Thursday, July 5, 2012

Big Stories from Small Spaces

If you walked into my house and took a look around the living room, one of the first pieces of furniture you'd see would be the IKEA sofa.

You know the one. You probably own it. Everyone seems to own it. It's small; it's squat; it's most politely described as "functional." It has a wrinkled, stained slipcover hastily disguised with throw pillows and a big, rainbow-colored afghan. In short, this sofa is twentysomething furniture at its finest.

I'm telling you about this sofa because it also happens to be the place where my first book was born. When I wrote the first draft of Magic Marks the Spot, my husband and I were living in a loft apartment just big enough for two grad students and a few standard pieces of IKEA furniture. The room upstairs was my husband's workspace; the room downstairs (which was office, living room, kitchen, dining room, and entryway all in one) was my writing space. I had a tiny desk, but I hated it, so I mostly worked from the sofa. If I sat at one end, I could look out the window at the convenience store across the street; if I sat at the other end, I could glare at the dirty dishes in the sink.

Honestly, I wasn't crazy about this writing space. Because the sofa was not only my writing space but also my dinner-eating space, TV-watching space, and afternoon-napping space, sometimes I wouldn't move from it for weeks at a time. It wasn't exactly ergonomic, and my back hurt. I indulged in long, lazy daydreams about a writing room of my very own, with a big window and a big desk and a door I could close while I wrote. I told myself that no one could possibly write an entire book while sitting on an IKEA sofa. It was distracting; it was uncomfortable; it was (I suspected) not where Jonathan Franzen would sit if given the choice.

But I wrote the entire first draft of Magic Marks the Spot on that sofa, and I'm pretty sure you can't even tell.

About a month after I finished that first draft, my husband and I packed up our tiny apartment and moved to a new city and a new house. We bought a big, beautiful sofa that's truly comfortable. At last, we had a separate kitchen, dining room and living room, and we began to declare victory over our twenties. For me, the biggest victory was my new office: an entire room where I can read and write and imagine to my heart's content. It has a big window that looks out on a lawn populated by animals who've hopped straight out of a Beatrix Potter book. It has a big desk that used to serve as our kitchen table in our tiny old apartment. It has bulletin boards and calendars and bookshelves. I have a new ergonomically friendly chair, and my back no longer hurts. I can walk inside my office, close the door, and write. Maybe it's not quite my dream writing space--the door doesn't close all the way, and the carpet smells a little weird from previous generations of renters--but for now, it's pretty much bliss.

We parted with a lot of our old furniture when we moved, but I have to admit that we kept the IKEA sofa. It sits in our living room, far enough away from the newer, nicer sofa to keep it from feeling embarrassed. It gets great sun, especially in the mornings, and a few days ago I had to laugh at myself when I found myself curled up on it as I drafted my next book. Old habits die hard, I guess, and it doesn't really matter where you write; that sofa can transport you into the world of your story just as smoothly as your dream office can. Stories can come from anywhere, and they can be written nearly anywhere, too. The size of your apartment in no way limits the size of your imagination.

(But please, please, if you possibly can, get yourself an ergonomically friendly chair. You have a long writing career ahead of you, and you really don't want to mess up your back.)

Caroline Carlson grew up in New England and now lives with her husband in western Pennsylvania. She earned an MFA in Writing for Children from Vermont College of Fine Arts and is an assistant editor of VCFA's literary journal, Hunger Mountain. Caroline is represented by Sarah Davies at the Greenhouse Literary Agency, and her debut middle grade novel, MAGIC MARKS THE SPOT, will be published by HarperCollins Children's Books in Summer 2013. You can find her on Twitter and on her remarkably lazy blog.


  1. Love this, Caroline. I wrote the entire first draft of POINT on a queen-sized bed in my studio apartment in Chicago. So interesting to hear where our books were primarily written.

  2. Cool! I wrote much of LUMINANCE HOUR sitting on the floor in my studio apt in South Korea. I kept up the floor sitting trend until a merciful friend donated a nice writing desk to me about a year ago.

  3. Brandy and Ryan, that's great! It's so much fun to hear about stuff like that.

  4. You story hits close to home (particularly the need for an ergonomically beneficial chair...something I finally got about 3 months ago, after 10 years of writing in a tiny, college cast-off desk chair with a WOODEN back). Us writers can be a superstitious lot, I suppose, like upgrading our furniture will make us word-dumb. :) Thanks for sharing.

  5. Despite an abundance of other options, I always seem to find myself writing in bed or on a sofa! You're right: it's a recipe for ergonomic disaster.

    Three cheers for IKEA sofas, despite discomfort. Tell me, what was its name? Bjorn? Nils? I must know!

  6. Lamar, hooray for a new chair! Kristen, it's Klippan. But I should start calling it Nils; that's a much better name.

  7. Having seen your new writing space in your new city, I know how awesome it is. I could picture your place as I read this post. And the old IKEA sofa? I love the sunny nook where you've got it. To go back and forth from your ergonomically friendly chair to the big windows...? You couldn't ask for a more perfect apartment for writing...

  8. I loved this post, advice, nothing for me to make sure that I'm doing...just a girl and her couch! Thanks.