The story of Lumen

By Rosemary Donahue

This is the story of Lumen.

Lumen is a digital magazine and blog, created with the intention of providing a quality platform on line for women-identified folks to tell their stories. My co-founder Yesenia and I met on Facebook in early 2014. Anja, a mutual friend of ours, had created a Facebook group for all of her rad friends to share ideas. I was so grateful to have a space to bounce ideas, ask questions, and feel connected to an amazing group of women, and Yesenia and I connected in that forum pretty immediately. We engage with the world in a similar take-no-shit way, so naturally, we became friends outside the parameters of the group. We met at a party Anja threw in San Diego and talked about things from political activism to Broad City as we worked on our wine-teeth and ate Brie cheese.  

Having the space to connect with amazing women couldn’t have come at a better time for me. It was a huge period of growth for three reasons. First, I was in a bad relationship and was finally beginning to realize that I deserved to be treated better. Second, I had just started school again after taking a break (due to anxiety and aimlessness) and making the decision to get my degree in English, with a focus on creative writing. And third, I was reading all the feminist literature I could, and began to look at how societal expectations affect women in the professional world (and really, all people, in all situations).

Soon after picking up my studies again, I realized I was reading mostly white men in school. I took a whole quarter-long class on just Shakespeare, while African American Literature and Women Writers were overview courses — the reading list for the Shakespeare course included ten works penned just by him, while the other two claimed to provide a working knowledge of African American and Women writers while only requiring us to read one work each by a few different folks. I had recently also come across the VIDA Count online, which is a yearly survey of published works, reviews, and journalistic bylines that aims to call attention to the gap between men and women in writing and media industries, along with the differences between races and gender identities.

As Yesenia and I talked about our own daily experiences as women, as well as our observations of the literary scene, we decided that we wanted to do something. We wanted to support other women and create a platform for the conversations we wanted to engage in. Basically, we wanted to do our part in helping to solving the problem the VIDA Count has called attention to, which I like to call “The Page Gap.”

Once you come up with an idea, you have to name it, and this step took us a while. We wanted something that sounded fresh, is memorable, and is non-gendered. Though we are a women’s magazine, we wanted a name that didn’t express this outright — the women we publish are involved in crucial conversations that cover a spectrum of ideas and topics, and we worried that using a gendered word in our branding would paint us into a box. We started thinking about the concept of “bringing stories to light,” and out of that discussion came Lumen. A lumen is a measurement of light that measures intensity in all directions, as it radiates from a source. This resonated with us. We were both feeling stuck and unproductive in our personal lives, and wanted to use this creative outlet inspire ourselves and others. We wanted to create something that radiated in all directions.

From that point, we created to-do list on top of to-do list. In fact, I think “write to-do list” was even an item I wrote down once. Though neither of us had ever done exactly what we were aiming to do with Lumen, we talked frequently about our goals and the kind of work we felt personally inspired by. We knew we had to draft a mission statement, make some contacts, build a website, and create a system to help us decide what to publish. We chipped away at this process piece by piece, first deciding to go with Submittable as a submission manager, then Squarespace to create a site, then building our social media accounts and writing our call for submissions.

After we had the groundwork, we got to work spreading the word. Because we live in different cities and don’t have much overlap in our social circles, we had a wide range of people to reach out to. We emailed MFA programs around the country and asked them to distribute our call for submissions among students. We posted our call for submissions on various Facebook groups. We personally contacted writers we admire to solicit submissions. Basically, we tweetedInstagrammedFacebooked, and emailed all over the internet. It was an intimidating process; as we got emails back that program directors and established writers were spreading the word about Lumen, we frequently felt overwhelmed. I remember thinking, “Wooo, okay. Now I guess I actually have to do this thing!”

Shortly after we released our website, submissions started coming in! We got about 25 submissions in the first few days alone, and it was invigorating for us to read the work we were getting. It felt like people were writing things specifically with the Lumen mission statement in mind. Word spread quickly, and we ended up with 179 submissions for our first reading period. On some days, when we’d get five emails about new submissions within the same hour, we would send each other messages tinged with anxiety. Because Lumen wasn’t the only thing we had going on in our lives, the looming time commitment of sorting submissions and building an issue sometimes felt like we’d bitten off more than we could chew. However, as luck would have it, Yesenia and I mostly experienced these feelings of anxiety on a staggered schedule; when one of us was feeling shaky, the other was feeling strong, and our communication was strengthened during this uncertain period. It was so validating to begin receiving work, especially with cover letters from writers who said they were excited about our website’s aesthetic and what we were attempting to do. The encouragement I received during this time, both from people excited about Lumen and from Yesenia, helped to rebuild some of the confidence I had lost in myself during the previous years.

The next few months were filled with texts, phone calls, and emails between Yesenia and me, discussing various pieces and writers until we decided on our final picks. I found Yesenia’s perspective to be invaluable during this process; as we discussed the various merits and weaknesses of each piece, we also learned each other’s strengths and pitfalls, and learned to either let the other take over with certain tasks or pick up some of the slack. Once we decided on the issue, I began looking for photographers and artists who might be interested in contributing work to accompany the text on our site. As someone who makes some of her money freelancing, this was a humbling process for me. We greatly value both our writers and artists, but we just don’t have a budget to pay for work right now. We don’t make any money from Lumen, and currently, we pay for the site and submission manager out of pocket. I was nervous to ask people for images that we couldn’t pay for, but I made it clear that our lack of budget doesn’t equal lack of respect. Our mission to create a beautiful space for the work of talented women, and the conversations that follow, seemed to resonate with those I reached out to. The responses I received from artists were astounding — so many people were excited about what we were doing and happy to work with us.

Rosemary Donahue (left) and Yesenia. Photo courtesy of Rosemary Donahue

Rosemary Donahue (left) and Yesenia. Photo courtesy of Rosemary Donahue

Yesenia and I talked to each other all day every day while we worked on the first issue. It was an emotional time for the both of us, as something we’d worked so hard to create was just about to come to fruition. It felt like we were making something important out of thin air. After Issue 01 went live, the response was overwhelming. The first day, we got nearly 1,500 hits on the site, and since then have averaged between 100-300 unique visits per day. We have decided to publish issues quarterly, with about 10-15 poems and 4-7 longer works. We have a blog section of the site, as well, that runs both on unsolicited submissions and collaborations with writers we’ve connected with during this process. Our mission is clear to anyone who visits our site; we have created a beautiful space that serves as a platform for crucial conversations and vibrant literature. Women come to Lumen to tell and read stories that span a range of emotions, experiences, and perspectives.

I am constantly inspired by the work of others, and find that my own production has increased greatly since starting Lumen — which is not necessarily what I expected, since the project does take a lot of care and time. Through the process of helping others fine-tune their pieces and develop ideas, I’ve developed a more distinct personal writing voice, which is conversational but direct. I have also learned some preferences and quirks I didn’t know I had; for instance, I hate the word “passion” when used in personal essay, it’s highly likely that I won’t even read poetry about whisky or cigarettes, and I prefer for stories to be told in past tense rather than as a memory in the present tense. By editing such a large volume of content and communicating with all of our writers, I’ve found the balance between editing to my own taste and leaving things mostly as writers submit them, with edits only for clarity instead of just for style. I have veered away from editing to my own style — and being a bit of a control freak — and have learned to give the writers more freedom.

I’ve found that making personal connections has been my favorite part of this process. My friendship with Yesenia has grown stronger as we’ve navigated the ups and downs of building something from nothing. My confidence in my own work has grown, along with my editing skills. The conversations and sense of community that we have created on our website and through social media have transcended the digital space and created real, solid friendships and connections. Above all, it has been affirmed for me that writers, editors, and publishers really do want to support each other — the Lumen contributors and the connections I’ve made through the outreach process inspire me daily, and we’re just getting started.

Rosemary Donahue is a writer and editor living in Brooklyn, NY. She is the EIC and co-founder of Lumen Magazine. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram as @rosadona; her personal website is rosemarydonahue.com