Randy Osborne knows that you don't have to be an English major or a literary geek to enjoy a good, well-told story. When we first visited MothUP Atlanta, a grassroots monthly storytelling event that he organized, there was laughter, maybe a few tears, some dramatic pauses, and, above all, a solid few hours' worth of downright good tellin'. The events, based on the original NYC version of The Moth, invite anyone (even you, dear reader) to drop their name in a hat for a chance to spin a yarn on stage. A true yarn, that is -- all stories have to be true, and if you go to enough of these events, you'll soon find that truth can indeed be much stranger than fiction. It's just one of the projects that Randy, author and litterateur, is working on. (He's also the guy whose photo of a piece of street art started all that Lionel Richie brouhaha on the Internet.) Read on to learn more about Randy, but if you want to see the man work his magic in person, sally forth to Manny's tonight for the May MothUP.
SCOUT: Howdy, Randy. Tell us how people might know you.
Years ago in the Midwest, you may have heard me on the radio. More recently, maybe you discovered one of my writing projects. Or you saw me at Manuel’s Tavern, 602 N. Highland, on the fourth Tuesday of every month. I’m the guy, with my partner Joyce Mitchell, greeting people at the sign-up table and grabbing more chairs for the packed room.
SCOUT: Can you talk a bit about MothUP? What is it?
We draw names from a hat, and people tell true personal stories on a pre-specified theme, without notes. No poetry, political rants, or stand-up comedy routines. The five-minute (or so) stories can be funny, sad, thoughtful or a blend of all three, as many stories are. Of course, you’re not required to drop your name in the hat. You can just listen. It’s free.
SCOUT: Where’d the concept come from?
Novelist and Georgia native George Dawes Green told stories on the porch at night with friends while moths flitted around the light bulb, hence the name. In 1997, George founded The Moth in New York. Other cities host smaller events, and each is required to tag the goofy word “UP” onto “Moth” before the city name – MothUP Seattle, MothUP Toronto, etc.
SCOUT: Why, how, and when did it start here in Atlanta?
Joyce and I launched the Atlanta chapter just over a year ago. I had just moved here from San Francisco, and was surfing www.meetup.com, where Joyce had posted her MothUP idea. Although I’d been a fan of The Moth for many years, I tried to talk her out of basing our event on it. I wanted us to do something independent, and sensed that The Moth would have a lot of rules.
SCOUT: Was it hard getting a literary-oriented, somewhat underground organization up and running?
It should have been, because The Moth has a lot of rules. For example, we couldn’t use conventional ways of promoting, such as listings in newspapers. They want the push to be grassroots, word of mouth (although, weirdly, Facebook is OK). So I hand-made posters, copied them and taped them in the windows of local merchants. I emailed friends. Talked to people.
SCOUT: So, anyone can get up and tell a story at MothUP? What if I'm afraid? What if they laugh, don't laugh, or throw things at me?
Anyone, yes. MothUP crowds are generally open, friendly, and interested. Audience members have a stake in the show since, at any moment, a spectator can and will become the performer, and then become a spectator again. The only other venue where this regularly happens is karaoke, but with karaoke, you’re singing someone else’s song. At MothUP, you’re “singing” your song – your story. Also unlike karaoke, storytelling goes better if you’re not drunk.
SCOUT: What have been some of your favorite MothUP moments thus far? Any favorite tellers? Favorite stories of your own?
Hilarious and heart-wrenching moments are pretty regular. There’s something about the way the show is set up that makes people more confessional … maybe it’s the stranger-on-the-bus phenomenon. After attending one MothUP, people are usually hooked, and just about everybody develops favorites, but it’s probably best as a co-organizer (as well as storyteller) that I don’t.
SCOUT: Looks like next month's theme is “Phobias.” Got any good ones? (I'm constantly possessed by the feeling that I'm going to find a dead hooker in every public restroom I go into, so yours can't be any worse than picturing a corpse every time you turn the door knob at Starbucks.)
Heights concern me. Must have fallen out of the crib or something. Escalators provide a double threat; not only do they escalate, but I worry about stepping on the correct stair as it becomes available. Take this one, or wait two seconds for the next? Also, with escalators – I know this is irrational – I worry about having my toes eaten by those teeth at the end of the ride, where the stair sinks away.
SCOUT: Clearly the MothUP movement's been growing quickly, despite the fact that you're not allowed to advertise. Are you proud, surprised, dancing with joy ... or just having to get there much earlier than normal?
Proud, but not surprised. I found while spreading the gospel that hardly anyone knew of The Moth, and when I mentioned New York, many grimaced knowingly … as if I had some common disease, as if to say, “Oh, I see. You want to be cool, and imitate New York. We’re not cool in Atlanta, right?” So my approach had to be adjusted. Before attendees started arriving for the first event, I looked around the room at Manuel’s and thought: “This place isn’t big enough.” About 75 people showed up, pretty much full capacity.
SCOUT: You're quite the man about town. What other projects, organizations, or distractions are you involved in/working on?
Soon I’ll finish the second draft of When I Next Appear to You, a collection of – what else? – true personal stories. The book started with a zine/chapbook type of thing, Big Pinch World, which became a website. And then Katharine Weber, the novelist, happened upon my website, contacted me and told her editor at Little, Brown, who sent me an email. The editor suggested I write a full-length book. She gave me a list of agents she prefers to work with, and I hooked up with one. Writers either love this story or hate it.
With my son, who is a poet, I’m putting the final touches on another zine, coming out this summer.
Still not rich from Made of This, the book I wrote with Gianni Simone, an Italian mail artist living in Japan. It grew out of an experiment. Gianni emailed me a random memory that began, “I remember … ” and I responded with a quick memory of my own that was suggested by his. We kept going for two and half years; the exchanges deepened and grew more intimate. I’ve never met Gianni or even talked with him on the phone, but he’s closer to me than some of my geographically nearer friends. We stopped at 999 memories.
With a bunch of other writers, I’ve been a volunteer with the KIPP STRIVE Academy / Wren’s Nest program to mentor authors in fifth and sixth grades. We just finished the program’s second book of – oh yes – true personal stories, written by kids. It will be published around Labor Day.
Of course MothUP does special events as they arise with other groups. Last year we did a show at the Decatur Book Festival, and we helped with Creative Loafing’s party for its fiction-contest winners. I told a story at both.
Some other stuff I don’t want to talk about yet.
SCOUT: Any favorite local hang-outs to unwind after a long night of MOTHing?
Seems like we ought to huddle in a booth at the Majestic, drink coffee and discuss matters of great significance until dawn. Instead, Joyce and I straggle back to our Inman Park hovel, weary and exhilarated. Sometimes we celebrate the next night with dinner at La Tavola Trattoria in Virginia Highland.
SCOUT: What's your favorite spot to find inspiration/creativity for your writing? A quiet garden? Seedy diner? Strip club?
Long hikes. North of San Francisco in the Marin headlands, I trekked 12 to 15 miles on weekends, shorter ones during the week. Atlanta’s rain and swelter make long jaunts less fun, but I try to get out for a traipse along the Beltline or in Candler Park. Believe it or not, I’ve never been to a strip club.
SCOUT: Your favorite “curious find” in Atlanta?
Cheetah Lounge on Spring Street. Kidding! I’m a regular at Thumbs Up Diner for late breakfast. The Greek scramble, wheat biscuit on the side.
SCOUT: Other Atlantans who inspire you and your work?
Hollis Gillespie, a longtime friend, stands as a model of grit and humor in personal life, but I can’t think of anyone to blame my work on.
SCOUT: Finally, throw out a shameless plug: where can folks find out more about you and your projects?
Artifacts and vapor trails at www.bigpinchworld.com and www.madeofthis.org. Of course, I’m on Facebook.