Amateurism & Obsession: Zine-Making in the High School Classroom


I, alongside classroom teacher Taylor Johnson, kicked off Writing the Community’s first zine residency at City High School. I learned so much about zines, self-expression, and art from these students and from Taylor. Right off the bat, we established two “rules” for zine-making (of course there aren’t any rules in the world of zines, but alas). Our two rules, or guiding principles, are about obsession and amateurism:

1. Own your obsessions: We agreed that your passions—no matter what they are—fuel curiosity and artmaking and are the seed of creativity.

2. Embrace amateurism: The students and I decided you don’t have to go to school, pay for a degree, be given a certificate, and become an “expert” on something in order to create meaningful art. Why wait? Maybe you aren’t technically a film critic but that doesn’t mean you can’t fill the pages of a zine with reasons why Rocky Horror Picture Show is the best movie ever made. Ever. You love poetry but have no idea what most poetry is about? So what? Make a zine of your own and share it with your community! Obsession is qualification enough.

These rules are fun and great to discuss, but why exactly are they so important? The students at City High and I agreed that expertise and perfectionism have been valued in our culture over curiosity, passion, and interest: the things that make life worth living. There is little room in our culture for exploration and doing things just for the fun of it. Zines push against professionalism and, frankly, toxic perfectionism. As artists, it’s hard not to think about the value of your art even before you’ve finished making the thing. Zines operate outside of the mainstream value-system, where gatekeepers decide which art is worth publishing and which art isn’t. Zinesters aren’t answering to anyone and aren’t tailoring their art to professional publication.  

With these parameters in place, a zine can be as messy (with coffee stains, pizza stains, crossed out words, etcetera) as its creator wants. A zine can treat a topic with fandom and fanaticism only, or a zine can include facts and aim to educate its readers. You don’t have to know everything about plants to just tell the world why you love cacti.

Why is this ethos so fun to follow with high school students? Honoring obsession over expertise, and amateurism over professionalism, is an important reminder that you don’t need to wait to make a thing: a physical, material, copyable, unique thing. You don’t have to sit around until you become an expert on something or until you become a “successful artist” to start putting your work in the world. One of the sweetest lessons the students at City High and I learned was that it really isn’t all that hard to make a physical art object. The assignment was to fill eight pages with something the student was currently obsessing over—that’s it. Some students struggled to get started, but with the passion for their chosen topic as a guide, students easily filled up the pages and wanted to make more and more zines.  

Above all, the guiding principles of amateurism and obsession validated students, their passions, and their interests. Telling a student that their obsession over their pet guinea pig is worth making an entire zine about is telling a student that their cares/concerns/thoughts are worth making art about, no matter how whimsical or silly. It’s huge, this idea that it isn’t necessarily what you know but what you’re interested in that makes good art. This is an important lesson for artists of any age/stage in their career. Obsession grants us a reason to keep creating—to revel and share our curiosities and eccentricities with other weirdo art-makers. So, I tell students: Obsess! Obsess! Obsess! Passion is reason enough.

Sophie Daws grew up in the Sonoran Desert and her poems revolve around labor, memory, and architecture--all of which are explored in terms of nature/ecology and a feminine-queer aesthetic. Sophie received her B.A. in English Literature and Creative Writing in 2018 and holds a minor in Plant Sciences. She received the Hattie Lockett Award in 2018 and graduated with honors for her poetry manuscript and thesis, Snag.

Image by Jan Huber.