The alarm clock, a Sharper Image product that offers a selection of sounds from cock crows to church bells, goes off at 6:10 a.m. Why 6:10? Because if I can wake by 6 a.m. on my own and shut the alarm off before the bells start pealing, my early rising seems much more voluntary than it is. Time to make the doughnuts, I think to myself, a pop culture reference that dates me terribly.
I shuffle to the kitchen, drink a glass of calcium-enhanced orange juice and start a pot of coffee. While the coffee brews, I gulp down the orange juice and a multi-vitamin, scan the New York Times.
The coffee’s done. I pour it into a thermos, because a good friend once told me that “Ray Kroc never left a coffee pot on the burner.” I am highly susceptible to getting such pronouncements stuck in my head. To this day, I cannot replace a roll of toilet paper without hearing an early boyfriend say, “Please tell me it matters to you if it hangs from the back or the front. I don’t care which way it goes, but you have to have a preference.” [Now an NPR correspondent, name available on request.] I carry my mug of coffee, heavily doctored with half-and-half, and a dry bowl of Honey Nut Cheerios out to my computer.
On a typical day, I start writing by 6:30 and stay at my computer for at least two hours. Then it’s into the shower and off to my day job. I put in eight hours at The Sun, give or take a few personal phone calls, a few personal e-mails, a few gossipy exchanges with my wonderful colleagues. Four days out of five, I work out on my lunch hour. I get home about 7 p.m. I’m not good for much. I make dinner, read a little, write a little if I’m on a roll, then go to bed, where I read some more until the book slips from my hand. Clearly, there’s a reason one of my favorite films is “Groundhog Day.”
This has been my life for the last five years, since I landed a contract for the first two books in the Tess Monaghan series. Inevitably, when people hear about my schedule, they say “Oh, you’re so disciplined.” I recognize this is meant as a compliment, but I don’t consider myself disciplined. For one thing, a disciplined person does not have a three-week-old pizza box in the backseat of her car (with several slices of pizza inside), or a rolled-up rug in the closet that she’s been meaning to take to the cleaners for six months. My mother is disciplined. My sister is disciplined. I’m delinquent, disastrous, deranged and dead-tired.
Still, it’s a compliment, right? “You’re so disciplined.” Why do I feel the need to demur, debate, or even disparage my own efforts? The “D” word troubles me because I think it’s a veiled insult in some mouths. Not most, but some. I infer that I’m not talented or creative or inspired, just a a dreary drone, someone who thinks Sisyphus got a really good gig in Hades. Some people seem to suggest that anyone could do what I do, if only they were disciplined.
And guess what? There’s a lot of truth in that. Writing is a craft, improved by practice and time. I began writing before I knew how to write. (At age 5, I wrote a book in caveman language, striking the keys on my father’s portable typewriter in a highly random fashion.) I tried to write novels throughout grade school, junior high and high school, although I ended up destroying most of my efforts. I wrote short stories in college, thanks to a generous English professor named Meredith Steinbach, who encouraged me at a time when almost no one in the Medill School of Journalism had a kind word for me or my work. I began bad novel after bad novel in my 20s, driving 80 miles, one-way, to take a class with Sandra Cisneros, long before she won a so-called genius grant from the MacArthur Foundation.
Finally, at the age of 33, I sat down and wrote: “On the last night of August, Tess Monaghan went to the drugstore and bought a composition book — one with a black-and-white marble cover.” Well, I didn’t write those precise words. The first two drafts of “Baltimore Blues” were in first-person. But the idea was there. A young woman, laid off from the only job she had ever known or wanted, was trying to find her place in the world. There are people who would say Tess Monaghan is disciplined, because she rows in the morning, runs in the afternoons, and lifts weights as needed. I don’t think Tess would like the word any more than I do. Driven? Sure. Compulsive? Definitely.
The other morning, when I was out on a story for The Sun, a woman practically kvelled when she heard her boss say to me: “You’re the novelist, aren’t you?” (I can only imagine how it feels to be a public official and have “the novelist” show up. But I like to think my double-life makes me less inclined to make stuff up on the job.) She instructed me to write down the titles of all my books, then asked the usual follow-up questions. Were they in the library? Yep. Were they actually sold in stores? Uh-huh. Stores outside Baltimore? Um, yeah. The conversation was beginning to remind me of John Waters’ brilliant observation that Baltimoreans think you can’t possibly be successful if you still live here.
“So,” the woman said, “how does it take you to write a book?” About 10 months, I said, and braced myself for the typical reply. But she just narrowed her eyes skeptically. “That long, huh?”
You know what? I guess I’m cool with “disciplined” after all.
P.S. The tour for “In a Strange City” is still taking shape, but I know I
will be visiting Pittsburgh, Washington D.C., Chicago, Milwaukee, New York
City, San Antonio and three places in North Carolina — Raleigh, Durham and
Charlotte. (And, of course, Baltimore.)
P.P.S. Baltimore Magazine, which hits news stands July 24, has named me the
best local Sun reporter, as part of its annual “Best of Baltimore” round-up.
The magazine said: “The test of a true reporter is this: Is every story
covered and written with equal aplomb? Is the discount clothing store piece
as thorough as that on the Christmastime murder, or the cabdriver’s obituary,
or the story about the mall employee who never misses work? If Laura Lippman
wrote it, the answer is always yes.”