Keeping secrets

Can you keep a secret? Try keeping 300,000 of them.

That’s what the sold-out crowd in Lisner Auditorium Friday night contemplated as Frank Warren, creator of PostSecret, spoke about his role as “America’s most trusted stranger” and how his community art project became an international phenomenon.

PostSecret began about four years ago when Warren mailed 200 blank postcards with instructions asking the recipients to write a secret on the card and mail it back to be used in a community art project.

Starting with about six postcards per week, the number grew exponentially. Now Warren receives upwards of 1,000 submissions weekly. The PostSecret blog and books were developed soon after the project took off.

“What I’ve tried to do is grow [PostSecret] in an organic way, to kind of follow where it leads,” he explained. “And right now there seems to be a big demand for people to share their secrets in a public way beyond what’s happening on the Web anonymously.”

Responding to the popularity of his project, Warren began his college campus tour as way to bring PostSecret to a completely public forum.

During the presentation, Warren shared several stories about secrets he’s received and how they have affected him. A treat for audience members familiar with PostSecret, Warren also showed a slideshow of secrets that have not appeared in the books or online. Representative of the thousands he receives, the nature of the secrets varied from practical jokes to the darker and more personal.

Warren also discussed the cathartic value of writing down secrets and revealing them to a complete stranger, highlighting it as a way of seeing secrets in a new light and dealing with the weight they may carry. The secrets we keep, he said, “could actually be keeping us.”

Similar to his blog and books, which depend on the interaction of contributors and readers, Warren called for audience participation during several points of the presentation. He passed out blanks cards to each person in the audience, asking them to imagine what secret they would write on it and how they would share it.

Near the program’s end, Warren granted the audience an authentic PostSecret experience by inviting audience members to stand before the entire auditorium and share a secret. After a few moments of hesitance, a line soon developed behind each microphone. Some cried as they revealed their secrets while others laughed, reflecting the same complexity found in other PostSecret outlets.

Students shared secrets about heavy subjects such as rape and suicide. Some of the secrets shared, however, were of a lighter nature.

“Every time I pee, I feel like I’m dreaming and that I’m actually peeing in my bed,” said one female student, drawing laughter from the crowd.

Will Mandley, a nursing student at the Community College of Baltimore County, shared his secret with the audience and said he felt tested by the experience.

“My heart began to pound at the idea of going down there, and I realized fear was going to keep a lot of people in their seats,” he said. “I had the same exact fear and the only difference was that I did something about it.”

For sophomore Amy Schiowitz, the secret-sharing portion gave a powerful conclusion to Warren’s presentation.

“I thought what was really cool was that everybody was able to come up and share their own secrets,” she said. “It was interesting to see how strong people were.”

While Warren expressed pride in PostSecret, he attributed the power of the project to “the extraordinary voices that are speaking to these postcards.”

Although he will continue to tour college campuses until April and has another book due out later this year, Warren is looking to the future with an open mind and letting the project lead the way.

“It’s been an amazing journey and I can’t wait to see what’s next.”

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