Behind the scenes with PostSecret

Road Trip 2010: On Saturdays, Frank Warren organizes and posts the secrets for his famous blog. CNET's Daniel Terdiman was on hand to witness the work thousands will see Sunday.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
7 min read

PostSecret founder and curator Frank Warren sits on the couch where he organizes the weekly blog post that will be seen by millions of people. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

GERMANTOWN, Md.--When postal carrier Sonia Warren was given a new assignment last May, route 46 in this town about 30 miles from Washington, D.C., she had no idea that one of the people she'd be delivering to was among the most famous people in the world with her last name: Frank Warren.

To the uninitiated, Frank Warren is the founder and curator of the PostSecret project--an ongoing collection and public presentation of the heartfelt secrets of strangers from around the world. Each week, Warren receives hundreds of postcards (see video below) and letters from these strangers, and each Sunday, he posts about 20 of them on PostSecret.com, a blog that to date has had nearly 345 million visitors.

At home with PostSecret (photos)

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To fans of PostSecret, Warren is a hero, since he uses the platform to fight against suicide--he has raised thousands for Hopeline, and is now exhorting his readers to help win $250,000 for Hopeline in a Chase Bank charity competition--and because the weekly blog post, and the books of collected secrets and the public speaking he does on the project, are filled with emotion, humor, sexual frustration, pleas for help, love letters and so much more.

Each year when I finish my annual Road Trip project, I start thinking about where I'll go the following year. And when I knew that Road Trip 2010 would take me to the East Coast, I knew instantly that one of the stops I had to make was to 13345 Copper Ridge Road in Germantown: the home of Warren and his family, and ground zero for PostSecret.

On Saturday, I arrived at the famous address in the unassuming suburban neighborhood not long before Sonia Warren pulled up in her Postal Service van to deliver the mail. For years, the thousands of monthly secrets were delivered mainly by a woman known affectionately by fans of the project as Kathy. But this spring, Kathy moved to England, and now the job has fallen into Sonia's hands.

It turns out she didn't even know what she was getting into when she began working her new route. "My first day, I was like, 'Jesus, this guy gets a lot of mail,'" Sonia Warren recalled. "'Does he have a big enough mailbox?'"

She said many of the secrets that are sent in are very small and sometimes don't get sorted by the machines that sift the countless letters, magazines, envelopes, and so on into the proper slots. "If someone sees them on the floor [at the Post Office]," she said, "the clerks pick them up. They know exactly where they go."

Of course, by picking up such a high profile route, Sonia Warren will probably have to keep up some of the traditions started by Frank Warren and Kathy, the old carrier.

For example, as Frank Warren remembered, he and Kathy would often chat when she delivered the mail, and he usually paid her a "tab," essentially the cumulative amount of postage that the hundreds of senders of secrets were short.

Sonia Warren has become the newest hero in the Post Secret community: The Germantown, Md., mail carrier delivers the hundreds of secrets a day to Frank Warren. Maryanne Wright/U.S. Postal Service

Sonia Warren may also have to deal with becoming a celebrity, in the PostSecret community at least. Frank Warren recalled a story Kathy had told him in which she had been delivering the mail in the neighborhood one day, only to encounter a woman clutching one of the PostSecret books who ran up and asked if she was the famous Kathy. She said yes, and that since she was friendly with Frank Warren, she could get him to sign the woman's book. "'No,'" the woman shouted. "'I want you to sign it.'"

Curating the secrets
For Warren, his responsibility as the curator of the PostSecret project is pretty much never-ending. Though he travels frequently to give talks about the project at colleges and museums around the country, he generally is gone just two or three days a week, and never on a Saturday.

That's because, of course, he spends his Saturdays getting ready for his Sunday morning PostSecret blog post. Each Sunday, Warren posts about 20 new secrets on PostSecret.com, and he spends his Saturdays preparing for that post.

These two secrets reflect the honesty and emotion of many who send secrets to PostSecret. And they work together, something Warren likes to experiment with in each week's new blog post. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

That's why it was such a treat for me to be able to visit with Warren on Saturday: I was able to see where he does his sifting of the hundreds of secrets that arrived during the previous week, and get a firsthand look at the way he lays them out on a table, doing the best he can to present a cohesive story with the 20 new secrets.

Warren explained that he looks for themes--literary or cinematic or those that might set up a joke and punch line. Similarly, he'll look to present patterns, such as one secret that is white on black, and another that is black on white.

For this Sunday's set of secrets, he's including two related to origami. One reads, "I fold my secrets into paper cranes and give them to people because I know no one will ever unfold it." The second one--which is likely to leave many people crying--says, "This is a piece of origami paper that was folded into a crane, and made to hang above my son's crib. He died 2 weeks ago after living just one week. For 9 months he was my muse, and I created so many beautiful things for him. Now I'm afraid I'll never be able to craft again."

No P.O. Box
PostSecret is largely the work of Frank Warren, though he does have some interns who are helping him sort and organize the archives of hundreds of thousands of secrets that have arrived over the years, and which he keeps in a special and, yes, secret location. He would not allow me to photograph the collection, but I can try to put a picture of it in your head: Imagine about 30 big plastic bins filled with cards and other forms of secrets and, more impressively, a wall against which stand hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of bundles of about 100 cards, each of which is held together by two crisscrossed rubber bands. The pile is about 11 bundles wide, 16 bundles high and an indeterminate number deep. It is very impressive.

Warren's wife also helps out, by assisting with the organization of each day's new arrivals, despite what might be very slight misgivings about the project. As Warren jokes, his wife probably wishes he had chosen a P.O. Box as the delivery address for the secrets. "'Thanks, Frank,'" he said she told him once, "'Now we can never move from our house.'"

But arrive at the house on Copper Ridge Road the secrets do, a new stack each day, and even after years of this and hundreds of thousands of secrets, Warren admitted that he still eagerly anticipates each day's mail delivery. "You wouldn't think it, but I still love getting the secrets," he said. "You can never have too much mail. So I often find myself checking the mailbox a couple of times before the mail arrives."

Opening the mail
One of the best parts of my visit was when the mail actually arrived, and Warren invited me--and a couple other visitors--to sit down with him and sort through the large stack.

There they were: the secrets themselves, in their physical glory. This wasn't the first time I'd seen them in nondigital form--I'd been to a PostSecret gallery showing--but those secrets were displayed behind glass. So here, in my hands, were the actual cards, and I could almost feel the emotion of the people who created them vibrating through the card stock. Some were postcards. Some came in envelopes. There were even two clearly sent by the same person, given their identical postmark and way the person had taped on a type-written address.

I also found something unexpected in the pile of mail: a gas bill. I had forgotten this was still just a stack of mail delivered to an address, just like everyone else's.

Back in the secret location where he keeps his archives, and does the preparation work for each week's post, Warren had already laid out 20 secrets on a table in front of a couch covered in secrets. But while those 20 cards told the story he wanted to tell this week--"a film, almost a narrative that connects these secrets in people's lives...to our own," he allowed that he might substitute in one or two special ones from Saturday's mail, as he usually does.

He also explained why the weekly blog post has just 20 secrets: that's all that fit on the table in front of the couch.

The couch, however, was covered just about everywhere: on the arms, on the back, and especially on the seat next to where Warren does his work. These are hundreds of secrets he has set aside over the years, knowing they will someday make it on the blog. He keeps them to fill in certain themes, or to accentuate a joke. One he was using this week was set aside for when the new "Twilight" movie opened: "I'm a 33-year-old mom who is in love with Edward Cullen."

'If it helps people, it's a wonderful thing'
For Sonia Warren, playing a part in the PostSecret narrative has been a revelation. And one that's beginning to make a real difference in her life.

"I had no idea" about PostSecret, Sonia Warren said. "But it's great, and I'm glad I can bring [the secrets] to him. And if it helps people, it's a wonderful thing. It's great to be a part of that."

For the next few weeks, Geek Gestalt will be on Road Trip 2010. After driving more than 18,000 miles in the Rocky Mountains, the Pacific Northwest, the Southwest, and the Southeast over the last four years, I'll be looking for the best in technology, science, military, nature, aviation, and more throughout the American northeast. If you have a suggestion for someplace to visit, drop me a line. In the meantime, you can follow my progress on Twitter @GreeterDan and @RoadTrip and find the project on Facebook. And you can also test your knowledge of the U.S. and try to win a prize in the Road Trip Picture of the Day challenge.

Correction: This story originally misstated the Chase Bank charity competition. The charity that receives $250,000 will be the one that receives the most votes.