by Zine Instructor Shaun
The key to good writing is in the details—things, objects, nouns. Readers are starved for physical descriptions, in part I think because our world is filled with them; but also, because we find meaning in objects when our relationships become unstable or ambiguous.
This is no less true for homeless youth who we employ in Zine. For varying reasons, these youth can’t go home—poverty, abuse, conflict. And in their instability, many find power in things they can hold in their hands and not let go of.
I’m always reminded about this when it comes time to talk about details. I dedicate about a week of instruction time just to detailed writing. We often read an excerpt from Don Delillo’s Underworld, where the narrator is holding a baseball—that age old staple of Americana. He describes it:
“It (the baseball) was old, bunged up, it was bashed and tobacco-juiced and stained by natural processes and by the lives behind it, weather spattered and charactered as a seafront house” (pg. 131).
Whether the youth listening are baseball fans or not, they often connect with this appreciation of things that are tattered, weathered and worn. These markings become characteristic of survival—a prized quality in youth homelessness.
After reading the Delillo piece, I usually ask youth authors to write about an object they turn to for security. I ask them to describe the object in detail.
One author, who goes by Jack, responded by writing the following piece, which became the title piece for her zine, Dirty, Ratty Converse:
“My dirty, ratty, ripped-up converse. I will never throw them away. They have carried me through the good times, as well as the bad. They have been with me through love and pain. They have seen the best and worst sides of me and are the only things that have never left me through any of it. They are faded and torn. The rubber is cracked and peels away with ease. And still they carry me with the unconditional love that only they can give me and I can return only to them.” (pg. 3)
Details do that. They give readers a chance to walk in the writers’ shoes.
Being both writers and listeners in Zine, we get the unique chance to walk alongside each other, empathizing and encouraging. Ironically, in writing about the details that reveal their instability, our writers get to start building.
They build a zine—an original publication of artwork and writing.
By completing a zine, interns build their confidence.
“I’m proud of myself for sticking around to finish. I actually finished the requirements for my Zine early and got to make it bigger. I’m proud of myself for that”, says Jack.
Zines become details in themselves— things that their authors can hold and claim ownership and efficacy over.
And like good details, zines are also symbolic—symbolic of youth’s ability to say something and create something that lasts.
Poet William Blake said, “To see the world in a grain of sand/ and a heaven in a wild flower” is one of the abilities of innocence. To find universal truth in detail, to find hope of career success from completing a writing project—both take some imagination and, yes, faith.
But for Jack, the details are accruing. She has a job—found it within a week after graduating Zine. She’s also enrolled in community college.
“I plan to stay in school. The quarter’s three months, Zine was two months. I think if I could stick it out for that long, I could stick it out in school for a while….” Jack says.
Behind the modesty, is fierce intelligence and talent.
Check out Jack’s Dirty Ratty Converse for a walk in her shoes.
And remember to enjoy the details.