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Interview: PostSecret creator Frank Warren

Apr 4, 2013 Theatre

Think of the people you interact with each day. Think of the people you love. Every one of them has a secret that would break your heart, says Frank Warren, the internet’s unofficial confessor-in-chief, who visits Auckland next week. For almost a decade, Warren has been soliciting secrets from strangers, submitted anonymously on handmade postcards, for his immensely popular website PostSecret.

A former small-business owner from the Maryland suburbs, Warren says his obsession with postcards began with an odd dream he had while visiting Paris. “Earlier that day, I’d bought three Little Prince postcards at a tourist shop. I came back to my hotel, stuck them in my nightstand drawer and went to sleep. In my dream I found myself in that same room. I opened the drawer and looked at the postcards. One had a message on it that read ‘unrecognised evidence of forgotten journeys unknowingly rediscovered’ and another read ‘reluctant oracle’. And Reluctant Oracle was the first of my postcard projects.”

He found his first secrets by handing out 3000 blank, self-addressed postcards on the streets of Washington DC. What was planned as a short-term art project has since grown into an internet phenomenon, garnering more than half a billion page views along the way. The original blog, still low-tech and ad-free, has been joined by a 100,000-member community forum, multiple international sites and five books, including the New York Times bestseller PostSecret: Confessions on Life, Death and God.

Just as in those early days, all the secrets are sent to Warren’s own home mailbox. “My thinking was that it would be a temporary thing, if it even happened at all. Once it grew to be very big, my wife did get upset that I didn’t use a PO box, but it’s kind of too late to change now. And, even though it was accidental, I think it’s an important part of the project. By putting my home address out there, making myself vulnerable, I feel like I’ve taken that first step in the relationship so a stranger can trust me with their secrets.”

Although handmade postcards are at the core of the project — Warren believes the artwork conveys just as much meaning as the accompanying text, “if not more” — the submissions can arrive on anything. “I’ve received secrets written on seashells, sonograms, death certificates, naked Polaroid pictures, a flip-flop, a knife. I’ve received multiple wedding rings attached to postcards. It’s amazing how creative people can be.”

Every Sunday, Warren updates PostSecret with new secrets. Although only a fraction of the cards he receives will make their way onto the site, he sees each one as uniquely valuable. “The most important part of the PostSecret process is finding the words to take ownership of your secret.” Once the words are down, the next step is up to you: “Tear it up, bury it, or mail it to a stranger. It doesn’t matter.”

In terms of a selection process, “I just try to tell a good story and help prompt a conversation.” While some confessions tell of hidden joys, many speak of almost unimaginable pain. “One I posted last week said something like, ‘I received my best orgasm when I was raped.’ That’s a very hard thing to read, but it felt to me like a real secret. And I think that’s one of the beauties of freedom of speech: even though the secrets can be very strong, and in some cases repulsive, they can generate conversations that move people.

“I do believe the project is subversive. It tricks you into thinking you’re sharing something anonymously, that it won’t have an impact. But telling a secret to a stranger creates a vacuum because no one’s going to respond, no one’s going to tell you what to do.

“The most important person you can share a really deep secret with is not me, it’s not even your spouse or your parents or a priest or psychiatrist. It’s yourself.”

Frank Warren: SkyCity Theatre, April 12.           


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