He loves his afternoon coffee. He compares stories to dogs wandering around a railroad town, sniffing out treasures. He name-drops celebrities on a regular basis, but all as part of the larger fabric of an anecdote. He asks questions—maybe too many. He deals in the details of life, and that means his days are hectic. He hovers somewhere between ringmaster and therapist, cultivating stories and teasing out uncomfortable truths.
As the 2016 Lois and Willard Mackey Professor of Creative Writing at Beloit, George Dawes Green ran his class with the same rules he uses for his globally acclaimed storytelling project known as the Moth. It was an esoteric, often poignant, sometimes hilarious time, and far from the normal conventions of courses taught by Mackey Chair authors, or English department professors, for that matter.
Green is himself a bit of an anomaly. A high-school dropout from Georgia, he originally shot to fame in the mid-1990s with two acclaimed novels: The Caveman’s Valentine (1994) and The Juror (1995), both of which were later adapted into Hollywood films. Flush with cash, he decided to channel his money back into a new project. In 1997, the Moth was born. Initially, it was an informal event based out of his New York loft; today, it is an international phenomenon of true and first-person storytelling.
Green celebrates the “messedupness” of humanity, especially when it is portrayed in ultra-realist artistic performances. When discussing one of our listening examples for class—a sort of tattered love story about a woman falling intensely into a relationship while also battling a heroin addiction—he remarks that, “You can feel, when you’re listening to a story like this, that this is a brand-new, exciting art form.”
In many ways, Green’s class adhered to common elements of other writing courses at Beloit. There was the small size, the emphasis on discussion, the workshops and presentations. But then the curriculum deviated. Despite his multi-genre success, Green is first and foremost a raconteur. He always began class by ruminating on something he read or heard, usually a kind of esoteric thought. He played many sound and video clips from various Moth performances, often adding in his own reflections on the narrators. But at its heart, this was a course about the students, and that brave interpersonal honesty was directed right back into workshops.
Most Beloit English courses follow some very specific workshopping trends. Students are expected to submit their written pieces at least 24 hours in advance for review, and classmates read through them twice—once to get a feel for the story, once to add in nuanced critiques. The class then reassembles and discusses the work as a whole. The professor interjects throughout to explore certain ideas. There is occasional brutality and frequent questioning. The writer fervently jots down notes or listens intently, having been reminded that it’s all right to have your first draft savaged. Above all, the goal is to be honest.
Green’s class differed. The honesty and collaborative nature remained, but the work itself was so visceral, so painful, so immediate, that it completely shook up the emotional and creative landscape. There was no forewarning with these stories. They were heard for the first time in class—and in many cases, it was the first time they’d ever been told. People discussed the deaths of loved ones, assaults, battles with depression. It wasn’t unusual for a story to leave the class shocked into silence. At times, it was nearly impossible to workshop the pieces. How do you critique someone’s most vulnerable moment?
This was compounded by the personal relationships in the class. Most of us had known each other for years. We had sat through many of those more traditional English courses together and had become familiar with one another’s work, voice, and style. We had also lived and worked and played together. We sometimes already knew about the dark, intimate secrets that were fodder for the stories, and that made it hurt all the more.
The environment was a significant change for Green. When cultivating Moth pieces, he meets one-on-one with each of the storytellers, dissecting various creative elements through multiple sessions. At Beloit, he worked with 15 times that many people on a daily basis. What’s more, the day-to-day tone was a whole different emotional field: “I’ve never seen such intensity as in this class,” he explains. Yet it was also a hugely collaborative process. “What I really like is the fact that everyone contributes,” he says.
But that vulnerability is still there, whether on the Moth mainstage in New York or on a Tuesday afternoon in Beloit. “It can take many sessions… to get people where they really feel ready and confident,” Green explains. “And they’re still terrified. Everyone’s terrified.” And out of that fear, as the class discovered, often come the best stories.
Kiernyn Orne-Adams’16 was one of 15 students in the Mackey creative writing workshop with George Dawes Green last spring. She graduated summa cum laude in May, with departmental honors in creative writing and minors in anthropology and journalism. She is pursuing a career as a writer in Minneapolis, Minn.
Tips on the Art and Craft of Storytelling
- Be mindful of physical presence. Telling a story live—whether onstage or in a gathering—offers a new side of the storyteller. “Everything comes out in their every gesture,” Green explains. The way you stand, use your hands, or look around can be a useful tool, but it can also present challenges.
- Be honest. “Art seems to become very powerful and exciting when it becomes personal,” Green says. “You can’t put any wall between you and your audience.”
- Find the crux of the story. In almost every instance, the truly impactful part of the piece isn’t allowed its chance to shine in the first telling. It is laid out too blatantly at the beginning, or used as a closing line and never developed, or buried somewhere in the middle, an afterthought in favor of the other exposition. We, the narrators, never really see it; perhaps because of our mental contexts and priorities, perhaps because we simply don’t know how to articulate its connections.