The Power of Secrets

by Joe Bunting | 36 comments

“Secrets can remind us of the countless human dramas,” says Frank Warren, “of frailty and heroism playing out silently in the lives of people all around us.”

Secrets

Photo by Marco Bellucci

In November 2004, Frank Warren gave out a few hundred postcards to strangers with simple instructions: write a secret you've never told anyone before, and mail it back. It was supposed to be a small, community art project, but then something strange happened. All the postcards came back. And then something stranger happened, he kept getting new ones.

Secrets went viral.

Since then, Frank has received over 500,000 postcards, many of which are available on the project's blog, postsecret.com, or in one of his five books of secrets. The remarkable thing is not how widely Postsecret has spread. What's shocking is that no one thought of it before.

Secrets Are Stories

Secrets are one of the most terrifying and powerful forces of our psyche. As soon as someone says, “Oh sorry, I can't tell you that. It's a secret,” we lose it. All we can think about is what that secret could be and how we can manipulate them into telling us. Secrets destroy all rational thought.

Every secret is a story we don't know.

Secrets themselves are the most entertaining stories of all.

Secrets have all the potential of being the best story we have ever heard.

Secrets are why we read detective stories.

Secrets are one of the reasons people read at all, we want to peer back behind our neighbors' actions and see why they do what they do. We want to understand why we do what we do.

Secrets are a closed door. What family dramas happen behind it? Secrets are a locked chest. What treasure is hidden inside it?

The best stories have a lot of secrets (and not all of them are revealed by the author).

If you can capture the power of secrets in your writing, you will be a very well read writer.

PRACTICE

We're mixing things up today, and it could get a little crazy. Here's how today's two-step practice is going to work.

Step 1. Log out of Disqus, and comment with a secret you have never told anyone (NOTE: to be sure you protect your anonymity, use a fake email address, like fake@email.com). Your secret could be funny, sad, scandalous, or embarrassing. If you need inspiration, swing over to postsecret.com.

Step 2. Log back into Disqus. Then, choose someone else's secret as your prompt. Write about it for fifteen minutes.

This is going to be really cool. I'm so excited!

Joe Bunting is an author and the leader of The Write Practice community. He is also the author of the new book Crowdsourcing Paris, a real life adventure story set in France. It was a #1 New Release on Amazon. Follow him on Instagram (@jhbunting).

Want best-seller coaching? Book Joe here.

36 Comments

  1. Anonymous

    My Secret: I’m embarrassed about my toenails. When I’m around people, I hide them under coffee tables and sofas.

    Reply
    • Suzie Gallagher

      My wife is one of those people that has to live in a spotless environment, I think it is why we don’t have kids yet but that’s a whole other story. I am not naturally neat, I like to leave my clothes on the floor overnight and decide what can be worn again in the morning. The last time my clothes lay in a heap overnight was on the day before we married.
      Of course we can’t know everything about our spouses before we marry, even if we have lived over the brush for a while. Something changes in the exchange of rings, everything we have held in check whilst puffing up our feathers to catch our mate is let out like a long silent fart.
      So my wife has borderline obsessive compulsive disorder, a neat freak, everything having a place and it being kept in that place. I can work around her, because she is the love of my life. I know us macho males aren’t supposed to admit it, but when she arrived into my circle of friends, I had to have her. As a result I put away the forks exactly as she likes them placed in the green baize lined drawers, I pick up my clothes at night and place them all in the hamper regardless of soiling because she likes the smell of of my cologne through pristinely pressed linen shirts and I always take off and put away my outdoor shoes before entering the apartment just because.
      In all of this seemingly one-sided compromise, I have a dirty little secret. Something that if she knew I can only assume we would part ways, so I am very careful. Once a month I lock myself into the bathroom, remove the third tile on the far wall, reach in and take out my matchboxes. I spread out the contents on the floor and just smile, then I add ten more to my collection. After ten to fifteen minutes of admiring my toenail hoard I collect them up into their boxes in a totally random and ramshackle manner adding to the pleasure. I don’t go as far as to speak to them but I do smile one last time thinking of all the years I have been collecting them, smug about the secret and remembering the love I have for Selena, my wife that makes living in this clinical atmosphere bearable.

    • Oddznns

      Suzie//// laughing out loud. I love this.

    • runebug

      [Complete novice writer. Sorry for the warts!]

      Awooooo!

      Mark jumped up instinctively at the sound of the kettle boiling, performing the Leaping Stag to land smoothly on his feet. His daughter, Liz, had been looking through the mail. Alarmed by the sudden movement, she was now looking longingly at her father.

      “Sorry, dear” he muttered. He had promised not to perform any martial arts in front of her. He was reminded of his feet, and uncomfortably tugged on his slippers to make sure his bubblegum pink toenails were hidden.

      “Dad? The dojo would let me back in if it weren’t for my feet, right?” Liz was poring over an ad she had found in the mail.

      Mark’s eyes narrowed.
      “Sweetie, you need to find something else you’re into. Everyone in our family has bad feet.”
      “Except you.”
      “Exce- Why don’t we get you some piano lessons?”
      “It’s just I found this ad….” Her voice trailed off hopefully.

      Mark snatched the leaflet out of his daughter’s hands, leaving her stumbling backwards in shock. He fiddled with his slippers, looking once again at those toenails painted a horrific shade of pink, before awkwardly covering them up again. He forced himself to look at the ad.

      “Call Mystic Martha today and all your dreams will come true!
      Ever wish you had the face of a beauty queen? The hands of a painter? The legs of a dancer? The feet of an athlete?”

      Mark snorted and ripped the leaflet in half.

      “Piano lessons. I’m signing you up for piano lessons tomorrow.”
      “But Dad, I don’t even..”
      “I said piano!”

    • Katie Axelson

      Wait. Whose toenails are pink? I read it as the dad’s. Is that for real?

      I like the hyperbole of this practice.

      Katie

    • runebug

      Ha! I fail apparently. He got a magic spell that switched his feet with someone else, leaving his toenails permanently painted pink. It looks like the story was unclear.

  2. Guest

    I met a man three years ago. I know FOR SURE that I’m going to meet him again in the future, but I don’t know when yet. We’re not in contact.

    Reply
  3. Guest

    In 2nd grade or so, I was completely played by a girl my age with a hyperactive imagination. She wanted me to ride a bike with her to the south side of the county to “rescue” her cousin from her estranged aunt and uncle.

    She “changed” her mind and proceeded to “film” a movie, “do” all the CGI for it overnight, and “sent” it to a professional studio, who would “show” it in theaters on July 3d.

    I never seen her again. She must have been a lonely girl.

    (I was going to post another secret, but it’s not safe for work, and I don’t want my computer’s filter catching it.)

    Reply
    • runebug

      That sounds like perfect fodder for deconstructing the Manic Pixie Dream Girl stereotype.

  4. Mrs T T B.

    There are some secrets that are so secret they can’t even be told to strangers.

    Reply
  5. Anon

    My secret is that I am terribly insecure about everything I do. Even though I have a reputation for being a decisive, to-the-point, action leader who is admired and revered for confidence. My mind constantly replays every minor error causing me to believe that everyone is either confused or lying when they compliment me and that I am constantly on the brink of being ‘found out’.

    Reply
  6. Gord Mayer

    ** Disclaimer** Just because I chose one to practice does NOT necessarily mean I have posted a secret so don’t bother trying to guess! LOL ** I tried to do a stream of consciousness thingy too:

    There are some secrets that are so secret they can’t even be told to strangers.

    That’s all I can say right? I mean, who wants to know about yet another evil moment in the continuing saga of mankind’s inhumanity to mankind? There has to be boundaries – I’m not being anything but kind – sure I’m covering my ass here – people would leave me, I’d be alone, I don’t want to be alone – what about work? They would find out I’d lose my job I’d lose everything… who is that calling me? God, it’s like they know I’m vulnerable and are attacking… not answering that right now – look at all this junk in here – awards and certificates, achievements and commendations – yea I’m a god damn hero – if they knew it they’d be quick to take it all away – it just gathers dust anyway. I’m always taking care of this junk. Moving it from place to place and putting up on a new wall or shelf – why? Why do I drag this stuff everywhere? It’s not even me – it’s not actually who I am – I did some stuff yes but inside I know what I am capable of and this is all a lie. Man! It’s like I’m dragging around a dead body all the time –what? Yea I’ll be right there. Pasta sounds good. Pasta, good lord if I eat any more pasta I’m going to lose my mind… what if I told them? What if I just blurted it out one day? The looks on their faces! Would they even be able to believe it? Jerry would piss himself – that bastard’s always had it in for me – Sheila would never believe it. She’s so naive, she’d think it was some kind of prank… I should do it. To hell with them all. What does it matter anyway…
    Hello? Oh yea honey, I’ll be over in a minute. Yes go ahead and order the pasta. I’m on my way…

    Reply
    • runebug

      Aww. That one is sad.

  7. Fake

    I have a secret friendship with a person that my spouse doesn’t know about. It is a platonic relationship, and I don’t plan on meeting this person, because this other person is married, too. But my spouse would not understand that I can share things with this person that have become too volatile a subject in our marriage.

    Reply
  8. theonestaringatyou

    I have many secrets but none of them are mine. I spend all day looking at people and reading their secrets in their appearance. See that one? He killed his pet budgie with an airgun when he was a child and buried it in the garden and left the cage door open to pretend to his parents it flew off – he’s never got over that even though he is now a senior judge. See that couple? She doesn’t love him because she is having an affair with the young lad who does their garden. Now she’s looking at me and thinking…. no, I can’t type that. Everyone has a secret and all you have to do is put your writer’s head on and the secrets just appear. Must go. I’m going to follow that woman to see if she meant it.

    Reply
    • Katie Axelson

      I like that, “Everyone has a secret and all you have to do is put your writer’s hat on.”

      Are you one of those people who tell the stories of other drivers on the highway, too?

      Katie

  9. Faketyfakeperson

    I have broken every one of the ten commandments and no one knows, except God and y’all

    Reply
  10. YouCantHandleTheTruth

    I was the one who exposed her secret.

    Reply
  11. JB Lacaden

    This is the secret I chose from the list below: I have broken every one of the ten commandments and no one knows.

    And the following is my story. It’s darker than the my previous stories but it’s what I got after reading the secret. Read and enjoy 🙂

    ***

    George looks at his list. He reads and he hums. Then he crosses out one line: “Honour thy father and thy mother”. I’m almost done, he thinks to himself. He’d been going at this for about a month now. George takes a deep breath. The hardest one yet is next.

    He reads the next one on the list. “Thou shalt not kill.” George whistles a long, low note. He knows this one won’t be a walk in the park like the previous commandments. But one thing George always has that none of his Brothers had is determination. George won’t fail. He promised himself that the moment he stepped out of the Temple of the Sinners. He will cross every damn thing on this list or die trying. Which probably what would happen if he fails this next task. No! I must not think like that! I’m a winner. Must think like a winner! I can do this.

    George fixes his tie and straightens his clothes. Now or never man. He casually walks up to the door and presses the doorbell. It’s a two-note bell. Ding-dong!

    “Coming! I’m coming!” The door cracks open and out peeks a balding man who may be in his mid thirties. He has a white shirt on and his eyes are bloodshot red. George did a little research (and some stalking) on this man. He knows that the guy is the neighborhood drug dealer. That’s why he chose him for his next task. George figures he won’t be missed.

    “Hi!” George says in his most upbeat voice. “The kingdom of the lord is near! If you have some time would you kindly have a short talk with me?”

    “I’m busy! Go away!” The bald man shouts.

    As he’s about to close the door, George places a foot in the opening.

    “Hey! Go away! I don’t want to listen.” The man says.

    “It’ll only take about a minute of your time sir,” George says with a smile. “I promise you your life will be changed!”

    “I’m sorry but I’m not interested. Now get your damn foot out.”

    George does a quick mental note. Never! Ever! Use this approach again. It’ll never work. George keeps his smile on his face. He reaches inside his suit and takes out a rubber mask. He places it on his head.

    “What the hell are you doing?” The bald man asks. “Get out of here before I call the cops.” The man slams the door on George’s foot but George did not falter. The foot remains.

    George reaches behind his back for a small handgun. “This would’ve been much, muuuuuch neater if you would’ve just let me in you know.” George says as he points the gun at the man’s forehead and pulls the trigger.

    Reply
    • Katie Axelson

      I had to reread a paragraph because at first I thought George was the man inside but the dialogue clued me in to the fact that I had them backwards. I do want to know: where are the neighbors?

      Thanks for picking this commandment to write about rather than “Thou shall not commit adultery.” 😉

      Katie

    • JB Lacaden

      I’d write about the neighbors if given more time. 🙂 I think my protagonist would do something unpredictable with them. ha!

    • JB Lacaden

      Thanks Suzie 🙂

    • Christine Niles

      This is great, JB. The twist on the commandments drew me in with an odd fascination.

      I was bit confused by the reference to Brothers…it felt like it was referring to his family of origin, but the capitalization and reference to the temple made me think you meant an order or secret society of some sort.

      The other thing that threw me a little was the idea that a dealer wouldn’t be missed. My first thought there was that his customers would certainly miss him, but of course they certainly wouldn’t report it. As a followup, I found myself wondering if George’s choice of a dealer was not for the moral justification of “ridding the world of a slime bag,” but purely for the convenience of his crime not being discovered…

      Nice work!

    • Oddznns

      I liked the twist that he was going to break all the commandments.

  12. ptsdater

    I am terrified my ex will find out where I moved to.

    Reply
  13. Finis

    I have a deep desire to teach at university, but am petrified around people.

    Reply
  14. Yvette Carol

    This is from ptsdater’s secret….

    I have to ring her every day. We’re besties, that’s what we say. It’s not as if we’d ever do anything about it, but have to say, we do dig each other. A lot. My wife’s a good woman. She’s been there through thick and thin, for the last ten years. We’ve got a son together, and he’s basically my reason for living. But she and I, well, we’re like oil and water aren’t we? She thinks with her head, I think with my heart. I can not even tell you the number of times she’s hurt me, cut me to the bone, and then stomped across my broken pieces. She just doesn’t notice. I understand. I get it. She was raised that way. Tough. As nails. She doesn’t see me bleed. Or cry. Hell, she’d never respect me again if she knew she made me cry….so I don’t ever show her.
    But my bestie, well that’s different. I can talk to her. I’ve even cried with her. She comes from the heart like me. It’s a pity she’s married…and I’m married….If she ever was to leave him, if I ever was to leave her, well then I’d run to my best friend in a doggone minute. Imagine…being happy…being loved by someone soft and sweet and kind? Sometimes it’s best not to imagine…best to put those thoughts away where no one else can see and lock the door.

    Reply
    • JB Lacaden

      Nice stream of consciousness. Great writing. 🙂
      Though I’m not sure with the “bestie” nickname.

  15. Death Wisher

    I have wished someone dead and I still think he’d die soon.

    Reply
    • Christine Niles

      Her hospital bed fills the end of the narrow room, a faint dent where her body had recently withered. The formal space once reserved for holidays and cocktails before dinner is now occupied by an oxygen machine and clipboards and pill bottles.

      Outside the window, a red bird flits to the feeder. The seeds he seeks will never be refilled. Soon, the birds will figure this out and stop coming, the first in a long line of changes that will happen after she is dead.

      I gather a couple of books and the photo of my mother with her five brothers from her bed stand. I choose a small vase from the china closet and clip a few of the first daffodils from her garden, wrapping their stems carefully in a wet paper towel and then plastic. Final pieces of home.

      I wonder if these things will make a difference to her. I wonder if she’ll know they are there, or if I’m bringing them for my own peace of mind.

      She wanted to die at home. But we can’t handle that. We can’t take care of her anymore, and we all know that if she dies there we’ll never be able to sit in that room again. Dad won’t be able to live in the house anymore. And that’s not fair to him, is it? He lived in that house before he met her. The fell in love, married, raised kids in that house.

      He’ll spend the next six months, or year, or two just working in the garage. Because none of us can bear to remember her slowly dying in the living room.

    • John Fisher

      The cologne I smell from the hallway takes me back decades in time.  What is HE doing here?  He has no right . . . but this time my blood presure doesn’t rise — nor do I beat a hasty retreat.  His quick words to the receptionist establish the room, and the brisk taps of his wing-tips  on the thin carpeting signal the same agressiveness I’d hear when he’d come down the corridor at work all those years ago . . .

                                                                       *     *     *

      ” . . the first execution since the state re-instituted the dealth penalty. . . .”  droned the radio in my truck.  He reached over and turned it down without even asking.  “But it won’t.  Be.  The LAST!”  he rasped, the pink at the edges of his face combining with his possum eyes to give him a feral look.

      I couldn’t wait to finish this errand and get him the hell out of my truck. I hate violence.

      “By the way,” he continued as if I’d agreed with everything he’d said, “when are you going to join the Optimist Club like I’ve been after you to do?  As President, I’ll see to it your time there is very instructive.”  The smile on his face as he said this was a cruel one . . . .

                                                                        *     *     *

      HE’S COMING!  What can I DO?  I can lie in wait, that’s what I can do.  Maybe this will be the day . . . .

                                                                        *     *     *

      He sat forward, leaning toward me over his desk.  “Your mistakes on the job are accumulating, and if you continue to mess up you’ll be out.  And by the way, I notice you’ve been letting your hair grow longer . . .”

      I wish you were dead, I silently told him.  I’ll not share the name I attached to that statement. 

      I rose.  “I quit,”  I said, laid my key on his desk, turned and walked out, fantasizing about bamboo strips and lengths of piano wire. 

                                                                       *     *     *

      He’s HERE!  He’s HERE!  What am I gonna do?  His steps turn, he enters, the cologne stronger.  He steps up as confidently as ever.  Stares down at me with all of his accustomed superiority.  “Hmmph.”  Which was pretty much his standard reaction to anything I said or did, or even just my appearance, over those two years.  He reaches down and thumps me on the ear.  I don’t even try to defend myself. 

      “You choked to death on your own resentment,” he says calmly, turns on his heel, and strolls out.

  16. Someone

    I sometimes wish that I could spend more time away from my boyfriend instead because I’m afraid we’ll get tired of each other easily. But that’s probably because I’m not mature enough.

    Reply
  17. Yvette Carol

    Hey Joe, this is cool fun! I can see the enthusiasm for secrets, they make great reading don’t they? There are some lovely bursts of writing here too in response. Runebug I laughed out loud through yours, loving the pink toenails!! Suzie, the ‘long silent fart’ was a classic. JB, I think you’re on to something there, with the dark pieces. A natural talent for the dark side perhaps?? Thanks for the response to mine. As to the ‘bestie’ nickname, they say it’s a bit of ‘Kiwi thing’. We can add ‘ie’ or ‘y’ to anything. For instance the members of my family are reduced to Danny, Jaggy, etc and even my poor misbegotten youngest, with a name like Nathaniel, you wouldn’t think it would work would you? But he has been nicknamed ‘Natty’ and sometimes to make it worse “Natty Patty’!! ha ha. Sincerely, my apologies….

    Reply
  18. Xyz

    One day when I was about five or six years old, I caught a toad hopping around our vegetable garden.  This cruelty swelled up in me.  I spent an hour or more pounding that toad with stones, hacking at it with a hoe, not killing it, but inflicting serious suffering.  My father, now deceased, came home from work and caught me at it.  He got the water hose and began to gently shower water on this wounded creature, explaining to me how valuable toads were, they are our friends because they eat the bugs. “I doubt he’ll live,”  Dad said.  “You’ve really hurt him.” I was ashamed of course, and to this day I can’t think what it was that precipitated such cruelty in me.  Such rage.  There hadn’t been any preceding incident that I can remember.  This secret can still cause me to weep, decades later.  And to fear what is in the depths.

    Reply
  19. Stéphanie Noël

    I saw the book in the store two days ago and although I like the concept I thought it was not something I’d purchase. But now, reading your post, I want to go back to get it. I feel all of them would make very interesting writing prompts.

    Reply

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  1. Secrets - [...] Secrets June 24, 2012 · by jblearnstowrite · in Stories Another practice from Joe Bunting’s thewritepractice. [...]

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