Archive: Reaching Out from a Messy Place, Lumin Journal #4 (Winter 2021/22)

When lockdown was announced in 2020, I was two weeks from a (postponed) manuscript deadline, so of course my immediate response was to turn my full attention to creating an editorial project. Culture Club continues, a year on, to post one writer responding to one cultural text, (about) once a week on Club des Femmes’ blog. Unfunded and fancy-free, Culture Club has taken our queer feminist film curation collective back to our various zine-making days, following passions and fitting together writers, topics and readers on the fly.

As I learned the shortcode for footnotes in WordPress and deep-dived into google searches for precisely the images to illustrate the pieces, I began to realise how bound up writing is for me with editing as a practice in my own work, something I’d forgotten since my zine-rich adolescence. It freed me up from my anxiety about having to write queer time linearly, so I came to write A Nazi Word for a Nazi Thing through collage (including more triumphant image searches) and montage – which itself became a key word in the book for how QUILTBAG and decolonial histories are assembled.

Writing thus helped me realised that what I loved and learned from editing others’ writing, of all scales and kinds, was this provisional and accountable freedom. Without the scaffolding of conventional rhetoric and argument, every choice has to be made consciously; ethically. The questions I found myself asking as an editor – and the ways I thought about how to ask them of unpaid contributors writing, often, about deep feelings – gave me a renewed way, at once more generous and more rigorous, to edit myself and to interact with my editors.

I’ve never been formally trained as an editor (except for one of those proofreading courses they advertise in the back of magazines), and I’ve rarely been paid for editing: student newspaper offices, micro poetry magazines and feminist journals were proving grounds, for both better and worse in terms of transparency, skills-sharing and internal politics. Those politics all too often included the persistent assumption that editing is learned on the job, which perpetuates the elitism of professional and commercial publishing. It’s located in the insidious belief, at least in Anglophone publishing culture, that editorial judgement and practices are matters of (white, upper/middle class, cis male) taste, and therefore (best) transmitted through family and education. The rest of us have to play catch-up.

When I found myself spontaneously committed (by an out-of-control) Facebook thread to editing a bilingual anthology of poems for Pussy Riot in 2012 (with Sarah Crewe and Marcie Burnhope), I found a community that helped me start to think that editing could be a change-making social and political practice in itself: one that might, inspired by Pussy Riot’s call to ‘be Pussy Riot wherever you are’, be a deliberate provocation and disruption of conventional editing through inviting in what was usually considered outside. Editing as a ‘punk prayer’ making a shared space for anyone excluded from other spaces, a space defined by naming then shouting down, rather than relying on, those conventions and what scaffolded them.

Gradually, through the work of those difficult, joyful conversations and decisions, it became clear that the back-and-forth of consensus-based working practices could themselves disrupt (or feel disruptive of) conventional hierarchies of publishing and labour. I came to revel in the way that self-aware collaboration can celebrate its messiness, the way it takes up time and space, pressing back against expectations of productivity; the way that skills-sharing, questioning, and listening cause the stakes of writing and editing to reveal themselves. What if, through the work of editing, we are able to come to think of the cycle of writing and reading (of which editing is a key part) as mutual aid: that is, as constantly, confidently offering and asking for help.

It was several months into lockdown when I remembered that, and could email an editor to say I needed help because I was ‘reaching out from a messy place’. It’s a cliché to say ‘because weren’t we all’, with our laundry and black mould and caring responsibilities and griefs on Zoom. Beyond the cliché, or around it, I had turned to editing and being edited as a shared space not just for collaborative creative practice, but to shape it through care. Culture Club is designed around asking contributors what they care about, and how they care about it; about how caring for a film or book or genre or artist helps them care for themselves and their world. An editorial exchange could blend into a confession-sharing, world-(re)building, feeling-cascade listening session: a great privilege to be part of.

The writers I was editing led the way. I was shielding, and at first that meant I was also shielding my emotions as a way to feel able to be in the world without crumbling. Editing then shaped being edited into one of the few places where I could feel like my messy self, like I understood (myself and the world through) the process, although its screen-based familiarity enlarged to become or encompass a way of living. Call it Track Changes as a way of seeing and being in the world: hanging out in the margins, cracking puns, tracing hidden histories, plotting revolution.

There was something more intimate than usual about sharing screen space – the only space I could share. Editorial attention felt close; not only the kind of close reading it can be at its best, but also a necessary tenderness. That in the collaboration (particularly with Sam Fisher, who edited A Nazi Word for a Nazi Thing) we were reaching for the openness on which that essay centres; for the world of consensual touch and trust that it celebrates. Infectiousness heightened my awareness of the body’s permeability; made me think ever more about its permeability to language, about my responsibility as a writer reaching out to touch with words, rhythm, emotion.

At any time, an editor is the first reader (or one of the first readers) who accepts that charge of being open to a writer’s language, of being connected and affected, of attending to the mechanisms of that connection so they can flow throughout a text. How much more intense that process became when everything felt alienated and fearful; overwhelming even, especially as resonances between the historical fascisms I was writing about and the present echoed eugenically. Editing, then, became about negotiating what I think of as a semi-permeability, a way to safely take in what we share with each other.

Working on queer, feminist and disability politics projects as an editor created an awareness of editing as an embodied practice: holding space for contributors, feeling what they brought to the work, supporting myself and my collaborators against burnout. It was strikingly different from working in academic, critical and journalistic settings, where white cis male editors prevailed, some of them bullies and abusers. For a long time, I’d pushed the effects of being edited away from my body; or rather, held my body tense, rigid, closed, such that I could repress those effects­ in the moment, only feeling them – displaced and self-blaming – later.

Feeling the edit in the moment is something messy. It makes the kind of space from which I could reach out to write this essay-in-conversation with some people who generously agreed to speak to me about editing, writing and publishing, including how it’s sometimes hard to see where one ends and the other begins. Multiple relations cascade through this piece, many of them mutual, where each of us has played the role of writer and editor in some form; there are old friends and new, some whom I met through online exchanges of work over the last year. Every interlocutor shared more thoughts than I could represent here; enough that I can see (and long for) a choral book about the radical potential of editing and being edited.

We need it: both because the ecosystem of micro-, small and indie publishing is currently vivid with mutual aid and extraordinary collectivity, and because it not exclusively practised as or premised on mutual aid. It can be exclusionary and hierarchical, not least because it is underfunded and thus social capital is at a premium. Equally, commercial publishing is full of visionary, generous editors who also negotiate the complexity of working within sometimes very large corporations whose values sit uneasily with what they publish. Financial necessity (that is: capitalism) and creative opportunity sometimes align, and sometimes are fissile, for both writers and editors.

Where there is less money, there is also often less time – and yet, in my experience (which is not universal), there is more will to practice an ethics of care there, to be transparent and accountable so that the writer-editor relationship can flourish, and, within it, language, meaning and feeling. That messy place takes its unshape from listening, which is an openness to (ex)changes: those that are trackable, and those that are intangible, but change you deeply in that other messy place from which the writing – and the editing – slowly arise.


Maybe it’s about embracing the space in between – the space that understands certainty to be a limit, an imposed frame. Collaborative processes are one way to resist the rigidity and limitations of the individual – resistance to this is necessary because fixity is also born of an imperative to own, to possess. Because our words and work is commodified, objectified, made into objects, so too the idea of meaning (as well as ownership) becomes paralyzed into one space. We can become people of words who understand themselves to be in dialogue with the world in its transience not in its fixity.

  • Elhum Shakerifar

The relationship between a writer and editor has always felt like a gentle dance: of words, of understanding, of exchange. I’m aware of the ways words and sentences bounce and rattle, their expressive hand movements. I see and hear their stops and starts, their pauses. When a piece of writing appears before me, I have to take all those things into consideration before I begin to edit. There’s a sense of adrenaline, and utmost care.

  • Vanessa Peterson

I essentially hope that people feel I’ve handled them and their work with utmost care. I really do think care should be at the forefront of everything we do anyway, but especially in the arts and education. Care for what people do and how they want to do it, in addition to respect for their time, needs, schedule and the various contexts from which they write.

  • Hannah Hutchings-Georgiou

What if instead of the blunt maneuvers of rejection or acceptance, editing became a kind of enabling? I’m thinking about how a rejection of work from a journal or magazine might not always be a rejection. What if being an editor was less anonymous and more about building relationships? I can’t always include all the great writing that I see, but I can find others ways to support those writers which relates to community building.

  • Zoe Brigley-Thompson

A really good editorial relationship is hard to establish with just one piece; ideally, I think, it builds up trust, you get to know each other in a strange way, even if you have never met. Although obviously antagonism is bad, and unproductive, I do think difficulty and even gentle conflict are very productive, if they’re coming from within a relationship that has established boundaries and, crucially, trust between both parties.

  • Helen Charman

What we’re really talking about is trust: the trust that it takes to put your work in the world, the trust that it takes to give your work to someone else and say please help me make this better. If you’re the kind of writer who is a listener as a researcher and a writer, then you’ll take on the editorial notes you’re given and hear them. Having someone read your work at that level is a real privilege, and there’s a real intimacy that comes with that. For me as an editor, feeling is the most important thing. Everything has to work in service of the creation of what you feel when you’re encountering it and then when you’ve finished reading it.

  • Preti Taneja

There is an author, but there is also language and what happens there, and that is beyond authorship for me. You can say that it’s text, it’s language, it’s totally rebellious to say that. Editing, the way I understand it, you’re getting to language and the nature of language; at this very core level, it’s about moving blocks around, which is labour, and you have to be trained and have talent. I have a gift for doing what I do, and I also worked for it. I give something to people that will give them pleasure, this is satisfaction from adding to knowledge, building community I believe in, building networks I believe in.

  • Ania Ostrowska

I like to have a conversation early on about the conditions and situation we’re working in, with a writer, and asking them about the situation that they’re in, trying to get it all out in a conversation at the beginning. It’s interesting to think about the hierarchies involved in the relationship, and a lot of that has a class element to it, in the publishing industry and magazine industry, both are extremely upper middle class. When I graduated from university, I asked someone who had an internship at a publisher, ‘what is publishing?’ I didn’t know it existed as a career, and I didn’t know anyone who worked in it. I didn’t know what an editor did. I feel like I’m harbouring this kind of secret, but maybe it’s important to retain a secret part of yourself.

  • Anna Coatman

I’m cleaning the flat and I’m thinking what do we do when we edit and everything seems like a political process. When we formularise the process and position of being a reader, maybe impose structures and ways of thinking about something that should be fundamentally unstructured, collectivise something that is individual. And surely, the political is in everything we do and when we believe – and hope – that by merely existing we can help an actuality: more queer writers writing within a sphere of mutual (publishing…editorial) care. That’s what a scene is surely, this collective cuddle.

  • Ellis K.

Reach out to other writers, as a writer: that’s one thing I have felt as a writer. Talk to other writers. A lot of editorial work happens there, in a mutual aid sense, and that also gives you a lot of resilience in coming to edits and editorial conversations, because you have a second opinion and strength, which is really fruitful for the relationship. Especially if you’re a new writer, confidence comes out of talking to other writers who can show you what’s happening in your work.

  • Sam Fisher

At school, editing was about correcting mistakes. But the idea that you could work like a painter, building something up through sketch after sketch as a cumulative, organic process – I had no idea that was possible until I read twelve drafts of W.B. Yeats’ ‘The Second Coming’. It was a revelation: that the first thing that comes out of you may not only not be the finished thing, but might bear no resemblance to the finished thing that comes after dozens, or even hundreds, of steps. This is the thing I try to communicate to kids when I talk to them about writing: every single element of what you’re working on can change in surprising ways – and that requires enormous patience.

  • S.F. Said


Patience – and openness. As readers we may be prepared to be touched: to be open to the text, the language, the world-building that make up – as Taneja says – the feeling of the encounter. As writers we are less often offered the experience – or the opportunity to think with the experience – of being open to readers’ touch, even semi-permeably. Hence, perhaps, the combative framing that persists around editing and criticism, as a way to limit the risky possibilities given the complexities of conversation under capitalism.

Editing and the editorial relationship, practised as mutual aid, can offer a potent and potential model of what that encounter might feel like: a suspended moment in which, as a writer, you are allowed to decide how to be open. In cultivating the messy place of drafting, asking, revising, refusing, revisiting, we might generate and speculate on the social, cultural and political circumstances could enable us to feel that openness to feeling in all our living.

Reaching out from a messy place is something that we may be more likely to experience when young, but that can be quickly discouraged by the test (and taste)-based strictures of colonial formal education. The sense of fixity that Said describes has political as well as personal import: a fixed text mirrors a fixed social order, and vice versa. Knowing that every single element can change in surprising ways, through collaboration and patience: that’s the radical possibility here; that we can, collectively, care-fully and discursively, edit the world.

In the meantime, one young writer and reader (one of my niblings) was inspired by one of Said’s lockdown workshops to write his own novel via Zoom whiteboard (he narrated and drew the pictures; I typed) – including a note to the reader. I think it speaks to any reader listening for how a text welcomes them – and perhaps to any writer warming up for that dance with an editor, whether it’s their internal editor or an external interlocutor. In the name of mutual aid, I’ve been given permission to say whoever needs it can use it freely.

This book is just the draft but it might be the proper one if everyone likes it! Thank you for reading.

— Freddie Levy

This essay, too, is – in the best sense, a discursive sense arising from a dozen conversations with editors and writers – just a draft in which I continue learning a practice of writing and research as a form of listening. Thank you for listening with me.