Empty Desk Syndrome

by Tess Gerritsen

Last week, I turned in my final edits for for THE SILENT GIRL, my next Rizzoli & Isles novel.  Now I’m just waiting for the copy editor to bounce it back to me in the next few days.  In the meantime, I’ve written the acknowledgments page, gathered together my research notes and manuscript drafts in a box for storage, and cleared off my desk.  That empty desk surface is something I haven’t seen in over a year.  It’s been covered for so long in papers, notes, reference books, and general clutter that I’d forgotten that there actually is a desk underneath it all, a nice desk made of cherrywood.  For the last few days I’ve been enjoying how tidy it looks, but I’m also feeling a bit lost.  After a year of fiercely obsessing about the book, suddenly it’s finished and been sent into the world like a kid finally off to college.

I’m suffering from empty desk syndrome.

For the past year I’ve lived in a near-constant state of anxiety about the story.  I’d startle awake in the middle of the night thinking I’d never get this thing written.  I’ve had moments of stomach-churning self-doubt, wondering how I’d explain to my agent and editor that my writing mojo had vanished.  On the few vacations we took last year, I could never really relax because I knew I’d have to return home and wrestle with the beast.  I couldn’t leave the job behind; it was always with me, nagging me that I had only six months left till deadline… five months … one month…

Then, somewhere around draft #3, the troublesome manuscript seemed to snap into shape.  The plot, the characters, the motivations all crystallized.  I polished the final manuscript (draft #5) and emailed it off.  A few days later came the happy phone calls from editor and agent.  The book was done, everyone was delighted, and it was time to celebrate. I did, with dinner out and a few glasses of wine.

But now comes the postpartum readjustment.  When you’ve lived for months with stress hormones circulating in your bloodstream, when you’ve forgotten what it’s like to take a weekend off, it’s hard to reenter normal life.  Now when I wake up, I still feel the usual jolt of anxiety, and then I remember: The book’s done! You can relax!  My husband says it’s weird having me in the here and now for a change.  For the past few days I’ve lingered over the morning newspapers, surfed the web, and finally tackled the towering stack of galleys waiting to be read.  I had my hair cut.  I’m listening to Italian language tapes.  I signed up for archery lessons.  And I’m wandering the house feeling untethered because I’m not sure what to do with myself.

And …  I’m coming down with a cold.  It happens every single time I turn in a book.  When stress suddenly evaporates, the body says: “Your job’s done.  You’re allowed to get sick now.”  So, right on time, I woke up this morning with a headache and sore throat.  But what luxury to be able to recuperate at leisure.      

21 thoughts on “Empty Desk Syndrome

  1. Jessica Scott

    What a completely appropriate post for me today. I'm actually coming off empty screen syndrome. I haven't written in nearly 4 weeks. I've been stuck, sitting at the bottom of the well, unable to find the words to start on the next project. The anxiety you describe of the words hanging over your head was reversed for me: there were no words. Part of it had to do with my agent pulling back on a project I'd spent months working on. Part of it had to do with my husband deploying to Iraq for his 4th tour. But at the end of it all, there simply were no words, and that terrified me.

    Then something clicked. I picked up an old project of mine, the last project I was drafting before leaving Iraq. it's been over a year and a half since I'd looked at it. And it clicked. It wasn't bad. The bones were there and it needed a major revision or six, but the book was what I needed. The anxiety shifted and warped into excitement. The note cards started coming, pulling me into the world I'd begun creating all those months ago.

    I was panicked that there might never been any words ever again. But the words are coming again and it feels like a piece of me that was missing is back. I can relate to the feeling of whew, this project is over, but when another one doesn't immediately grab me, I feel that terror. Luckily for me, this time, I was able to find the words once more.

    I hope you feel better soon!

  2. tess gerritsen

    Jessica, that's the other problem with empty desk syndrome: the anxiety of beginning anew. Will the next idea come? Will the words start flowing?

    This job is fraught with all sorts of anxieties that we can't control.

  3. Eika

    Oh, god, the cold right on time. I get that after a big test or finals week. I know why, too: it's literally that it does wait! Stress hurts the immune system, but you're so desperate to hang on you subconsciously ignore any warning signs.

    Congrats for your free time and relaxation now, though.

  4. Alafair Burke

    I also clean my office right after finishing a book. It's a fantastic feeling but I do see what you mean about the sudden loss of adrenalin and the onset of confusion at the found time. I hope you feel better soon!

  5. Sarah Shaber

    I identify with every word, Tess! And I think it's those stress hormones and those endorphins that send us back to writing time and time again, when it would be much easier just to take a shift or two at Chick-Fil-A. We are all addicted to the process!

  6. Boyd Morrison

    Your struggles are both reassuring and discouraging. Reassuring to know that even successful authors like you have the same doubts as us newbies, and discouraging to think those doubts will never go away. Still, it's by far the best job I've ever had.

  7. Murderati fan

    Cold remedy: A mimosa in the morning, a Keoke coffee in the afternoon and a brandy in the evening. Interesting how your EDS affects your husband, also. That time in between, like an unmarried woman waiting for the pregnancy test to show results, can last forever.
    Congratulations on the clean up. Great time to enjoy the magnificence of your world.

  8. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    I'm glad you're getting the rest you need, and doing a little celebrating on top of it. I just got up from five days in bed with a particularly debilitating cold, in time to do a lecture at a crime conference and interview a couple FBI agents. I needed every moment of those five days to recuperate. Take it easy on yourself – it's a tough flu season.

  9. Pauline

    Your description of this postpartem readjustment is fascinating. Enjoy your "normal" life and I hope you don't suffer too long with this cold.
    As a reader, I can't wait to get my hands on your newest novel.
    Ice Cold was excellent, by the way.
    Congratulations and have fun with your empty desk syndrome while you can.

  10. tess gerritsen

    Mimosa in the morning sounds like just the cure!

    We writers have a really weird job. It's filled with episodic periods of high stress followed by overwhelming relief. It really is a bipolar life.

  11. Ray Rhamey

    I know what you mean. I get antsy if I don't have a project that I can obsess on. I think that people who have what it takes to write an entire novel must have a touch of OCD–obsessive compulsive disorder. I think that I do, to some low-level but functionally helpful degree.

    Ray R

  12. Reine

    Tess, hope your desk fills up soon. I was sitting in the B&N Café this morning when I looked up and saw one of your audiobooks on the shelf. I grabbed it and will start reading it tonight.

  13. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Tess

    I think we all suffer from EDS, but had never quite put it into words before, or identified it as a Syndrome. I frequently suspect I don't have a desk at all under all that paper – it's just held suspended by a web of confusion.

    I tend to find, though, that as soon as I've sent a book away, all the other things I've been putting off, like guest blogs and interviews, suddenly demand attention, so that I'm busier than I was when I was writing the book. But without the daily guilt if I haven't got enough words down on the page.

    Totally bipolar when you think about it, isn't it?

    Congrats on getting your latest offspring delivered out into the world!

  14. Sylvia

    Congratulations on the empty desk. If it helps, The Container Store is having a nice desk accessories sale. I know, I hit it today.

    Sorry about the cold – feel better.

  15. Deborah Piccurelli


    It's nice to hear you're enjoying this brief time before the next project, though I do hope the cold goes away soon. Sometimes, I feel oddly comforted by some minor illness, as it gives me a reason to rest. The new book sounds exciting – can't wait!

  16. Pamela Speak

    I really, desperately want to write, I love writing but sometimes it feels as if the stars must align before I can do anything. I have ideas whirling around my head and every time I see things about people writing I get horrific jealousy because I just can't do it!
    I think because I'm at uni and I spend all day writing up notes and writing essays and planning my dissertation I just can't relax and write because that's all I do all day. I hope once I have graduated I'll be able to write again and I can get back to story telling and not feel so stressed.

  17. Reine

    Hello Pamela,

    I wish you the best. I was there for too many years, but now that I hve finished grduate school, I am much happier with nonacademic writing – and a nonacademic life.

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