Ass In Chair. Well, sort of….

by Alexandra Sokoloff

So this is me in my office.

HAH.    Nobody really believed that, right?   I didn’t think so.

Your first clue is – I’m dressed.   How often does that happen?   Not bloody often.   Second, books belong on the floor or under the bed, not neatly lined up behind glass.   (Who has glass bookcases anyway?   People with full-time housekeepers, or too much time on their hands, that’s who.).    Third, I’m in a chair.   Sitting up.   Granted, it’s a very lovely chair, but if I actually wrote like this it would mean that all my best ideas would be draining down into the floor, not to mention what it’s doing to my back. 

But we’ll get to my ergonomic theories in a minute.

The photo isn’t a total sham, actually – it’s a place I do write, and write exceptionally well, the Weymouth Center in Southern Pines, a writers’ retreat where I go a couple times a year with my fabulous NC writing posse, and the real-life haunted mansion on which I based the haunted house in THE UNSEEN.

But this is really where I write:

Yes, a couch.   Lying down on it, with my Mac Air on my lap  (which can get really hot, I haven’t worked that out, quite).   I do the requisite eight hours, give or take, of Ass In Chair, only with me it’s Back On Sofa.    On a very difficult day it will be Back In Bed (writing, not sleeping).   I do this because it doesn’t feel so very much like working that way, because it’s easier to keep the cats off the keyboard, and especially to protect my back.   Let me clarify that I don’t have a bad back.   In fact I haven’t had a single back problem for at least ten years.   But I am pretty sure I don’t have back problems because I’ve been lying down to work for the last ten years.   Writing for as many hours a day as a professional writer has to write is VERY hard on anyone’s back; there are whole seminars on the issue.   We all find our ways of coping; mine is to keep my spine relatively aligned throughout my work day.

And the couch thing could actually have something to do with my very first impressions of the writing life being old episodes of The Dick Van Dyke show, in which  – when he wasn’t pacing – Rob Petrie was always lying on that couch in the office as they worked.   (I had a hard time with Rose Marie always doing the typing and getting the coffee; I deliberately can’t make a decent cup of coffee or operate a stove to this day.   I did seem to pick up her dating habits, however.).    As a matter of fact, if you look at just about any old movie about screenwriters you will mostly see them musing while lying on couches, usually (if male) tossing an old tennis ball idly up in the air, whereas authors in movies tend to sit at desks hunched over typewriters (and they don’t outline, either, they just put a blank sheet in the roller and start typing CHAPTER ONE.   Yeah, right….).  

Hmm.   Maybe these movie depictions are why screenwriters get no respect.

Anyway, my couch is in my living room, and there are actually two, matching, and I go back and forth between them, because variety is the spice of life, and sometimes I sit for a while at a café table (not in a café) with high stools to accommodate my legs, also in the living room.  

On one wall where I can always see it, or sense it, is this painting by my mega-talented sister Elaine.  


The painting is called L’Esprit de L’Escalier (a phrase I’m sure at least Zoe knows well and one which pretty much describes the core impulse to write, if you ask me. )    And the painting to me encapsulates the writing process; I never get tired of looking at it.

And on another wall, one of Elaine’s drawings:  a corner on the north side of the Berkeley campus featuring the late Rather Ripped Records.  



There’s something about the manic energy of this piece that puts me right back in the manic energy of Berkeley, very useful for writing.

And of course I have index cards up on structure grids everywhere, some on tables, some on the wall.  This one is sticky Post Its on a white board:


I’m working on three projects at once right now so I’ve completely taken over two tables and a wall in the dining room (who needs to eat?).   

This is another one of my favorite writing spots:  

I know, it’s weird, but I write really, really well on planes – I can get a solid two days work in during a cross-country flight.    Unfortunately I don’t write so well in hotel rooms, but research trips are always magical and staggeringly productive for me, and as any one of us can tell you, that’s just as much writing as anything.

I know, now you want photos of cabana boys (see comment section of Stephen’s post, which somehow took on a life of its own.  Sorry, Steve…).   But I’d much rather you post suggestions of cabana boys for me, with current contact information and typing speed, thanks…

Cabana boys aside, I have to say I have found this week of sharing workspaces more interesting than I possibly could have imagined. One thing I absolutely love about my author friends and the author life is that we all know EXACTLY what we all are doing, work-wise, at any given moment.  The business side of it, the sales, will be different for all of us at different times.  But the writing process?  How we spend 8-10 hours or more of every day?   We know intimately what all of us are doing – writing is writing, and we all live it, every day.   It is overwhelmingly, as Rob posted, in our heads.  

But a glimpse of these little personal quirks – how and where we sit, or lie down, in isolation or in public, as all this massive STUFF is going on inside our brains… or to put it another way, how we get that door to that alternate universe to open up inside us – has been really touching to me.   I can’t wait to read more – and hear more from YOU all about the inside/outside thing, your workspaces, everything.

Finally, I’d like to send love and sympathy to the families and friends of those lost on 9/11 and in all senseless wars.   Peace, Peace, Peace.


49 thoughts on “Ass In Chair. Well, sort of….

  1. Billie

    How do you position the laptop while lying flat?

    I'm in a motel room right now and need to find a comfortable way to work. My lap is a really long way from my eyes lying flat! Typing this on iPad which I can hold up close, but am switching to laptop for working…

  2. Cornelia Read

    Alex, my sofa sister… this is so perfect! I've taken to writing while lying down this year, either in my bed or on my sofa (all hail IKEA.)

    I'm so glad that first photo was a fakeout, although I really like that chair. And of course you look gorgeous.

    GREAT post!!

  3. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Billie, the trick is a lot of pillows. First, you have to prop your head and shoulders up to the right angle. Then you MUST have a pillow, not too big, under your knees to compensate for the lumbar curve (in other words, you need to have the small of your back flat, not arched upward as it tends to do when you're lying down. The pillow under your knees will give you a good angle for the laptop, too, and then you need to increase your text size, sounds like.

    On a couch you can also compensate for your spinal curve by putting your feet up on the armrest.

  4. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Cornelia, why am I not surprised?

    It sounds incredibly slothful, but honestly, what's the difference between sitting up in a chair all day and typing… and lying down on a couch all day and typing?

    Work output is equal but the comfort level couldn't be more different.

  5. Zoë Sharp

    Great post, Alex! And it is wonderful being able to spend half a day thinking of an instant witty comeback for your protag, isn't it?

    I suffered from the heat thing as a result of working with a laptop on my knees, and discovered that having a clipboard under the laptop solves the problem – and doesn't blog up the laptop's internal cooling fan. Good for the winter, though…

  6. Grace

    Wonderful post! My circulation is cut off at the knees once I sit for more than 4 hours at the desk – I'm off to buy huge pillows and try the bed thing. I agree, your sister is super talented, loved her paintings. So much in one family….

  7. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Grace, yes, pillows in bed. We might as well take our perks where we can get them.

    And I'm so glad you responded to Elaine's paintings. She's amazing – and writing a novel now – I might as well just hang it up right now.

  8. Billie

    Oh, thank you for detailing. As soon as the maid service comes by and makes up the beds I'm going back inside and set up with pillows for the afternoon! For now I'm having coffee on the big porch listening to the rain. Love the paintings and your couch.

  9. Brett Battles

    I cannot even imagine trying to write lying down. The thought never even crossed my mind. Hmmm…

    LOVE your sister's work. Can understand why they have a place of honor on your walls.

  10. Debbie

    Alex, I wasn't even going to mention cabana boys, although admittedly I was combing the background of the photos looking for them! I absolutly love that you posted your white board with post its-helps me understand the process you mention in your blog and confirms that I understood the layout. So the colours? I know you use them for suspense, romance…. What colour is what?
    Your sister's writing too? that's wonderful I'll bet your parents are delighted! <bg> Btw, I agree with Cornelia about that first picture

  11. Dudley Forster

    Lie down. Start writing. Mind wonders. Nod off. Laptop falls to floor – crack. No way could I write lying down. I can’t read lying straight on my back either. Side yes, back no. And my cat, who’s huge, would jump up on the laptop and my dog, who’s small, would jump up and drop his ball on my face until I played with him. Yes, my back has paid the price for years of working at a desk. I need to get a Herman Miller chair. My daughter takes the opposite approach, she has a standup workstation, not sure how that works, but I am sure it’s a tool of the Inquisition. I’m a bit disappointed, I wanted to see the index cards lying all over the floor w/ the cat. 🙂

    How do you write on a plane? I’d always think the guy next to me was looking over my shoulder, which I can’t stand. I love the painting and agree this peek into each writer’s world has been fascinating.

  12. JT Ellison

    Alex, that's a gorgeous sofa – I see how comfy it must be. But I must admit – that top photo would be a great jacket pic for you – so embodies the idea of "writer". I'm experimenting with writing lying down today. Your sister's pieces are great too – does she show anywhere?

  13. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Brett and Dudley, word of warning with the lying down thing for men – and you know I love you guys – but you do have this uncanny ability to fall asleep ANYWHERE. I can't even nap, so that's never been a problem for me.

  14. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Dudley, sorry, I know index cards on floor with cats would have been a great pic, but have you ever tried to get a cat to do what you want it to, especially in a photo sense?

    I've heard of the standup workstation solution but isn't that just hard on the knees or ankles?

    And the plane thing – no worries about seatmates reading what I write – on planes I write longhand and even >I< couldn't possibly read my writing.

  15. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Debbie, honestly, I've never been able to carry out a color scheme with index cards for very long. There's just too much that goes into each scene. But it IS useful to use one separate color for suspense scenes, because I can look over the whole layout and see where I don't have enough suspense. You can do that for sex, comedy, action scenes, whatever genre you're writing in.

  16. Debbie

    "…sex, comedy, action scenes…." Interesting combination. And those couches, are your cats declawed? I'm assuming this is your new place-beautiful.

  17. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    I can't imagine writing while lying on my back. I'd love to try it out, because I do get an aching back, especially since I have a herniated disc down there. But I think I'd fall asleep in the lie down position. I usually fall asleep in the sitting position as I write, too. Most cafe patrons have seen me snoring with my mouth wide open. Hey, it happens.
    I love your sisters art. And I get the same sense of excitement from the drawing of the Berkeley record store.
    And how can you write on a plane? When I try I get the guy in front of me going into full recline position, nearly snapping my laptop in half.

  18. Jude Hardin

    "…and they don’t outline, either, they just put a blank sheet in the roller and start typing CHAPTER ONE. Yeah, right…"

    It's what I do. 🙂

    The lying down thing sounds great. Too much time in a chair definitely kills my back.

  19. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Steve, I thought you'd like that one. A cross between beat, punk, grunge and funk, as any good record store should be.

    HOW IS AMSTERDAM??? It's been ages since I've been there.

    Oh, and the plane thing – I don't use my laptop on planes, too awkward. I write longhand. It impresses the hell out of everyone around me.

  20. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Jude, I hope you're kidding about "Chapter One"…

    Funny how the lying down writing is news to some of you. Maybe it really is a screenwriter thing. Check out William Holden on the couch in LOVE IN THE AFTERNOON.

  21. Dudley Forster

    Debbie & Alex – I don’t like the idea of declawing cats, but you can get little plastic covers for the claws. . And keeping comments on topic on this blog is like herding cats.

    Alex – When you said, “they just put a blank sheet in the roller and start typing CHAPTER ONE. “ You were talking about screenwriters, right? My knowledge of screenwriting would fill an index card, but isn’t structure God? Not many pantsers? Oh and I loved the Dick Van Dyke Show, Buddy had some of the best lines.

    Men Unite! Let’s all go take naps.

  22. Billie

    I'm trying the lying down thing and my back feels great-but I must not be doing the pillows right because my neck is aching. It might also be me tensing in the upper back. My bad habit.

  23. Alexandra Sokoloff

    No, no – it's always the authors in films who sit down at their desks, roll a sheet of paper into their Underwoods, (or call up a blank screen) and start typing Chapter One.

    The screenwriters lie around on couches tossing tennis balls up in the air. Or… well, no, I'm not going to get into ADAPTATION.

  24. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Billie, you have to experiment, but my guess is that you need to arrange it so that your upper body is supported by your shoulders, not your neck.

    And yes, I was a personal trainer for a while, by accident.

  25. Debbie

    Will you ostracize me if I tell you that I got a computer with unfamiliar software, clicked open blank document and began writing…or would that occur if I actually get published? Do I get any brownie points for sort of plotting my second MS according to your blog Alex?
    Dudley, my cats aren't declawed either although I clip their claws weekly. I wasn't passing judgement though (sorry if I came across that way), just curious as to how Alex keeps the couch looking so new. Plastic caps hmm…where do I find them and do they actually work?

  26. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Oh, Debbie – you know that my first and really only rule of writing is WHATEVER WORKS.

    The new couch look is the benefit of a wide shot, and Murphy's Oil Soap, which is surprisingly good on furniture as well as floors. I often procrastinate by cleaning, just don't ask me to cook. In a close shot – you'd see plenty evidence of feline presence.

  27. pari noskin taichert

    Another fab post today. And, yes, Alex . . . tell your sister to start showing again. You're right about the energy in her pieces — and the unique world view evident in how she portrays her subjects.

    Man oh man I wish I could organize my works in those beautiful white boxes with post its. Wow. I admire my writer friends who work this way.

    Me? I'll just light a candle and rub Ganesha's belly and hang on for the ride.

  28. Elaine Sokoloff

    Loved this blog, Alex! And to all who have made such lovely comments about my paintings, I am really moved.

    I haven't been showing in quite some time, which I know is kind of criminal, but I literally sold all of the art I had available for sale, either privately or through galleries mostly in southern and norhern California. (Alex is my most major collector, and I hope that doesn't predict a life of madness and darker things like in the Vincent/Theo dynamic!) My last big project was a full room mural.

  29. Debbie

    Alex, are you really going to waste the cabana boy on the cats? I didn't expect that you'd have him holding THEM down…. So, A Wrinkle In Time? Book or movie first-I'm either watching that or On the Waterfront tonight.

  30. Robert Gregory Browne

    I wrote my third book entirely in bed on a little netbook. It was a great way to write, especially near the end, when I was in deadline crunch mode. Write a few hours, pass out. Write a few more hours, pass out. It worked out quite well.

    Not sure how you do the plane thing, though. Too distracting for me. Especially if there's a kid crying. I'm usually sitting right in front of him. And when he isn't crying, he's kicking my seat.

  31. Catherine

    Alex I'm glad someone has mentioned backs. I've been wondering if anyone ever seems to get up and stretch sometime throughout these hours of work.

    I developed move about often work habits after a car accident. It took me a while to finish my degree because I was having so many back spasms. Then I realised that I can work (academically) in cafes with notebooks, usually with the sun on my back, and then switch to home, ( at my desk, at my dining table, on my verandah). I'm currently trying to transfer my cafe notebook habits to outlining. It's probably the closet I'll get to having my own cabana boy…having a barista bring me my coffee in the sun.

    I'm giving the couch a try out too with your cushioning suggestions. I was a bit wary of the lure of my couch as I started writing there one night and looked up about 5 hours later. Neck stiff, back a little tender . I did feel productive, but I'm trying to look at developing sustainable work habits here.

    Which is part of why I'm enjoying seeing so many different ways to work here. The other part is probably just being nosy. Again thanks for sharing.

  32. Dudley Forster

    Alex – Have you read all the books in L’Engle’s Time Quartet? All this discussion has made me want to go back and reread them.

  33. Eve

    Okay, this is good–this lying down to write, but doesn't it end up killing your neck? I have a very long neck, and a heavy head (lots of brain?). It's my neck that has a fit after a day of writing.

  34. inkgrrl

    I gotta try more pillows – that sounds fab. We have lots of recliners around here, but that's not always enough to get off my neck (bad neck).

  35. Gayle Carline

    I actually lay in bed all day while I dictate my stories to Paolo, my cabana boy, who wears black leather and – Okay, I'm so lying. I write all over my house. I guess the only two places in my house I HAVEN'T written in are the bathrooms (um, no), and my son's room (smell teenager – um, double no). Even when I'm sitting at a desk/table, my feet are propped up on something. (Mostly because I'm so short, my feet don't touch the floor when I sit in a chair.)

  36. M.J. Rose

    Alex – we're twins – me too with the laptop and feet up on the couch with a million pillows behind my back. A doctor told me fifteen years ago I'd never have neck/shoulder/back problems this way b/c you don't stress anything when you don't lift your hands, arms etc. And get a lap table to how to solve the heat problem (I have the same computer)

  37. Shizuka

    Do you actually lay down with your head almost flat (just propped up on a pillow) or sort of half sit with lots of pillows against the back and the head and knees bent to form a writing space. I tried laying on the couch today and had a hard time seeing what I was writing.

    Or maybe not seeing what you're writing is a way to beat down the inner critic?

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