I’m there but I’m not

by Tess Gerritsen

I just spent a lovely week with my family, cooking Thanksgiving dinner for ten, hanging out with my sons, catching up with out-of-town relatives, and watching the latest Harry Potter movie plus a season’s worth of “Mad Men” DVD’s  I’d like to report that I was completely focused on family and friends but, sadly, that is not the case.  Because no matter how scintillating the conversation, or how shocking the movie plot twists, there was always something nagging me, nibbling at the edge of my consciousness, sucking away from complete enjoyment of the here and now.

And that would be my book in progress. 

It’s the curse of the working novelist.  I hate to sound ungrateful for my good fortune — and yes, anyone who’s a working novelist, who actually has a contract with a publisher and an audience waiting for her next book, is a lucky duck indeed — but there’s a price to be paid for it.  And that is, your brain is not your own.  You may think you’re in control of it.  You think you can sit down to a nice turkey dinner and enjoy family conversation, but in reality your mind has been commandeered by thoughts of that novel in progress.  During Thanksgiving dinner we traded family news over champagne and turkey, yet all that fascinating gossip couldn’t drive thoughts of THE BOOK out of my head.  I’d be in the middle of a conversation with my darling niece and nephew, and suddenly, wham!  A snatch of dialogue would pop into my head, and I’d have to fight the urge to bolt from the table and head upstairs to my desk to write it down.  Or I’d see the way the candlelight glowed on my son’s face and I’d want to snatch up pen and paper to describe the image.  Or I’d get that searing jolt of anxiety about the fact my deadline is only two months away, and I’m having a leisurely dinner with the most important people in my life.  

When I really should be writing.

That’s a curse, it really is.  It keeps us from living in the moment, from being totally engaged with the ones we love.  And the ones we love sense it.  Even as we talk to them about what’s happening in their lives, they see that faraway look suddenly drop over our eyes and they know we’re somewhere else.  We’re in another universe with people who don’t exist.  

If you’re lucky, you have a family who tolerates your eccentricity.  Maybe they murmur to each other: “Oops, we’ve lost her again.”  And they tolerate you as they would the crazy aunt.  I acknowledge that I am the crazy aunt.  Here one moment, gone to Mars the next.  “What was that you said again, dear?  Sorry, I was thinking about ligatures.  Yes, the turkey is juicy this year, isn’t it?”

So that was Thanksgiving dinner this year at my house.  I cooked, I ruminated, I thought about strangulation. 

Next year, I promise, will be different.


25 thoughts on “I’m there but I’m not

  1. JD Rhoades

    I've often said I became a writer so that when I get caught staring off into space, watching movies play on the inside of my head, I can tell people I'm creating rather than having a psychotic break.

    We are not well people.

  2. Barb

    It's like walking in a parallel world. I understand how there's stress because of contracts to keep in the real world, but really, it's the best thing ever, isn't it? That's like two grown-up daughters accompanying you everywhere. They might be invisible to everyone but you, and a little intrusive, but we love them. And you do, too 🙂

  3. billie

    One doesn't have to have a contract with a publisher and waiting audience to be completely taken over by a novel-in-progress – it goes hand-in-hand with being a writer. 🙂

    For me, balance is the key – between living in the moment in the real world and living in the moment in the novel being written.

  4. Eika

    When people catch me staring off into space, or staring at the wall by their head, I just laugh and say I'm in my own little world. They don't know how true it is.

  5. Caryn Natalie


    I am eagerly awaiting ANYTHING that you are writing, but I do not want to add any more pressure, simply a thank you. I am not a writer (clearly) but I can only imagine how difficult it must be… this is probably the third or fourth draft of my comment!!!!

  6. pari noskin taichert

    It's not only novelists with contracts and deadlines that feel this way, Tess. I do too. I'm always thinking about my WIP. It's as real and important to me as the fresh cranberry sauce and turkey.

  7. Dudley Forster

    Even before I became serious about writing I’d have stories or ideas pop into my head. My friends and family have gotten used to me “zoning out” in the middle of a conversation. They just say “We’ve lost him, again.” This Thanksgiving was worse; I was pushing to get to 50K words for NaNo.

  8. Tammy Cravit

    I read a quotation someplace once to the effect that the reason why writers sometimes seem crazy is because we inhabit two worlds, only one of which other people can see. I've nearly always got a story or five kicking around in my head, with the result that the "1000-yard stare" (to borrow Louise's phrase) is not uncommon. But my family's used to it by now – they just roll their eyes and say, "oh, she's writing again."

  9. Alexandra Sokoloff

    I once heard Joe Landsdale say – glumly – "Writers can never turn off. The synapses are always firing."

    Too true.

    My brother can tell instantly when I've exited reality and will start to mess with me to see how long it takes for me to catch up to what he's been saying and hit him. Just charming…

  10. Jeannie Chambers

    For the first time ever I had the same happen to me this year. I participated in NaNoWriMo which forced me to focus on my writing. Even though I was a "winner" by logging 50,000 words in one month, and have a long way to go, I'm enjoying being with my characters. Time is a precious commodity and we all want to make the best of what we have. Now that NaNo is over, I can get back to reading The Bone Garden. Keep up the good work!

  11. toni mcgee causey

    My kids have learned to preface any private story with, "Mom, this cannot go in a book. Or a blog."

    I am grateful people know I'm a writer, now. Years ago, I'd have just been locked up for all of the imaginary people I talk to.

    (Lorena, that cracked me up.)

  12. JT Ellison

    How very true. Thankfully, the people around me know when I get that look it isn't a rreflection on them, but a compliment, for they've inspired me. (Works better ; ))

  13. KDJames

    When my kids were in high school, they figured out that the best time to ask my permission to do something they weren't allowed to do or go somewhere they weren't allowed to go was when I was writing. The little demons. Had to make a new rule. Anything I say while I'm writing, or even thinking about writing, doesn't count.

  14. Deborah Piccurelli

    I know this sounds rude, but I love when I'm in "my other world," no matter who's around. It pleases me to know my creative juices are flowing. I have to admit, it's better than writer's block

    Thanks for sharing, Tess. Great post!

  15. DB

    I think it goes with the writer gene. I've developed a pretty good poker face, which I use when I'm out with friends. I look like I'm paying attention to the people I'm with, but I'm really listening in on the conversation three tables over. They have caught me a time or two, though, but since a lot of my friends are writers, they think it's funny.

  16. Ronna

    Hi Tess,
    I love this post. It's so true, even for someone who hasn't been published yet except on the Internet. It's very real, always recording or writing notes on napkins or anything we can get our hands on so we can come back to it later. Dialogue in our sleep, etc. I look forward to the day when I can write full-time.
    I also wanted to let you know I just posted about you on my blog. The blog is: http://mainewriterphotog.blogspot.com/2010/12/tess-gerritsen-and-gerry-boyle.html. I've had the good fortune to attend a few of your signings so I wanted to share that. I have quite a collection of your books and look forward to adding to it.
    I can't wait to read Ice Cold. Luckily that doesn't describe Maine yet.
    Merry Christmas and all the best,

  17. Jerry Tierney

    For my sake, stay distracted and give me more thrills. For your sake, try to put it all aside. Nothing is more imprtant than your relationships with your family and friends. Tell yourself that understanding and engaging in your own relationships will translate, later, to better descriptions of the relationships that your characters have with each other. You will be better rewarded by engaging, more fully, with the important people in your life. I have a feeling that, when you have a goal, you accomplish it. For a day, make yourself and your family the goal. Rizzoli & Isles won't mind.

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