All That’s Left/All I’ve Ever Known

by Jessie Lynn McMains

photo by me, of some of the zines I made from 1998-2019

All that’s left of my youth is a stack of notebooks with secrets scrawled in fading ink, a shoebox full of cassette tapes I’ve played so many times the sound has faded to ghost-static, and a plastic bin of zine flats, every word and picture peeling off one-by-one as the glue disintegrates. And the memories. These days, I’m writing out the secrets I was too scared to tell the first time around. Willing the ghost-songs up from the magnetic reels of ancient mix tapes. Holding it all together with glue (and string and deciphering) that will, in time, disintegrate.

In October of 1990, a couple months before I turned nine, I took some allowance money I’d saved up and bought a copy of Sassy magazine. I may have been a little too young to really get it, but…I was searching for something, I didn’t know what, and I found it, glimpsed it anyway, in that issue of Sassy. In that issue, I read about zines, and about The Sassiest Boy in America (aka Ian Svenonius, forever the sassiest boy in my heart), and I became aware that there was a whole world out there, different from the one I lived in. A world of art and pain and love, of boys and girls/men and women who did interesting things, of wild music and dangerous ideas. I was so, so young, but I knew that was what I wanted. I felt it in my freckled little-kid flesh—that I would do anything to be part of that world. Over the next few years, zines became more a part of my world. It was the ’90s, a heady time when everyone and their uncle wrote a fanzine, and I’d often find them at record shops, bookstores, or cafes. By 1993, I’d declared myself a riot grrrl, and began sending away for zines in the mail.

I made my first zine in 1994. I’d been telling stories since I could speak, and I’d known I wanted to be a writer since I could scrawl the alphabet. (Amongst other things: I also, at one time, wanted to be an actress on Broadway, a spy, a fashion designer, an organic chemist, a witch, and star pitcher for an MLB team). So, after four years of reading about zines and reading other people’s zines, I decided it was time. My first zines were not good. I didn’t make a halfway decent zine until 1997, and I didn’t hit my stride until late 1998. It’s not that I couldn’t write, it’s that I tried too hard to make my zines fit a certain mold, and that I was too afraid to write about the real stuff—except in my secret zines, the ones I printed a handful of copies of and published anonymously. But even the crappy ones were important. I learned as I went along. My zines were so many things. They were feminist manifestos and places to gush about my best friends and my favorite music, films, books. They were rants and love poems. They were secrets and lies. They were a way to make a connection. I felt so isolated so much of the time, and through zines I found other people like me, and made friends, though—and this is the bummer story of my entire life—most of them lived in other cities, states, countries. They were a way to be vulnerable—”Here is my heart, cut and pasted onto paper”—but they were also a protective shield. They were like, “Yeah, screw you, this is what I’m into, this is me.” They were me saying: “I am going to talk about some of the things that make me feel most vulnerable, and most embarrassed, because if I’m the one sharing these things, no one can use them against me.” Like: “You can’t blackmail someone with something that they’ve made public. Yeah, I’m a dork, up yours.” And they were a protective shield in another way, protecting me from some of the ‘cool kids’ who I assumed hated me, like, “better be nice to me or I might write a shitty review of your band in my zine.” Up yours.

And here we are, 27 years later. This cut & paste collage of a life, this punk rock anthem screamed at the wind, this spilling my thoughts onto Xeroxed pages, is all I’ve ever known.


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