Creating a Literary Magazine – During a Pandemic
Updated: Dec 22, 2020
Even before COVID happened, before graduation was on the horizon, one phrase refused to leave my head every time I went into my previous literary magazine's office, every time I attended a meeting, every time I pointed out a comma to remove that everyone else disagreed with: This can’t end. For all of the stress, all of the drama, all of the comma disagreements, working in a literary magazine proved a magical experience, right out of a YA novel. There were wise, retired mentors; fights, some bloody and some petty; and a feeling of coming together as all of the bad washed away when we finally saw a finished result in front of us: a completed volume. I wanted to stay in the moment forever, but how could I? Most of us were graduating, maybe even enrolling in an MFA program if we could be so lucky, and once COVID hit, any chances to come together once more, to start planning something new, crumbled away. Though I've had acquaintances who were able to launch their own magazine, repeating such a task seemed unrealistic and redundant.
My first thought was to stay with the old magazine. A year of experience taught me plenty of dos and don’ts for a literary magazine, and I was bursting with ideas I’d like to implement. It wasn’t like I’d leave Houston anyway, once I was summarily rejected from each graduate school I’d applied to, but shortly after graduation, I was told in no uncertain terms that my ideas didn’t have a place with what the magazine was to become. That was the go-ahead I needed, and that’s what brings me to the first step of creating a brand-new literary magazine from the ground up: you need an idea.
Is hierarchy even necessary for a magazine (if at all)? Perhaps such a question is hypocritical coming from me, since my position is editor of Space City Underground, but this question is what led to the magazine’s existence. I had only one goal in creating this magazine: to break away from norms and do something different, something where everyone felt their ideas were of equal value. No executive veto, no single person’s direction or vision, just complete collaboration. Of course, this was something I couldn’t do alone, which led to my quickly realizing the second step: you need a team.
The team doesn’t have to be big. Initially, Space City Underground was a joint idea held by the other former managing editor I worked with, shortly before we added a third member, Ros, yet another former staffer we worked with (you might notice a theme here). We jointly decided to focus on uplifting LGBTQIA* voices, which quickly expanded to voices of all minority groups, anyone who’s experienced any form of oppression and wants to get something out there. However, this was where we experienced the first real hurdle: stagnation. We had an idea and knew where we were going, but without a plan, we spent several months running in circles, trying to figure out what to do next. Obvious as this next step may seem, it’s true, and we perhaps would’ve launched months earlier had I heeded it: you need a concrete, realistic plan.
Eventually, we stopped moving in circles when we split off to recruit other staffers. The people I recruited had also been staffers I'd worked with who had either graduated or left for their own purposes. It took some time to get our initial team together, but shortly before our first meeting, my partner, whose schedule had suddenly ballooned into something nearly unmanageable, had to step back. I had my worries about cancelling the entire thing, letting it die out. Surely no one was interested anymore anyway after how long even scheduling one group meeting had taken. I had a panicky call with Ros, who reassured me and listened to my ideas before the meeting, and everything continued smoothly despite the sudden shake-up. It would’ve been easy to simply give up and call it a day, especially with how much work was ahead of us, but one thing kept me going, perhaps the single most important step here: you (and your team) need to be committed.
And fortunately, we all were. Despite the delays, everyone was still excited to jump in. A decentralized magazine, despite my having no references to compare it to, went over well, and everyone had ideas for how to run their sections they were excited for. We started branching out more, and the decentralized aspect helped more than anyone could’ve anticipated; under the thought that you get out as much work as you put in, we all took up jobs that needed to be done and worked in our specialty areas, allowing everything to come together in a nearly stress-free manner, all without everything falling on any one person. Sure, I might be labeled the editor, but it’s almost entirely a ceremonial role meant to ensure everything runs smoothly in the startup before I can be absorbed into a section or two post-launch. I have no more power or say than anyone else. If I have an idea that’s outvoted, that’s that, but no one holds the power to veto anything, and everything is the subject of group discussion.
There were other issues, of course: building (and paying for) a website, social media, getting the word out, and just making sure Space City Underground can carve out its own niche. We’re not here to step on the toes of any of the other literary magazines in Houston. We’re here because we’re creatives who want to help showcase and spotlight other creatives, because this started out as a fun project that’s turned into so much more, because we’re all targeted by the system somehow, and we want to say , hey, this is our story. We’ve all come together to help each other with every hurdle, especially once we realized how difficult buying and maintaining a website would be, and word of mouth is a powerful tool for spreading an idea we’re all excited about. The decentralized aspect has been instrumental, and I’m not sure it would’ve been possible with a traditional hierarchy. In fact, I’m convinced now, more than ever, that decentralization should be the ideal moving forward.
In true YA fashion, this ending may be corny and perhaps a bit cliché, but is that not the appeal? We haven’t had the drama, which is probably for the best, but otherwise, working on Space City Underground, from conception to launch, has absolutely been out of a YA fantasy. Because above all else, the single most important thing about Space City Underground, about creating a literary magazine in the middle of a pandemic, something I think drives the entire team, is that for all of the hurdles, as long as you can get a team excited for and committed to an idea, you can overcome any hurdle. A decentralized magazine, one without any hierarchy, never seemed like more than a pipe dream that came up in brief discussions as a hypothetical, but here we are, officially launching, and the team couldn’t be more excited.