culture' draws a crowd
Embarrassing diaries become stage pieces and private
humiliation becomes public display in this new take
on reality entertainment
By Cristian Lupsa
all: The number of outlets for confessional stories
has grown. Individuals like Hillary Carlip , who
runs an online magazine of personal essays called
Fresh Yarn, are in the forefront of this 'sincerity
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
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.
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,
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
"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.
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.
have a longing for authenticity," Barkin says.
"They want to consume content by people just
like them it's very grounding."
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'?"
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
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
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."
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
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
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."
shared his secret with his wife, wrote it on a postcard,
and mailed it to himself, which brought him a sense
has a secret that could break your heart if you knew
it," says Warren.
of the 'Oddballs'
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
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
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.
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
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.
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."
to look for personal stories
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.
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
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" 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.
in New York ( http://www.overheardinnewyork.com)
This project compiles snippets of overheard conversations
around New York, such as this exchange between a father
and his little boy: "I don't want to go to Africa!
I don't want to smell the camels!" The project
has spawned a book and many other "overheards"
around the world.
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
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.
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.