'Confessional culture' draws a crowd

You don't need to meet Hillary Carlip in person to get her life story – it's all in her books and essays. Ms. Carlip, hardly famous by tabloid standards, is the founder of Fresh Yarn, an online magazine of personal essays, which she runs out of her own pocket and out of a conviction that opening up can inspire people deeply.

Carlip started the project in 2004, after sensing that audiences at her spoken-word performances craved more personal information about people like themselves. She has since published snippets from the lives of more than 220 people – bittersweet stories such as Carlip's own tale about befriending Carly Simon (and baking bread for her) when the singer was still largely unknown. If Fresh Yarn has any criteria, it's Carlip's own "chill-o-meter" – the level at which a piece moves her.

Carlip's project is just one example of a recent phenomenon coursing just beneath the surface of mainstream entertainment: a confessional culture where embarrassing diaries become stage pieces and private humiliation becomes public display. Fueled by the Internet, which allows people to control content, self-revelation is no longer the stuff of memoir, but a central feature in magazines, popular radio shows, traveling stage shows, websites, and more.

"People are craving reality, but not even finding it where it's supposed to be," says Carlip, referring to mainstream entertainment like reality TV. "It's a glossy facade of nothingness. The more that's thrust in our face, the more people want realness."

"Realness," in this context, is not the betrayal drama on the latest "Survivor," or the domestic tragedies of families swapping mothers on prime time. This "realness" is breaking up with your high school sweetheart, taking that crazy trip with your friends, or finding Grandma's hidden box of letters. While some accounts would not pass as family fare, most of what you'll hear, read, or see in this world centers around the " 'we've all been there' experience," as Jason Bitner of FOUND magazine puts it. Producers and consumers of sincerity say they want to spotlight the beauty of daily life, using little of the dismissive and sarcastic tone that permeates today's culture.

"These things are not trivial or mundane," says Dave Nadelberg, the founder of "Mortified," a stage production in which people read aloud from their teenage diaries or letters. "They are actually quite profound – and sometimes moving and funny and strange and scary and often more [rewarding] than ... traditional forms of entertainment," he says.

At a "Mortified" show, you might see a young white man in his 20s rapping lyrics he wrote with his friends (Vanilla Godzilla and the Pakistani Powerhouse) when he was 14. An ongoing project called Post Secret encourages people to send in postcards anonymously on which they confess personal secrets ("I don't care about recycling – but I pretend I do"). FOUND publishes a scrapbook of lost notes. StoryCorps records "extraordinary stories from everyday people." And "This American Life," the icon of the genre, has devoted radio time to stories of ordinary Americans for a decade.

What connects these projects is a love for the ordinary moments fueled by a human need to share one's life, as well as peek into the lives of others, says Robert Thompson, a popular culture expert at Syracuse (N.Y.) University. What people get in return for sharing happy, sad, or humiliating stories is a feeling of connection and belonging, he says. It's voyeurism, yes, but of a gentler and consensual kind.

Professor Thompson says confessional tendencies have been around since Freud, but they took hold in America during the 1960s cultural revolution (the era of "let it all hang out"), and reappeared in afternoon TV talk shows and reality TV.

While "sincere media" have been around for a while (think "Oprah" or "The Real World"), it was the Internet that created the subculture of projects like "Mortified," says Gareth Barkin, assistant professor of anthropology at Centre College in Danville, Ky.

The Internet did two important things. First, it changed people's expectations of what entertainment is, Professor Barkin says. Reality TV can be confessional to the point of nausea, but it's still professionally produced, largely scripted, and hardly raw.

"People have a longing for authenticity," Barkin says. "They want to consume content by people just like them – it's very grounding."

Second, the Internet allowed these projects to speak to a wide audience that didn't care for sarcasm and mockery. "I'm very tired of entertainment that isn't vulnerable," says "Mortified's" Mr. Nadelberg. "Why can't we be vulnerable? There is such a level of 'snark' that has infected everything and it's so annoying, because it's not truthful. Is that really what it's come to – that even when we like something we have to cage it in 'Here's how lame it wasn't'?"

After Sept. 11, some culture critics penned the early obituary of "the age of irony," when nothing could be taken seriously, and where sincerity was seen as pathetic. It turned out critics were wrong about irony (which continues to thrive in the era of blogs), but their call for more straightforward expression was coincidentally timed to the growth of online content creation.

"I think we are so deep now in the age of irony, that there is a backlash," pop-culture expert Thompson says. "Ironic wise-guyism and deep sincerity will be duking it out for a while." Still, despite the resurgence in sincere entertainment, Thompson says that he doesn't believe that in 10 years America will be a more confessional society. But, he adds, it might be a society with fewer things to be embarrassed about.

When he was growing up in the 1960s, a humiliating incident in school could ruin a kid's social life for years, Thompson says. Now kids own up to potentially embarrassing situations, make a wisecrack, and move on with a certain amount of pride in having shared their story. "The tendency and desire to talk about ourselves has overcome the feeling of embarrassment," he says. "Everybody forgets it. Frankly, I think [this] is a kinder and gentler way of approaching it."

In the fall of 2005, Frank Warren printed 3,000 self-addressed postcards and distributed them around Washington, D.C. – from cafes to the subway. Recipients were asked to write their deepest secret on the card and mail it back to Mr. Warren anonymously. It caught on, and today Post Secret is one of the most-visited sites on the Internet with 3 million to 4 million visitors a month. (It recently ranked No. 9 on blog-tracker Technorati). This month, Warren received post card number 100,000.

The rawness and authenticity of these confessions touched Warren unexpectedly when, a couple of months into the project, he was reminded of a humiliating experience from his own childhood that he had never shared with anybody.

"At some level I might have been struggling with my own secret," Warren says, reflecting on the creation of Post Secret. "There is a wonder and mystery about the project that I still don't understand."

Warren shared his secret with his wife, wrote it on a postcard, and mailed it to himself, which brought him a sense of healing.

"Everybody has a secret that could break your heart if you knew it," says Warren.

Princess of the 'Oddballs'

As Author C.S. Lewis once wrote, "We read to know we are not alone." Part of the attraction of consuming personal stories of ordinary people lies in the sense of connection many find. When Lisa Bonack picked up Hillary Carlip's memoir, "Queen of the Oddballs," she was at a low point in her life. But as Ms. Bonack writes in the essay below, Ms. Carlip's confession helped her turn her own life around.

Bonack, who works for a regional repertory theater, wrote this essay as a courtesy to accompany the Monitor's story on America's "confession culture." It not only illustrates the connection people feel to personal material, it also illustrates the genre itself.

Lisa Bonack writes:

"I've always felt a tad out of step with everyone around me. Although I had some close friends and moved easily among social circles, I felt different and quite lonely. Quirky interests would grow to obsession and then dissipate altogether in a matter of weeks. My moods followed suit, cycling between highs and lows. At age 18, I was diagnosed bipolar.

"In school, surrounded by classmates who had known me virtually my whole life, my differences were never questioned. While I may not have felt understood, I did feel accepted. As an adult I encountered far more people who didn't get me than did, and as a result it was difficult to break into new groups, particularly in work situations where the staff had existing relationships with one another. Eventually being the chronic outsider left me feeling isolated and paranoid and things usually ended badly.

"After leaving a job impulsively, I found myself underemployed for over a year. Finally I landed a job at an independent bookseller. It should have been my dream job, but I was miserable. There were only a couple people on the staff whom I felt comfortable with, the perfectionist in me hated that there was no way I could know every book inside and out, and reading, a favorite pastime, became work. Within a couple months, I had plunged into a suicidal depression.

"I came into work and found an advance copy of 'Queen of the Oddballs' waiting for me. I started reading and felt an immediate connection. Hillary Carlip was the person I wanted to be – a person I didn't even realize was possible! I still wanted to kill myself, but maybe I'd wait until I finished the book. By the time I was done, I didn't want to die. This stranger's memoir gave me some hope. Her book bought me enough time to get help. I felt compelled to write to her and started an e-mail friendship that still helps me through the bad days."

Where to look for personal stories

Many confession or personal story-centered projects are out there now, on many media: websites, radio shows, magazines, etc. The Internet is plagued with unmoderated confession sites, but the projects listed below are all mediated, edited, or both.

FOUND magazine ( http://foundmagazine.com/)
Jason Bitner, cofounder of FOUND magazine, became fascinated with the lives of others while working for a recycling center in the Chicago suburbs as a teenager. As he sorted newsprint from coated stock, he came across letters, notes, and to-do lists. He started reading them. "I know my own life really well," Mr. Bitner says. "But I don't get the sense I understand the lives of others who are in a different place." The scraps he and others find and publish in FOUND give him an idea of what other people are up to. Read the Monitor story on FOUND.

Fresh Yarn ( http://www.freshyarn.com/)
On the website, Hillary Carlip describes her project of personal essays like this: "You'll read stories from this emerging genre that are humorous, provocative, dramatic, simple, sweet, raunchy, intimate, bold – and all true."

Mortified ( http://getmortified.com/)
"Mortified" is a stage show traveling from coast to coast, in which men and women read from their embarrassing (or humiliating) teenage diaries or letters. On the website, it bills itself as a "a comic excavation of teen-angst artifacts." Read the Monitor story on Mortified.

Post Secret ( http://post secret.blogspot.com/)
Frank Warren updates his site every Sunday, sticking closely to its mission statement: "Post Secret is an ongoing community art project where people mail in their secrets anonymously on one side of a homemade postcard." Selected secrets have been compiled in three books: "Post Secret," "My Secret" and "The Secret Lives of Men and Women."

StoryCorps ( http://storycorps.net/)
Stories from this audio project can be heard often on public radio stations. StoryCorps travels the country, setting up a booth where friends and family can come in and record one another's stories. Producers hope the recordings, stored at the Library of Congress, will create an oral history of America.

This American Life ( http://www.thisamericanlife.com/)
"This American Life" is a weekly one-hour radio program hosted by Ira Glass and carried by more than 500 public radio stations across the country. It uses various formats – from reported pieces to audio essays – to tell stories from all walks of American life.  

[Editor's note: The original version contained links to material that did not meet Monitor standards.]

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