Last weekend, I spent an evening in the woods with a group of strangers in search of owls. It was a cold, eventless quest, punctuated by the unanswered hooting of our guide and the sporadic cry of distant foxes. Every ten minutes, the guide would call out with a soft “oo—loo—oo,” and our group would fall silent as we waited for a response. When none came, we’d forge deeper into the woods, the guide would call out, and we’d fall silent again.
It went on like this for over an hour, until the youngest in our group, a girl of maybe seven years old, broke the silence.
“I have a secret,” she whispered to her mother as we all stood together in the dark. The rest of us couldn’t help but lean in.
“I have to pee,” she said.
It was funny and sweet and perfect, one of the highlights of an otherwise barren night. The owls were there, the guide assured us. Sometimes they just didn’t want us to know.
Most of the time, our secrets live inside of us like dormant owls. Once in a while, a secret wakes up, calls out, and beckons a response. In truth, sometimes secrets are better left to our diaries. But what if a writer chooses to share those secrets with her audience, whether in poetry, fiction, or memoir? Is there value in divulging them beyond the initial rush of self-expression?
I say yes. Whether in real life or in fiction, secrets are unfinished elements of any story. Or, as lawyer and ultimate problem-solver Olivia Pope from ABC’s “Scandal” would say, “dirty little secrets always come out.” We writers have the gift and the burden of alchemy when it comes to secrets. In our hands, they can become click bait, fodder for tabloids, or agents of thoughtful exploration.