Frank Warren discusses his PostSecret project

It’s no secret that Frank Warren’s community art project PostSecret is a big deal. The concept is simple, and anyone can participate: just create a postcard that tells a secret and mail it anonymously to an address in Maryland.

Every Sunday Warren posts images of selected postcards that he has received on the PostSecret website, and thus far he has released four books of secrets, including the latest volume, A Lifetime of Secrets. The shared secrets range from the funny to the shocking, the hopeful to the heartbreaking.

Now, with his website boasting over 100 million visitors, four bestselling books and international media coverage, the PostSecret project has become a worldwide phenomenon.

The Technique recently had a chance to sit down with Frank Warren, on tour promoting his latest book, to talk about the PostSecret project and some of the deeper meanings behind the secrets.

Technique: Can you tell me how you started this project?

FW: I started three years ago, in November of 2004, in Washington D.C. I printed up a few thousand postcards just like this one [shows one], that were blank on one side and on the other side I had my home address, a place for a stamp and some simple instructions about sharing a secret. I asked people to share a secret that was true, was something they’d never told anyone else before. And I passed these out to strangers in Washington D.C., and slowly secrets began to find their way to my mailbox.

T: Was it slow at first, and did it speed up?

FW: It was like a trickle at first, and now it’s a torrent. I used to get about two or three secrets a week; now I get about a thousand a week.

T: That’s amazing.

FW: Let me make one more point that you might be interested in: and that is, after about a month I stopped passing these out, and I thought that would be the end of the project. But the project wasn’t finished with me. Somehow, the idea of PostSecret spread virally in the real world, and people began to buy their own postcards, or make their own postcards, and they started coming from not just Washington D.C., but they started arriving with postmarks from Maryland and Georgia, Alabama, Texas, California and all over the world. And it was then that I realized that, accidentally, I’d tapped into something full of mystery and wonder that I didn’t fully understand.

T: So how do you think news of this initially spread?

FW: I think part of it might have been just like a national human need, you know. That it was plugged into the same way that a good urban legend or a good joke just spreads naturally. There’s something organic about spreading; there’s something viral about certain ideas, and for whatever reason this turned out to be one of those.

T: How do you choose which ones go in the book and on the website and which ones don’t?

FW: I think of PostSecret as a collection of secrets that I share with people in three ways: I have the website, where I like to share “living secrets,” secrets that you go there and look at them and know somebody’s dealing with that in real time, just as you read it. So I like, in the books, to really think of that as storytelling. And in selecting people’s secrets I’m almost like an editor who takes different strips of film and puts it together to tell the storyline. And I also share the postcards at art exhibitions, where I get a chance to show hundreds of postcards, in a tangible way—where you can see the front, the back, and really see it as being part of something real.

T: Sounds amazing, actually. Do you have any idea of how many total you’ve received?

FW: Nearly 200,000.

T: Have you had any favorites, or any that have stuck with you?

FW: This is one I’m liking a lot. I picked this one up a couple of days ago from home and I carried it with me ’cause it kinda reminds me to be nice to people during my travels. [card reads “You were rude to me, so I sent your bags to the wrong destination.”]

T: Ha ha, I like that.

FW: So I think some of the postcards have lessons, you know? You can learn from them. So I read that every night at like one or two performances, and then it stays with me when I’m traveling on the airplanes. I’m always so sure to be kind to people; so I don’t get my luggage to end up in Antarctica.

T: Sounds like something I would do.

FW: I think that’s part of the appeal of the project—people do recognize themselves, or their family members, or their friends.

T: Have you ever gotten any really disturbing cards?

FW: I don’t know if I’d say “disturbing.” I wouldn’t describe it that way. But there are some that are extraordinary. This one says “everyone who knew me before 9/11 believes I’m dead.”

T: Wow.

FW: Like somebody who went to work at the World Trade Center and on that day, they didn’t go home, they moved someplace else and restarted their life.

T: So what do you do with all of the actual cards themselves?

FW: I keep them all. All the postcards are mailed to my home address. I read them all, I keep them all. I keep them in those big Christmas decoration storage tubs that you buy from Home Depot.

T: Where do you keep the tubs?

FW: That’s a secret.

T: [laughs] Have you ever made your own card?

FW: I have. There’s one of my secrets in every book. It’s like Alfred Hitchcock—an appearance in every movie.

T: I noticed that on the PostSecret website you have information about rape and suicide hotlines. Is that because you get a lot of sad cards?

FW: I get a lot of heavy secrets; I think one of the reasons is if we have good news, we share it with people. It’s the bad news, that makes people feel ashamed, or stigmatized, at times, that’s a secret. So I think it’s natural to understand why so many of our secrets are of that nature.

T: Is there anything else that you think is important about the project, or its message?

FW: Well, one of the things I’ve learned is that all of us have a secret that would break your heart, if you just knew what it was. And I think that if we can remember that about each other, there’d be more understanding and compassion, and maybe more peace in the world.

T: Have you gotten any comments from the mailman, or anything?

FW: Her name’s Kathy—we’re on a first-name basis, Kathy and I. She puts these rubber bands around the postcards. Every day I get two stacks of postcards about this tall, with two rubber bands wrapped around each stack, almost like ribbons around a gift.

T: So while you’re away on this tour, who makes sure that these…?

FW: Yeah, they’re just piling up.

T: And once you get home, you have to just sit there and go through them.

FW: I’ll probably have two thousand to go through when I get home. But you know what? Secrets don’t get old. Like you would think that I’d be sick of it, but every day when I go to my mailbox, I still feel like a kid on Christmas morning, getting my secrets.

T: Have you ever worried about giving out your home address?

FW: I was a little concerned at first, but I really feel like I took this risk by trusting humanity in a sense, because the website’s been seen by a 100 million people, and four books are bestsellers, but I’ve never had a bad experience, so I feel like humanity hasn’t let me down.