dirty little secrets

In February, my alma mater, the University at Albany, hosted a PostSecret art exhibit and presentation with the project’s founder, Frank Warren. Excited to hear about the event’s local arrival, I pitched the story to my editor, who agreed to let me write a couple articles, about both the exhibit and the presentation with Frank. I covered the exhibit’s opening, and obtained two press tickets to let me and my friend Maddy see Frank speak in front of several hundred UA students a few weeks later.

But before that, I was able to interview Frank in a more intimate setting, as he agreed to let me and a reporter for the Albany Student Press ask him a few questions ahead of time and in front of his documentary crew. Talk about pressure. I was a ball of nerves and anxiety, hoping I would ask unique enough questions that wouldn’t have him internally rolling his eyes and thinking “THIS again?!” — all while looking and sounding good for the camera. Did I mention we did the interview in a recital hall under stage lighting? I was literally hot under the collar/skirt/tights.

It took a while to get everything set up, Frank’s mic, the camera angle, and then the perfect position on stage for the three of us. My ASP counterpart and I were shuffled around more times than I can count, first asked to sit one way, then another, then switch places, then move our chairs so close together our thighs were touching. It was enough to make one dizzy with diva-dom. Are they getting my good side? I wondered as I nonchalantly flipped my hair for the thousandth time.

After about 20 minutes of maneuvering — and lots of looks of anxiety from our photographer, Jim, who I had brought along with me promising it would be a quick assignment and who had another job to shoot immediately afterward — we were ready to fire away. Our conversation with Frank was awesome. He was so warm and genuine and funny and, well, frank, and that day will go down as one of my favorite experiences as a journalist. It’s hard to accurately articulate what having a conversation like that with someone so influential and important to so many people really means. Suffice it to say, I was giddy for the rest of the day.

Of course, I could only include one or two quotes from my interview with Frank in my article, since I was also covering the PostSecret live event that evening and that was the crux of the story (a story that ended up being much shorter than the one I wanted to write — such is life at a small daily newspaper). But our chat was too great not to share. Inspired by my coworker Cecelia, who posted a transcript of a memorable, too-long-for-print interview over at her own blog, I’d like to post some extended excerpts from my Q&A with Frank.

On his initial expectations for the project:

In five years, I’ve received over a half-million postcards from all over the world. And when I first started, it was this huge act of faith, walking the dark sidewalks of Washington DC handing out these postcards, inviting strangers to write down a secret and mail it to me. But I knew if I could get one or two or a handful of these secrets to come to my mailbox, it could be really special for me. If these secrets were sincere and authentic or sexual or soulful or funny or hopeful, I knew I would really dig it. But what has been the biggest surprise, is that once I started scanning the postcards and sharing them with the world, how the project has resonated internationally. In five years the PostSecret website has had over 400 million hits, and there’s no way I could have anticipated that at the beginning.

On how the project has changed over time:

Originally I printed up 3,000 self-addressed postcards and handed them out to people on the sidewalks, inviting them to mail a secret back to me. When the secrets started coming, I began to scan them and post them on the web. At that point, the website went viral. So I don’t print out postcards anymore, I don’t hand them out, people just come to the website, find out about the project, then go out and buy their own postcard and decorate it and mail it in from wherever. They’re coming now not just from Washington DC and New York and California, but from New Zealand, Hong Kong, Afghanistan, Abu Dhabi, Madagascar. I think it just shows how secrets unite us in this real, surprising way. Hopefully in a way that allows us to feel a little more empathy and compassion for others and for ourselves.

On why PostSecret resonates so much with young people:

I think technology, communication tools like Facebook and Twitter and Blogger allow young people to live in this different world than their parents did, and because of that, I think their views and behavior about sharing secrets are different. I think young people today are much more courageous about talking about the parts of their life that their parents would never want to share, never before. So I think there’s this interesting intersection of technology and change in social behavior there. … I believe that young people have this much greater vitality, this sense of life, than older people do. I think as you get older, you start to decide who you are, what your identity is, you stop asking questions, you stop exploring, you stop sometimes looking at your own deepest secrets. But young people are in that flux, you know? They’re really dedicated about trying to find out what’s real, what’s bullshit. And I think that’s why the real authenticity on the cards speaks to them especially strong.

On PostSecret as catharsis for his own secret, about being abused as a child:

When I first started the project, I didn’t scan the cards and put them on the web, I just had them up in this art exhibit in Washington DC. And along with about the first 20 cards that were ever mailed to me, I had two of my own postcards, my own secrets on display. At this exhibit, there were a bunch of other artists too, so it wasn’t just me, and as people walked through the exhibit they’d look through the postcards, and I’d be there too, but nobody looking at the postcards knew that it was my project or that I was connected to it in any way, so I could observe people looking at each secret. And when they got to my secret, they would read it, and more often than not, they would like, audibly send out this sigh, almost as if somebody had hit ‘em. They’d read my secret and go, (makes a sharp exhaling noise) “Look at this one.” And I would just stand back and sense that. It was really one of the most humiliating experiences of my childhood, and I’d never told it to anyone before, but I had it exhibited there anonymously. And for me, days and weeks of that going by, it really felt like this catharsis, like I was able to share it in a way that felt like I was connecting with people, but they didn’t know it was mine. I could see their emotion and how they felt this solidarity, and I think that really helped me not just share one of my own deepest secrets with myself and with others, but also understand in my own mind why I was so driven to start this project in the first place. Maybe it was all about me needing to get those secrets out.

On his process when he first receives a secret:

All the postcards are mailed to my home, and I read every postcard, I keep every secret. When I go through them, I try to arrange them and share them in ways that are most appropriate to the kind of secret it is. So there are certain kinds of secrets that I think I’ll set aside for the book, or the website, or an art exhibit, and one example might be a secret, for example, that has a picture of a young person’s face, or a corporate logo. A secret like that I might put up on the web, because if there’s an issue with privacy or legal rights, I can pull it down immediately. You don’t want to put a PostSecret in a book that could really go on to embarrass somebody deeply and you can’t pull it out and they have to live with that, so that’s one example of how I would choose to share a secret one way or another. And then within those different ways of sharing those different secrets, I try to select and assemble the postcards in a way that tells a story, I try to connect the secrets together as I share them, so the secrets almost read as though they’re having this conversation amongst themselves, so in the end, the conversation of our hidden selves is greater than each individual postcard.

On still being shocked by secrets:

There’s so many ways that a secret blows me over. Sometimes it’s a real simple secret, like one that was mailed to me on a starbucks cup, and the secret read, “I serve decaf to customers that are rude to me.” You know, kind of a simple secret, but there’s kind of an interesting mischeviousness to the secret that stays with me. But other times I get secrets that are devastating. I have a postcard at home, it’s a photograph of a woman’s naked upper body, and she had a double masectomy, and her secret is she feels like that operation robbed her of her sexuality. And just the raw courage to share that secret, that image, I can see it in my mind right now. I haven’t shared it yet on the web or in the books, but I’m sure I will.

On the moral dilemma of receiving secrets revealing illegal activity:

I don’t feel like it’s my job to be a filter or to censor what people are mailing to me. I think that’s why people come to the website, millions a month, because there aren’t that many places in this culture where you can get that raw, authentic, artistic expression. Literature, film, music – it all has to go through movie studios or record studios or publishers, where it’s a bunch of white guys sitting around a desk making decisions about demographics and profitability. So when people mail me a real secret, it just goes to me, and if I think it looks real, I put it up on the web, and I think that that authenticity really connects. And I think because of that, it’s going to make you uncomfortable. Secrets are kept secret for a reason, they can be politically incorrect, they can be offensive, they can involve nudity, or violence, or illegal acts. And so when I see a secret about any of those things, including an illegal act, my reaction is, “Yeah, this has that ring of authenticity and sincerity to it,” and so I try not to pull secrets for any reason. I want people to feel uncomfortable when they visit the website, because then that means I’m getting the real secrets and I’m doing my job.

On the PostSecret endgame:

I think my wife has this fear that like 30 years from now we’ll be retired in Boca Raton and secrets will continue to track us down, we’ll never be able to escape the world’s secrets. But my secret is I hope they never stop coming. I feel this great sense of gratitude to all the strangers who’ve trusted me with their deepest secrets, and I feel very fortunate to have earned that trust. I don’t think much about the distant future of PostSecret. Where my focus is is just on day to day trying not to screw up what I think is this great relationship I’ve been able to establish with tens of thousands of people who’ve never met me.

There are a few more tidbits that I could share from the live show, including one heart-breaking secret shared by an undergrad about his grandmother and a Star Trek placemat, but I think I’ll stop here. Suffice it to say, my short time spent inside the world of PostSecret was a great experience. And if I didn’t sound like a complete idiot on camera, you might see my sweaty mug in a PostSecret documentary, coming to a YouTube channel near you. My fingers are not-so-secretly crossed.

2 responses to “dirty little secrets

  1. What an incredible idea. It’s strange to think about mailing your secrets to a complete stranger, but I imagine it’s also completely cathartic, too. Great interview!

  2. I’ve never really had much interest in PostSecret, but I’m happy to see you blogging again.

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