From the Underground: A Writer’s Life with Zines

QWF Writes brings you a blog post once a month commissioned by the Quebec Writers’ Federation. These posts were originally published on the QWF Writes blog.
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Assembling Ghost Pine #8 (2004)

It wasn’t reading the classics that convinced me to become a writer. My gateway drug to the world of letters was zines—cheap, photocopied, self-published magazines filled with their authors’ reflections on the world.

Over twenty years later I still remember some of the first zines I read in the early 1990s. There was Saucy, a thick zine from Cornwall featuring interviews with bands. There was a bilingual political zine from Hull, titled Moo in English and Meuh in French, where I first read about vegetarianism. And there wasDesign 816, full of personal essays, which I picked up when the author was visiting Ottawa from Chicago.


JM image 3Cats love zines too!


From the first moment I encountered them, I became a zine obsessive. My suburban teen years were spent hunting these underground publications, picking them up on my trips to record stores and punk shows downtown. I sent large chunks of my allowance, a dollar or two at a time, to post office boxes across North America, ordering zines with titles like Dishwasher, Fuzzy Heads Are Better, Tyger Voyage, and Spunk. Needless to say, this was long before the Internet became ubiquitous.

Zines were secret, precious, hard to obtain.

Coming home after school, I often found the mailbox at my parents’ house filled with literary treasures in envelopes from faraway postmarks. The zines I read covered many topics: political polemics, music, food, train-hopping, feminism, secret histories, and intimate personal narratives from the underground. I devoured them all, but I was particularly drawn to those telling true stories from the author’s life. In the pages of Cometbus, Doris, Scam, and I’m Johnny and I Don’t Give a Fuck I found compelling narrative voices that I deeply related to. Reading them felt like getting a letter from a close friend. I had tapped into a vibrant community of punk writers who crafted great stories and then cut and pasted their work together, photocopied it, and released it with no thought of gaining attention from the world of mainstream literature. These were my first literary heroes. In a time before our current memoir boom, they wrote honest and true stories full of grit and heart.

I instantly wanted to make a zine and the democratic nature of the form made me feel that I could do it. Reading other zines gave me a model for how I might write my own stories and get them out into the world. I also voraciously read contemporary novels as a teenager, but unlike those books­­—perfect works with no typos or evidence of the human hand that made them—zines convinced me that I, too, could be a writer. The status of zines as unofficial publications in a time of media conglomeration made the prospect of publishing one even more entrancing. Zines were secret, precious, hard to obtain. This, along with their tactility, made them almost magical objects, even as I tattered them with frequent re-reading.

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Ghost Pine #13 (2014)

jeff miller

Jeff Miller has written the zine Ghost Pine since 1996. In 2010, the best stories from the zine were published as Ghost Pine: All Stories True (Invisible Publishing). His creative non-fiction and cultural journalism also appear in a number of anthologies and periodicals. He will be a CALQ Writer-in-Residence at the Banff Centre in February-March 2016.