By DAN FROSCH
March 8, 2015 6:40 p.m. ET
DENVER—Rachel Garfield watched as a roomful of strangers erupted in laughter, amused by the hormone-stoked fantasy she had scribbled in the pages of her private diary.
As a child, she had had a desperate crush on a 7th-grade boy at school. But he wasn’t interested. The situation called for extreme measures.
“I wish I could take him to a brain wash place,” she wrote. “Then I could brain wash him to like me! Wouldn’t that be awesome! Then we could go everywhere together! He would LOVE me 4-ever and ever!”
Her innermost thoughts were now being bared to the world—not because somebody had snatched her journal, but because Ms. Garfield, now 36 years old, chose to share them aloud decades later at the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver.
Real teenage diaries are becoming a form of public entertainment—often self-deprecating—in a number of places, as brave souls divulge details of unsatisfied crushes and lost friendships. Ruminations that now seem ridiculous had once seemed profound to those who had written them down.
The Denver readings are part of an event held every other month called “My Teenage Angst,” which has become increasingly popular here since its inception in 2011 and is organized by a 41-year-old Denver woman named Megan Nyce.
“Being a teenager is awful,” says Ms. Nyce. “But reading about being a teenager is really funny.”
One of her own diary entries she read recently captured existential junior-high frustrations that now sound beyond banal.
“Life stinks. I can lay out all day and still can’t get a tan. I’m really breaking out,” Ms. Nyce wrote the summer before her freshman year of high school, noting one important item on her schedule: the perm she planned to get before school started.
“When you’re in it, it is so serious, so intense,” Ms. Nyce now says. “But when you have that distance, it is really not that big of a deal.”
A similar event, called “Salon of Shame, has become an uproarious mainstay in Seattle. And in Los Angeles, a public diary reading series called “Mortified,” which started years ago, spawned a 2013 documentary “Mortified Nation” (available on Netflix and iTunes) and spinoffs around the country.
“Our guideline for would-be readers is to find something where your first thought is, ‘I hope nobody finds this.’ And bring that,” says Ben Haley, a computer tech-support worker who moonlights as the producer of the Seattle event, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary.
Mr. Haley says the show has become so popular, it sells out regularly to crowds of about 150 at $12 a ticket. His all-time favorite entry came from a Seattle writer who read from a one-page romance “novel” she had written as a teenager.
“It involved telepathic animals, a fireman who saved her from a fire and her incredibly bizarre description of what sex was like,” he says.
One entry he is considering reading was from his freshman year at Humboldt State University in California.Jon Olsen, a 40-year-old writer, is among the dozens of Denverites who participate in “My Teenage Angst.” His go-to entries usually focus on a girl he once pined for—the feelings weren’t mutual—and his chronicling of every mundane interaction he had with her.
“I had written this long and uncharacteristically honest sort of diatribe about how mortified I felt about being sexually inactive,” he says. “I was so horrified about it that it was scribbled over in a different color and I had turned it into this weird drawing of some leering creature—maybe a demon or dragon.”
Sara Foster, an eighth-grade science teacher in Westminster, a Denver suburb, reads from a journal that still has a piece of paper taped to the front warning her mother: “I know you have been reading this. Please stop, ok?”
, 39, is now happy to share it aloud with others, but still squirms at the idea of reading her entries in front of her parents.
At the latest Denver reading Feb. 19, a crowd crammed into a small downtown performance space called “The Deer Pile,” as readers prepared to expose the secrets of their youth to public humiliation.
Some clutched old Trapper Keeper school binders; others carried weathered diaries festooned with stickers.
Hildy Schott, a 24-year-old market-research analyst originally from Pittsburgh, noticed a sign for “My Teenage Angst” while heading to yoga, so she had her mother dig up her sixth-grade diary.
Her entries recounted her anguished selection process, trying to find the right date for the middle-school Valentine’s Day dance: Henry, Bennet, Ryan or Thomas.
“When I said I wanted to go with Henry, Elspeth said ‘Henry’s had a crush on me since kindergarten,’ ” she read. “Uh!! I was so mad at her. Even if that was true, you still don’t tell someone that! So I was mad the rest of the day. In Spanish, I was drawing frowny faces.”
Lisa Ingle, a 44-year-old Denver real-estate developer, chose a diary entry from the summer after high-school graduation, a time when she wavered over a momentous decision: whether to break up with her boyfriend, Kevin.
“We have no future together. At all. He’s going off to Alma,” she read, referring to a Michigan college. “And he wants to be a senator. This is whatever you want to call it—a fling.”
A day later, she wrote: “I think I love him!”
The readings are cathartic for people who willingly dredge up anxiety-addled memories to share on stage, Ms. Nyce notes.
Some audience members roared with laughter throughout the recent Denver show; others flashed grins of recognition.
Ms. Nyce read an entry that night from 10th grade on what it would be like to eventually have a son.
“I’m sure he’ll drink. I’ll only kill him if he makes a habit of it. He can’t get grades under a C. And I’ll make sure he uses prophylactics,” she read. “A girl is ok, I just hate being a girl. Pregnant, periods and popularity. The three p’s. They’re a bummer.”
She ended her entry with the requisite, random-music lyric—in this case, from Pink Floyd.
“Tear down the wall!”
Write to Dan Frosch at firstname.lastname@example.org