Web exclusive: Frank Warren on "PostSecret" 


NUVO: So, how did you first meet up with Davy Rothbart and “Found” magazine?

Frank Warren: Well, the first thing was I visited his Web site and I read about him. I heard him on “This American Life” and I bought his book. He was doing his thing long before I started “PostSecret” and I really consider Davy Rothbart an inspiration of mine. The fact that he started that project on his own and got the book published I think made it so much easier for me to believe I could do something like “PostSecret,” and then it made it easier again to interest publishers in a book idea. So, I was inspired by him, and once “PostSecret” started running, I sent him an e-mail, and he graciously called me back. We talked for a long time, and found out we had a lot of things in common, and he graciously invited me to some of his performances and allowed me to give some talks, which was just such a nice thing for him to do, because it allowed me to see his interaction with his audience and to learn how to find my own voice. So when we decided to go out again later this year, I was really excited.

NUVO: What do you think are the similarities and differences between “Found” and “PostSecret”?

Warren: I think about the similarities a lot. I think they both are projects made possible by new communications technologies like blogs and virtual communities. And I think both of them are ways to uncover the extraordinary inner lives of people, kind of a way to get through that ordinary surface and discover the real, kind of personal poetry, humor and humanity that unites us all, that would just be lost if not for these communities that developed that look for it and find and value it.

NUVO: So a lot of it is electronically based, and yet for both “Found” and “PostSecret,” it still comes down to snail mail and things that are on paper, not necessarily electronic communication.

Warren: You’re exactly right. It links that old technology to new technology, and it connects the electronic with the real. Both of our communities are very vibrant and alive in the virtual world but also when we go and tour and talk to college campuses or have events you can really see how the community has come together in the real world. And they don’t just come together: They come together and do good work. The past three years, “PostSecret” has raised over $100,000 for 1-800-SUICIDE, a national suicide prevention hotline, and Davy’s raised a lot of money too for worthy causes. So, these are virtual communities, they’re real world communities, and they do good works.

NUVO: How does “PostSecret” jive with your involvement in suicide prevention and what was that before “PostSecret” too; I understand that you were involved in that before this project?

Warren: The issue of suicide has touched me in a number of ways: I’ve lost a family member and a good friend to suicide. But I don’t think there’s a direct connection between secrets and suicide. It’s just that, when I started “PostSecret” I was a volunteer answering the hotlines at 1-800-SUICIDE, so I knew the good work they were doing. So, when the Web site became so popular, I wanted to promote something positive. I didn’t want to make it a bunch of pop-up ads. So I made that connection with the one charity I really believe in and I’ve always supported them on the Web site and we’re continuing to maintain that relationship.

NUVO: So you don’t see much of a connection between the “PostSecret” project and suicide prevention — it’s more of an accidental link because you were involved in that before?

Warren: Postcards with secrets on them can be about anything: They can be hopeful, they can be sad, they can be funny, sexual, shocking. Most of them come to me anonymously. So with the ones that have painful details, there’s no way I can reach out and help. So this did offer me a way to channel those feelings of wanting to get involved and help people who are submitting some of the sadder secrets I would receive.

NUVO: Do all e-mails come to you anonymously?

Warren: Not the e-mails, no.

NUVO: So do you have instances where people have reached out for help directly?

Warren: Yes.

NUVO: And how have you handled those?

Warren: In some cases I respond back. In other cases, I forward them to Reese Butler, who’s the founder of 1-800-SUICIDE.

NUVO: When you respond back, how much do you feel like you can do, and has it been a surprise to have people contacting you that way?

Warren: It has been a surprise, and I can’t do enough.

NUVO: Just reading through one of the books, I tend to get overloaded towards the end. How do you deal with sensory overload and compassion fatigue reading through all of these postcards and e-mails every day?

Warren: Well it helps that I’m a guy; my emotions are pretty limited to begin with I think. What I try to focus on is, hopefully, the therapeutic process the person went through in sending in their secret, if it is a difficult one to read. My hope is that by facing it on a postcard, and then typically letting it go to a stranger, that process has offered the person a sense of catharsis or solace in relating to that secret.

NUVO: What’s different about “A Lifetime of Secrets” from the other books that you’ve put out so far?

Warren: With each book, I try and look at secrets from a different perspective, and with the latest book, “A Lifetime of Secrets,” what I’m trying to do is collect hundreds of never-before-seen secrets from people as young as 8 and as old as 80, and arrange them in loose chronological order to reveal the fascinating ways that our secrets change and develop as we age, but also to show the surprising ways that our secrets remain exactly the same.

NUVO: Do you enjoy touring and showing the book and doing presentations?

Warren: I do; I really enjoy it. I do a lot of traveling to college campuses —last month, I spoke at seven college campuses — and when I go, I really enjoy sharing the taboo secrets with the students, but also listening to their inspiring stories and sharing my own as well.

NUVO: What stories have you heard this year, going around this fall?

Warren: Well, oftentimes people will come up and share a secret with me. They’ll give me a postcard or whisper a secret in my ear. A while back a girl stood up at one of my events, and she was wearing a shirt that she made herself. She had an eating disorder, and she said that she mailed her secret to me, but I didn’t put it on the Web site, which is true for most of them, unfortunately; I get about a thousand a week and post about 20. So she said she felt she had to take further action on her secret: She made this T-shirt for herself; she was going to wear it to school; it said, “20% of anorexics will die from the symptoms of anorexia,” on the back. And the morning of class, she got really nervous and wasn’t going to wear it, but she found the courage and marched into class, and she said that her teachers and friends didn’t just support her, but they asked her to make shirts just like that for them to wear too. And I think that’s a very inspirational story, of how this one girl struggled to reconcile a secret of her own, found a way to act courageously and share her secret in a way that didn’t just bring healing to her, but raised the whole issue of eating disorders with everyone at her school, maybe helping and saving others as well.

NUVO: Do you see any trends that are going on that might not be covered in the media?

Warren: I do think issues of eating disorders, body image, self-harm and suicide are prevalent in this country, and in some sense I think that we hide from it. And if we would face it directly, I believe that as Americans we could come up with policies or procedures to help our fellow Americans when they need the help.

NUVO: What’s the criteria that you use, not only when you’re choosing postcards, but when you’re choosing which two will go on a particular page? How much thought goes into that and how heavily does it weigh on you to be the editor of all this?

Warren: When I select the secrets and arrange them, I’m trying to tell a story through secrets, I’m trying to take the reader on an emotional journey, and so I do put a lot of effort and thought into what secrets share the same page, and what secrets face each other, and I use a lot of different techniques for that. I’ll use literary techniques or graphic techniques to set up a postcard or to follow with a different reaction, to compare and contrast, too, so a lot of those thoughts go into the arrangement.

NUVO: Do you have any postcards that you just have to throw out, or are there any broad categories that you don’t include?

Warren: No, all the postcards get mailed to my home, and I read them all, and I value them all. I think they’re special and I keep all of them.

NUVO: What’s a typical day for you when you’re not touring? How much time do you devote to “PostSecret”-related stuff and how much time to your day job and family?

Warren: I probably spend 30 to 40 hours a week on “PostSecret.” I have to read the postcards, and then read the e-mails, and there’s usually other business I have to attend to with the project.

NUVO: Do you get any organizational help with it at this point?

Warren: A few interns come over once a week and help out.

NUVO: Other than that, it’s just you running the show?

Warren: Yeah, it’s just me.

NUVO: What are some of the influences you’ve had? You talk about “Found” magazine as an influence in allowing you to get this stuff published. What kind of influences have you had leading up to this project?

Warren: There’s something called “The Apology Line” that I liked a lot; that was one thing I found pretty fascinating and I think it’s similar. I’ve always been a fan of mail art and Dadaism; mail art is a component of that I think, so that’s been an influence. Then I’ve just had this relationship with postcards in my own personal life that’s been consistent also.

NUVO: How has the success of “PostSecret” influenced the project, in that it’s available to so many more people, and that it’s kind of a different product than if it were just an installation at an art gallery?

Warren: I think of the project itself as a collection of secrets that I share with people in different ways. When I share the secrets on the Web site every Sunday, I feel as though I’m sharing the immediacy, the fleeting nature of secrets in that form. So I think of those secrets at PostSecret.com as living secrets, and then when somebody sees those, they see that somebody’s carrying that burden right as they read it, and the next week it’s gone. And I think of the book as more of a lasting archive or a testament in which I can really tell the stories in a full conversation between the secrets, and between the book and the reader. And then in the art galleries, I think of those shows as a way to show the tangible side of the postcard, the front and the back, and the full quantity; I like to show a lot of postcards at those exhibits. And then I also share the idea of the project when I tour on college campuses and talk about it there.

NUVO: What kind of questions do people ask about the project?

Warren: They ask me, do I keep all of those cards? They ask what it’s like to see all of those secrets. They ask me what the most popular secret I receive is.

NUVO: And do you have an answer for the most popular?

Warren: The most common secret that’s mailed to me is, “I pee in the shower.” They also ask if I make the art on the card, or if the art is made by the senders, which I think is kind of revealing, because the art is pretty special, but people have a hard time believing that ordinary people could create that extraordinary art that they see on the cards. But I think the project just shows us that there’s an artist inside all of us.

NUVO: One thing that’s interesting about the Web site is that people can comment on the postcards. That seems to give an outlet and at least give some feedback, even if it’s still anonymously. Was that always an idea that you had to have people respond on the Web site and also, how do you edit that?

Warren: I like the idea that people are having a conversation with the secrets. The secrets almost talk to the other secrets, but they also talk to the viewers. So I think of the project as this new kind of conversation about us and about our secrets. But I like getting all the input and having a self-feeding system and having the transparency there, so I think it all works pretty well.

NUVO: You’ve separated secrets by age, when they were written and content. Are there broad approaches as far as graphic design and the way secrets are presented?

Warren: Yes, I do use color, images, design, fonts and styles all in ways that kind of allow the secrets to dance with each other in a way that feels right when I look at it.

NUVO: Now that a couple books have been published, do you see postcards that have been influenced by other postcards, or that are derivative of other postcards? Is that something you can even pick out?

Warren: One thing I’ve noticed is that the postcards have expanded in what their content can be and who they’re addressed to. Sometimes I’ll get secrets written in the first person, second person or third person, or sometimes there’s a secret directed to a lover who’s long since gone or a dead relative. In that sense I think the project has become more expansive.

NUVO: What do you see in the future for “PostSecret”? Do you plan to give up any work yourself? Any book publications or changes to the Web site?

Warren: I don’t know where it’s going, but I’d like to talk to the people at HBO. I think that their audacious storytelling would really be a good match for this project.

NUVO: What do you think a “PostSecret” documentary would turn out to be?

Warren: I don’t know, but I think there’s a way there to explore sharing the kind of stories that emerge from this project in different ways. I think it still has some life left to try different things and experiment.

NUVO: How is the competition aspect going to shape up for the show?

Warren: Well, we haven’t really figured out the details yet, but it’s either going to be a mixed martial arts match between the two of us in the cage, or thumb wrestling, one or the other. You’ll have to come to see which one.


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Scott Shoger staggered up to NUVO's door one summer afternoon, a little drunk, poor and crazy-haired, muttering about future Mayor Ballard. He was taken in, hosed down, given NUVO-emblazoned clothes to wear and allowed to work in exchange for food and bylines. Refusing to leave the premises, he was hired on as... more

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