Kristen Arnett and Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya on Sharing a Writing Space
Neither of us has dated another writer—we both said we wouldn’t. Part of our hesitation had to do with very literal questions of how to share space.
KKU: For me, before we met, I had two spaces I wrote in exclusively: in bed or on-the-go anywhere. That was a product of having roommates in every city I’ve lived in (New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, to name a few—I move a lot) and not really having a lot of space. The only space I had to myself was my bedroom, and my bed was most of the room. I would go through a lot of periods where I didn’t necessarily need or want to write in isolation, so I would go out and about. And I didn’t have my one special coffee shop or anything like that. It was truly anywhere. I must have written my web series I wrote years ago in a dozen different locations in Chicago—restaurants, bookstores, bars where I sat by myself and wrote. I’ve never been too picky about noise or movement. I tend to like it. But the two spaces I wrote in were basically complete opposites—alone in my bed with the door closed or out in the world, surrounded by people..
Before we lived together and before the pandemic—which are basically the same timeline because we moved in together after being long distance about two months before the pandemic started—we found ourselves in situations where we needed to be writing in the same, often small space. This was before sharing a small space became a given, constant part of our reality.
KA: We spent a lot of time in hotel rooms or at restaurants, but mostly in hotel rooms. It was interesting to me, because I’ve also never had trouble writing in places where things are loud and people are doing things. Oftentimes, I need background noise. So much of Mostly Dead Things I wrote when I was working at a job at a different library where on my lunch break, if I wanted to be working on it, I was in an open office where I’d have to be listening to a lot of things going on around me. But I also grew up in a home where I didn’t have a room of my own and I couldn’t read alone, so I had to learn to tune things out. Writing took on that same capacity. I almost feel like if there’s not some sort of ambient noise in the background then it feels too quiet to me and I start making my own noise. I’ll start talking to myself or I’ll talk to you or I’ll talk AT you. When we were traveling before we lived together, there were things I had going on with very specific due dates, essays coming out, short work, interviews. So I was working on these deadlines when we were in these small rooms together, either working in bed beside each other or one of us on the other side of the room, curled up at a desk. That’s not really something I’d ever done before, writing in a hotel room with another person.
KKU: Even though we both like to have people bustling around us and sound happening when we’re writing, neither of us had ever had to be in a situation where we’re writing in close proximity to someone else who’s also writing and who we’re intimate with. It’s different than co-working.
And then the first place we lived together, the first place we quarantined in, was a loft in Las Vegas with … no rooms. No doors other than on the bathrooms. But the transition into writing all the time in an enclosed space together wasn’t as drastic as it may have been for other people, because we’d already been doing it to a certain degree, and we found our rhythms with each other right away. I’m surprised we never even needed to have a conversation about what we want or need while writing. We just started doing it and figured it out.
KA: The hardest thing to me about writing in the Vegas loft wasn’t the lack of doors or your presence. The thing that was the hardest for me at the time was just … making anything happen on the page. I could have been in the most amazing writing space all to myself and I wouldn’t have been able to work because of how my brain was feeling. Any writing complications or problems I had were centered on what was going on in the world and how I was coping with that.
KKU: I won’t say a writing space has no effect on my writing, but if I’m struggling to write, it has little to do with the space. If I’m writing a lot, it also probably has little to do with the space—with one recent exception. There was a period last winter when I brought a space heater into my office and cranked it up, because even though it was Miami “winter,” our building didn’t have heat, and I was legitimately cold. And something about that artificial intense heat, the smell of it even, just immediately took me back to my college dorm room in Ann Arbor, which was a time in my life when I wrote a lot of short stories, like a whole short story in a day. And I was able to access that sort of productive fervor because of those sense memories.
KA: One thing I do think about a lot is that I do better work when I’m in a space where I can see outside. I want to be able to see an outdoor space that feels very green and vibrant and alive, that makes me feel like I’m touching outside of the hard blankness that’s inside of my computer. Staring at a Word document and trying to manufacture creativity in a way makes my brain feel dumb. But seeing something outside, very close and near to me, is a helpful way to work.
KKU: Now we live in a place in Miami where we have separate writing spaces. When we were moving into this apartment, we figured out that I would work in the guest bedroom/office and you would work at the dining room table, which at first you thought would work well because of the big window. But we moved into this place knowing it was going to be temporary, and I think that impacted the way you felt writing here.
KA:For me, I’m just struggling. Some of that is because I’m in a limbo space. So when I sit down to write, my brain often says no and I won’t make anything that day. II I’m interested to see what it’s like with us moving back to Orlando soon. It’s a place where writing has been very fruitful for me.
KKU: And we’ll be on the ground level, ideally. I think you thought you’d get more out of writing in a space like our current living room with that big window, because yes, it’s a great view. But it’s not on the ground. You’re not seeing those things—the things falling out of trees, the lizards scurrying. We’re twenty floors up.
KA: We also don’t get the weather that I got in Orlando. What it’s like to be in the middle of a thunderstorm, what it’s like to hear it and see it around you, that doesn’t happen anymore in the place we’re at. I sit at the kitchen table, and I feel like I’m waiting for something else to happen.
Neither of us have had to do this before, this intentional sharing of writing space with someone we are in a relationship with.
KKU: Though we’re working in the same space, we are separate, too. I’ll close my door sometimes, but not often. And that’s usually not for my creative writing, it’s for my day job as an editor. So there aren’t these hard lines between our writing spaces, and we come into each other’s writing spaces throughout the day.
KA: Me more often than you. I’ll admit that right now. It’s me doing that more often than you. But when we’re both very engaged in our work, the physical door doesn’t have to be closed for the door to be closed. We’re invested in what we’re doing and we’re not really listening to what’s going on around us when we’re making something, and I recognize when you’re doing that, because it’s something I do, too, though not as much recently.
KKU: Neither of us have had to do this before, this intentional sharing of writing space with someone we’re in a relationship with. Neither of us has dated another writer; we both said we wouldn’t. I think part of our hesitation to do it had to do with very literal questions of how do we share space. I do know other writer-writer couples who have to have more physical separation. For me, some interaction between us during the day acts as an implied accountability partnership. I see you working, so I want to work, too. Or we’ll chat quickly about writing or share a sentence from the book we’re reading. We’re not intense about it. If we want to say how much we wrote that day, we do, but we’re not asking each other for a word count or turning it into some sort of competition.
KA: Being with another writer has also shown me the ebb of flow of what creative work can look like. Sometimes one of us will be on a spurt with creative work while the other is doing less, and those things change and shift like a tide.
KKU: And we don’t line up very well! And I don’t think that has anything to do with each other. It’s just a weird coincidence that when one of us is writing a lot, the other usually is not.
KA: I feel like I’m in transition. Before this year, I would have had a very concrete answer to “here’s what my writing space is and here’s what I get out of it.” Right now, I don’t have a concrete writing space, and I don’t get a lot out of what I’m doing.
KKU: Meanwhile, this is the most stable my physical writing space has been. It’s my first time living without roommates. I feel more rooted.
KA: And it’s going to change again, because we’re about to move. It was different in Vegas, it was different living without you, and I think moving into a new space literally in the next two weeks means my creative brain will change again. And I think that’s good. I think a stagnant brain is a brain that can’t be creative. I need to be in a new space to be thinking about what it looks like to write again with a lot of intention and a lot of fervor. Because I think a lot of drive has been missing in this specific space. This has been a really enlightening conversation, because I hadn’t even thought about the fact that I’ve been up twenty floors in this apartment. It’s not a creative space that speaks to me. I feel without roots. I’m a dying air plant.
KKU: You’re literally not grounded. Something we definitely share is preferring a dynamic, constantly changing work environment.
KA: The thing I need the most is seeing outside and being present with the outdoors. I do have a pen I like to write with. The things that feel the most tangible to me in terms of routine are that I use a Word document, I write in twelve-point font, single spaced, in Times New Roman, and I need to have a title. Those are the only things I need for myself in terms of “a space,” really. Because that’s all I ever had in other places. So much of the creative work I’ve done was inside of libraries and on work computers and during breaks, but also during work hours. What can I control? I can’t control what’s in the room around me or who’s around me, but I can control how the Word document looks, and I can control that it’s saved with a title first. I can control that. That’s the room, and that’s all I need.
Kristen Arnett is the author of With Teeth: A Novel (Riverhead Books, 2021) and the NYT bestselling debut novel Mostly Dead Things (Tin House, 2019) which was a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award in fiction. She is a queer fiction and essay writer and she lives in Florida. Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya is a lesbian writer of essays, fiction, and pop culture criticism. She is an upcoming fellow for Lambda Literary's Writer's Retreat for Emerging LGBTQ Voices. Her work appears or is forthcoming in McSweeney's Quarterly Concern, The Cut, Vice, Autostraddle, and Catapult.