On the Post Secret blog and website, Frank Warren curates an ongoing community art project—though the community encompasses all of America—in which he posts anonymously mailed postcards on which people write and illustrate their secrets. Over its three years, the project has had far-reaching effects, from raising money for suicide prevention to making all kinds of people feel less alone with their secrets, and it has also spawned four books, of which A Lifetime of Secrets is the newest. PW caught up with Warren on tour.
What does a tour for this kind of book look like?
There are several parts to it. One is traveling to bookstores and sharing stories about the project: funny stories, inspiring stories, because so many of the secrets are just an entryway into whole stories behind them. I do a lot of speaking on college campuses, and that’s a place where young people might approach me and tell me that they mailed in a certain postcard, and it had a particular effect on their life, or seeing their secret expressed on a stranger’s postcard might have had an impact. I get to hear and reflect back those stories at these talks, and also share taboo secrets too.
There are some secrets that I wanted to include in the latest book, and I would have been able to put them on the Internet, but I can’t publish them because, for example, some of the images people put on the postcards might be copy written. If somebody mails me a secret on a hallmark card, we can’t include that in the book. There’s another secret written on a page from a Walt Disney coloring book, and, again, if we were to include that, as the lawyers say, Mickey Mouse would sue our ass. But at these speaking events, I get to project these small postcards 6 feet by 4 feet up on a screen and share them in a new way. In addition to the speaking about the project, I do a lot of TV, newspaper and radio during the day, so it’s very full. And I’m going all over. I was in Arizona yesterday; in a couple of days I’m headed up to Seattle. It’s really been gratifying because the nature of this project is such that young people are so aware of it online that no matter where I go, if I post it on the web, which is seen by a million or so people a week—and they’re all connected by Facebook or Myspace—there’s a crowd. For me, what’s beautiful about that is it shows that the project is not just a community art project in a virtual sense, but in a real world. People come together and share stories and they’re touched.
Experiencing these secrets live—as a member of an audience, rather than on the blog—must be very different for the people who come to your events. When you’re presenting at a bookstore what kind of responses do you get?
I try to experiment with the project, the blog, and even with my speaking events. A couple of months ago, I brought a stack of postcards—my mail for the day—and we passed around the postcards with everybody who was there, sharing the actual post secret cards. A couple days before that I gave away a galley copy of the book to people who came to the signing. What I find works really well is structuring the talk in the same way that I structure the blog, in that I’m arranging these secrets in a way that tells a story, and story has secrets that are funny, sexual, sad, hopeful, optimistic, shocking. Usually during my talks there’s a lot of humor, some very poignant moments. At the end I talk about my secret, which was the most humiliating experience of my life, and it’s always kind of difficult to share, but the audience is very respectful, just like I’m respectful with their secrets that I post every week.
Then do people ask questions?
I have a question and answers period, and also at the end during the signing there’s a lot of wonderful interaction. Last night I was handed two personal notes, people will whisper secrets in my ears. A couple of people just wanted to embrace and not say anything. I also heard some stories from other people—more than one—talking about how the issue of suicide had touched their lives and the role that post secret had played in that, not in a negative way but in a hopeful and positive way, because people have told me before, and I hope it’s true, that the project allows people to feel less alone with whatever secrets they’re carrying. And even though I don’t have any paid advertising on the website, I still feel strongly about sharing the connection and information about 1-800-suicide. In fact, in the past three years, Post Secret has raised over $100,000 for 1-800-suicide, and I still believe in the good work they do.
Do people ever bring you postcards at the events?
I’ll tell you what, I’ve two right now in my pack that I got last night and I haven’t had a chance to read them.. I’ll pull them out right now. Here’s the first one: This one says, “Thanks for everything Frank. I hate who I’ve become as I’ve gotten older in life. I seem to hurt everyone. I wish I could stop. I wish someone would stop me.” And here’s one I’m pulling out of an envelope: This one says—first of all, it’s on a post card that has an image of Jesus—and the original card said, “The greatest story of all time: Jesus,” and the person has changed it to read, “The greatest lover of all time: Jesus is a hottie.” And they wrote on the card, “This is my fetish. If my family ever found out they’d have me instantly excommunicated from the church.” Well that’s a nice range right there…the humorous and the haunting. I’m actually going to read both of these at the reading tonight.