Finding your voice with Colin Hagendorf

On being a writer, pizza pals, and admiring your friends

As I settle into my acceptance that the next year is going to be a lot of making things alone in my apartment, it’s a good week to get back to interviews about creative process with my friends. This week I get to share an email discussion with one of my favorite people, Colin Atrophy Hagendorf.

When Worriers were on tour in Austin several years ago, Colin came to our show and handed me a stack of their zine Slice Harvester for us to read in the van. Put succinctly, the zine reviews every regular slice of pizza in Manhattan, but it’s a lot more than that too. The personal stories told along the way eventually caught the eye of Simon & Schuster and Colin’s zine evolved into the book Slice Harvester: A Memoir In Pizza.

Colin now writes the newsletter Life Harvester, which is one of my favorite emails every month. I can hear it read in Colin’s distinct tri-state area accent and think of it as the well-written equivalent of a friend calling you and saying “you have to listen to this!” about their new favorite record or book or whatever. I’ve said it before, but you should subscribe to it because it is a joy.

Colin also has a Patreon that supports the printing of physical copies of Life Harvester and a great podcast called Life Harvester Radio where she interviews a ton of inspiring people and punks and zinesters and artists.

The consistency with which Colin has produced seriously fun and inspiring things over the course of our 15+ year (holy shit) friendship is inspiring, so I’m glad she was down to answer these questions. Here you go!!

When you wake up in the morning, what is it about making things that motivates you? Do you have a 'why' for your creative practice? 

I like attention. I can say I've always made stuff, because I'm 37 and I've been consistently (more or less) involved in cultural production since I was like 14, but why? Yesterday I was on the phone with my therapist and I told her I hate writing and she was like, "what do you mean you hate writing?"

And I was like, "It sucks, that's what I mean. I don't know any writer who enjoys writing. The problem is I hate not having written so much more."

We went on for a while, her asking me questions about why I've dedicated my life to something if I hate doing it, and finally I realized that I just want attention and I like having cool stuff that I made to give people. This is why it feels so good that my new project, Life Harvester, is just one page. It doesn’t feel precious. And I can hand them around to whoever. It's also just super spacious without being so vast that it's daunting to work on. Like there's room to discuss heavy or personal subject matter and get vulnerable or critique oppressive systems, and also for like reviewing my friends' records and talking about the Sopranos.

It's also fundamental to the project that it's available for free. Basically, individuals can subscribe for a sliding scale monthly rate on Patreon (or can email me for annual subscription rates/alternate payment methods), and that pays for the printing and shipping of the bulk of the issues which are sent to record stores, book stores, libraries, etc, all over the country, where they're available for free. And every issue is available online in its entirety. 

I run a caption contest every month, where a friend draws a picture and then readers caption it. I've worked with a bunch of great artists, Yusuke Okada, Suzanne Goldenberg, Mike Leslie, Beck Levy. One of the first caption submissions I got was from a 13 year old who found the newsletter at the Bloomington Public Library because Cole from ADD/C is a librarian there and asked for some copies. Just this month in my advice column, Ask A Shmuck, I answered a question from another teenager who wanted to know if it was better to sleep around or only have sex with people you love. That shit is WILD to me! When I was an adolescent I interacted with so many older weirdos through zines, a bunch of whom I'm still friends with 20 years later. It feels great to be on the other side of that, and it wouldn't be possible if Life Harv was paywalled or whatever. And making it free wouldn't be possible if it was bigger than a single page.

I really appreciate the consistency across your projects and how your voice comes through on all of them, as part of a larger whole. How does that bigger picture come into play when you think about your work? In what other forms or spaces could you see your creative projects?

I think with my early zines I wasn't making forward-looking aesthetic decisions. With Slice Harvester, it was definitely about creating a character who was an exaggerated version of my personality. With my monthly newsletter, Life Harvester, I think the character is still there but it's not as prominent. The premise—you know with Slice Harvester I was reviewing slices of pizza, with Life Harvester I'm reviewing literally everything in my life—means there's a certain degree of earnestness and sincerity that inevitably comes through. I’ve written a lot about my early transition. Striking the right tone is hard because I'm trying not to air out intra-community dirty laundry for cis spectators while also being true to my very real (and consistent throughout my life) desire to broadcast all my thoughts and feelings at all times to anyone who will listen. That’s why I try to focus on my own experience without generalizing what that means for like, The Trans Subject as a category.

Life Harvester Radio is my interview podcast where I talk to punks and weirdos about how they got into their work and what their adulthoods as creative people are like. I try to cover a pretty broad swath of creative types. My favorite interviews I've done were with tattooer Tamara Santibañez, Krystyna Fox from Peace Talks, and Paula Martinez who does Demystification Zine, the latter of which will be out at the end of May. But I've also interviewed authors, visual artists, clothing makers, a jeweler, a professional witch, a lawyer. Basically anyone who I think is cool, bonus points if they have a punk background.

Paula said one of the nicest things to me when we were hanging out before the interview, which is that she works in a record store with these dudes who listen to hardcore podcasts all day, and they think of mine as a “girl podcast.”  And honestly, that’s what I’m going for. Until this past April, it had been almost two years since I had a cis male guest. Then I ran an interview my friend Mike did with Jimmy Webb, the recently-deceased shopboy of legendary St. Marks punk store Trash & Vaudeville. That felt important since he just died and he was like, a gay punk icon in NYC. Paula suggested that the "men's" podcasts are often focused on factual discussion—talking about obscure records or nailing down precise timelines of when people were in different bands or whatever—whereas mine seems more concerned with the emotional—what was motivating my guests, what were they struggling with, what did they overcome. Truly, it’s such an honor to have something I do be considered girl stuff. As a trans woman I'm always nervous that I'm like, not enough of a girl so it's nice to occasionally feel like I come by it naturally.

As far as other spheres, I did that video series, Pizza Pals, with Daniel Ralston a few years ago, which was so fun! But it's such a shlep to get video stuff made that I don't think I'll bother with anything like that again unless I'm getting paid the big bucks.

But you asked about voice. Sometimes when I’m feeling insecure I worry that the voice that connects all my projects is just my own, and that I can’t escape it because I’m too lazy or too undisciplined or I lack the skills and education. I read other writers who came from the same punk scene as us, like Katie McDonough writing for New Republic, or Suzy Exposito’s recent Rolling Stone cover story about Bad Bunny, and I feel like they’re doing real writing and I’m doing kid stuff. McDonough and Exposito are both incredibly talented, of course, but I think what this highlights about me is an insecurity around my craft. Writing is a skill that takes time to learn, and my aversion to conventional educational settings coupled with my misguided notion that being sloppy or imprecise was somehow subversive have colluded to mean that I’ve never really learned to write, so I have to do that now. Ultimately I’d like to find the confidence and master the skills to approach writing with different voice, whether that’s bringing a higher caliber of work to the sporadic freelancing I do, or breaking through my hang-ups about fiction.

When it comes to making things, whether that's zines or podcasts or music, etc. who is your biggest influence or motivator? Whose process or work ethic do you admire?

I think if I'm being honest I've looked to Cindy Crabb and Aaron Cometbus a lot for guidance, which can be hard because they're both very close friends of mine. They're these perfect opposing archetypes because Aaron's whole thing is like, renting a studio and writing for 16 straight hours a day, 10 days a week, until a project is done, whereas Cindy is constantly working but has a much more forgiving practice. I don't think I’ll ever have Aaron’s focus or Cindy’s consistency, but they're these two poles I look to. And they’ve both been mentor figures in my life who have been really encouraging and nurturing to me in a variety of ways. Life Harvester was originally conceived of as an email list until Aaron was like, "why don't you just print it on paper?" 

It's mostly friends, honestly. When I was young I admired Mimi Nguyen's work immensely. She was super critical without being mean, and had an engagement with her subject matter that was grounded in non-punk intellectual traditions but never came off as too cerebral, all while also talking about cool records and cracking jokes. My thoughts on subculture and its possibilities are heavily influenced by conversations with Golnar Nikpour and Osa Atoe. My engagement with fandom and letting go of my fear of unabashedly liking stuff has thrived over years of conversation with Ben Trogdon, nurtured by the writings of Tobi Vail and Layla Gibbon, all of whom think about the pure joy of being a fan in a way that is so vulnerable it straight up scares me sometimes. Did I mention Jacob Berendes? There would be no Life Harvester if there hadn't been Mother's News. I think the only person whose work I really admire and think about in relation to my own who I don't actually know is Nicole Georges, whose podcast Sagittarian Matters is so perfect and who's comfort and ease I strive to emulate.

And like, I don't wanna sound too much like a wife guy, but I'm so inspired by my girlfriend, Rebecca Giordano. She's one of the hardest workers I know and is one of the only people that holds me to a high standard and actively challenges me to make my work better. Aside from the simple generative aspects of living together and supporting one another in our work, (she’s an art history PhD), she edits Life Harv. It's impossible for me to quantify how much better it is now. I think literally any work is better when it's collaborative, but she’s especially talented when it comes to honing thoughts and ideas and she never thinks getting something right is too much work. She regularly achieves a degree of excellence that I previously considered unattainable, so watching her work on her own is inspiring, not to mention working with her. I feel so lucky to live and work with her. 

When the things you make are also some part of your livelihood, has your process or relationship to it changed? 

It's hard to think of a time when my writing was part of my livelihood in a way that didn't feel provisional or incidental. Even when I got a giant check from Simon & Schuster I was still working at the diner the whole time because I needed the structure. And it was so much money, more or less all at once, that it didn't feel like getting paid, it felt like winning the lotto.

But I think in my case, when discussing the economics of my life as a creative person, the more important things to look at are that I'm not sick and I come from a wealthy family. The first thing, not being sick, means I've never really had to make decisions around access to health insurance because I had no urgent need to access medicine, which meant I could maintain a kind of freewheeling, precarious lifestyle that left me a lot of time to make stuff.

As far as my parents having money, their financial stability means there's things I don't have to worry about. They own their house and it's all paid off, they'll have money to retire and ultimately pay for hospice or whatever else comes up. Of course watching them age is difficult at times, and grappling with their mortality is daunting, but so many of my friends are struggling with aging parents in these really intense ways that are financial as well as emotional, and I'm just not. That opens up a lot of psychic space for me. I think it's important to account for the fact that like, those two things are huge stressors, and being stressed makes it so much harder to work. 

But to answer your question more explicitly, I doubt zines or podcasts or whatever will ever be anything but supplemental income, with the occasional intense windfall. I think I'll always have to find other ways to make money, whatever they may be, and I'm pretty okay with that.

Do you have a creative practice that you don't share with anyone? Are there things that you make that you think of purely as a personal hobby? 

I honestly don't think so! Literally everything I do, if I'm not planning to show it to people immediately, I'm thinking about it potentially being discovered posthumously. It's pathological. I had an email correspondence going for a while with the writer Imogen Binnie, and we used to always joke about how one day some grad student was gonna dig it out of the archives after we were both dead and publish "The Collected Emails of Colin Atrophy Hagendorf and Imogen Binnie," like all the epistolary collections from other authors we'd read as teens.

Subscribe to Life Harvester


Here’s also a tiny reminder that this newsletter is the closest thing I’ll ever have to a Patreon, so signing up for the $5/month paid version is much appreciated. Last week I sent out a draft of a new zine, and I’ll have more music newsletter-only things coming soon. Thanks y’all!