If there’s one thing I’ve learnt over the last month or so, it’s that people are nervous about telling secrets to strangers. You might consider that to be a fairly self-evident kind of truth and you’d probably be right. But when I get an idea I tend to think about the technicalities, the ways to do it and what it might mean if I could do it, rather than whether anyone else would want to do it (or read it). Which is, all things considered, pretty dumb.
Early on in this lockdown I started asking people to record themselves telling me a secret. I was at least vaguely aware that there was something transgressive involved as I followed up by saying that it didn’t really have to be a secret. I said it could “just” be an intimacy, which only made things worse. I mean, if you don’t want to tell a stranger a secret, you certainly won’t want to get intimate with them. Well, you might, but not like this. And to be honest, it’s the hint of transgression that makes the whole thing work.
The results of this request, though, have been pretty revelatory. Every word of what people tell me is charged with significance, with an immediacy that’s hard to fake. Starting out without much idea of what I was doing, I’m now determined to get enough material together to make some sort of book. But to do that I need more strangers to take the plunge and tell me something that, as a whole, they’d prefer to keep to themselves.
I’ve tried to make it as easy as I can. You go to my website at https://www.yourwordsnevermine.net/secrets and there you can listen to me telling a secret, then you can click a button to record your own. You have five minutes for starters, but if you need more you can record a second chunk. After you’ve finished there’s an option to leave a name and an email address but you don’t have to. And you’re done. But my guess is you still won’t want to. So below are a few thoughts, which might help persuade you.
1. No secret is “too small.”
Someone said to me that he couldn’t do it because he didn’t want to tell me his “big” secrets but his little ones were too inconsequential. But what he gave me was brilliant—funny and revealing. I’m not looking for a murderer’s confession so much as something which is meaningful to you. And, as importantly, why it is meaningful to you. It could be anything, from stealing a penny chew to not liking to kiss your moustachioed grandmother, to that time you bought dog biscuit instead of drugs and then told your mates you’d been mugged and lost their money. Equally, it could be what name you’ve always wished you’d been called, the adventures of your imaginary friend, or that time you peed on a favourite sleeping bag…
2. No secret is “too big.”
Just because I said it doesn’t have to be big, doesn’t mean it can’t be. If that’s what you want to tell me, go for it. I have received what I consider to be very big secrets from people who have preferred to stay completely anonymous. Think about what will make you feel best, because…
3. It might be liberating.
Part of the power that secrets hold over us is their very secrecy. When we share them, they change, or lose some of their potency. One of the secrets I’ve been told is about exactly this process—how the telling of a secret completely changed what that secret meant to the person whose secret it was. So maybe getting it off your chest will keep it off your chest. There’s no judgement here—we’ve all done things (or not done things) we’re ashamed of or are uncomfortable about. When we share them, they lose some of the hold they have over us.
4. It might take you outside of yourself.
Right now we all need to get out of ourselves, as if the lockdown, by keeping us physically inside our homes, has trapped us in our heads. One contributor wrote to me after recording what they described as their ‘confidence’:
“Once I’d decided what to talk about, I found myself remembering the event in more detail than I had for a long time. The site has a great feature—once you’ve finished you can listen back to it, and in doing so I was transported back to that time. It wasn’t just an act of remembering, it was a chance to re-evaluate and consider it anew. I actually listened to it a few times… It reminded me that I have other sides that have been lost recently in anxiety and focus on the present situation. It was a way to connect with a forgotten part of my life and it felt an enriching and surprisingly peaceful experience—something we could all do with today.” [my italics]
There’s so much to worry about in the here and now, so much angst and uncertainty, that it might actually be more pleasant than you would imagine to escape for a moment into your past. In fact…
5. It might even be fun.
Big claim, I know, but it could be true. By now you must be fed up of doing pub quizzes online, or playing Pictionary or whatever. Organise a drinking game and the person who loses has to come to the site and leave a secret. (Then the rest of you do, too). Treat it as a bit of a laugh, an opportunity to do something new, something you’ve never done before. Don’t think too hard, or agonise too long, just set the recorder running and see what comes out. There’s no right answer so you can’t be wrong!
6. You’ll be in a book (anonymously)!
Hopefully, although that does rather depend on amassing enough secrets. What kind of book remains to be seen. It might be High Art or it might be one of those ones you flip through whilst sitting on the toilet. (From my point of view, hopefully both). The point is that it’s a collective process, where we create something together, a kind of intersubjective compendium of the extremely personal. A portrait of us all, right now.
7. No one need ever know.
You don’t have to tell anyone you’ve done it (though you will encourage others if you do tell them). The recording software gives you an option to leave a name and email address but there is no need to. I promise never to reveal anything about you to anyone, either publicly or privately, and any mention of places or other people in your story will be anonymised, too. Nor will anyone but me ever hear your recording. If you’re concerned, the basic rules I set myself to operate by are listed here: https://www.yourwordsnevermine.net. The aim here is to create something together, not stitch anyone up. You’re helping me and I will do my best to protect your privacy.
8. You will have achieved something.
I don’t know about you, but my productivity right now is pretty low. This will take you five or ten minutes, then you’ll be able to fix yourself a drink and feel like the day hasn’t drifted by in a complete haze of worry, brain-freeze, work and money problems and home-schooling fails. You will be a creator! When the Work Police knock on your door you can tell them to fuck off, that your day is done, that you have contributed to the greatest High Art Toilet Book to be created in Lockdown!!! Huzzah! And then you’re free.