure is probably I’m quite undisciplined still. I didn’t join the army. I have a tendency to hop around too many things. I’m always most successful when I can focus, but focusing is a little difficult for me. That’s also wrapped up with my success. The fact that I am unfocused and dreamy is also what allows me to be a novelist. The very nature of failure is that it is part of what makes us successful.
—The very nature of failure is that it is part of what makes us successful.—