Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Some day jobs of famous writers

with 5 comments

Q. Do you consider a novelist’s life the best possible form of existence?
A. I should say yes if I did not know of a form of existence to be even better.
Q. And what is that?
A. Inheriting a fortune, putting your hands in your pockets, and for the rest of your life doing nothing.

Punch, December 1, 1894

As my quote of the day reminds us, nearly every writer needs a day job. Even if you aren’t a poet, where the chances of making a living solely through writing are pretty much zero, the number of novelists in the United States who can support themselves with prose fiction alone is very small—probably something like less than a thousand. The rest teach, apply for grants, write reviews, or, most often, do something else entirely. And there’s no shame in that. Abraham Cohen, author of Everyman’s Talmud, points out that even the great rabbis worked for a living:

The story of Hillel’s poverty has already been told. Of other Rabbis we learn that Akiba used to collect a bundle of wood daily and exist on the price he received for it; Joshua was a charcoal-burner and lived in a room the walls of which were begrimed by his manner of work; Meïr was a scribe; José b. Chalaptha was a worker in leather; Jochanan was a maker of sandals; Judah was a baker; and Abba Saul held a menial position as a kneader of dough, while he mentions that he had also been a grave-digger.

And you can make a similar list for contemporary writers very easily, even if you restrict it to jobs that were held after the authors in question were published and, in some cases, famous. T.S. Eliot, as I’ve noted before, was a banker. Wallace Stevens was an insurance executive. Douglas Adams worked as a hotel security guard. Kurt Vonnegut managed a Saab dealership. Henry Miller was a personnel manager at a telegraph company. Isaac Asimov was a professor of biochemistry. And if you extend the list to what writers did before their first big break—Stephen King folded sheets in an industrial laundry, Joshua Ferris worked for an ad agency, Harlson Ellison did just about everything—it becomes nearly endless.

As for me, among various other things, I’ve written movie reviews, corporate training manuals, and online encyclopedia entries, some of which are still floating around on the Web, and spent several years occupying a desk at a New York investment firm, the less said about which the better. It’s been almost five years since I decided to go it alone, a choice I made because I saw no other way. (I have enormous respect for anyone who can write a novel while working a full-time job, because I know exactly how hard it is.) Whether I can continue to write for a living—whether, in short, I can become one of those thousand—remains to be seen. There’s certainly no guarantee. But, for lack of a better word, it’s definitely going to be interesting.

(For more day jobs of famous writers, see here and here.)

5 Responses

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  1. Charles Dickens was a court reporter. Your day job can feed your creativity. There are stories everywhere!

    But now we know why Stephen King wrote horror. I’m sure glad he didn’t work in the post office.


    February 16, 2011 at 1:11 pm

  2. Ever read “The Mangler?”


    February 16, 2011 at 1:21 pm

  3. No, I haven’t. But it reminds me of a particularily vicious girl I used to go to school with.


    February 16, 2011 at 2:20 pm

  4. Not long ago I picked up Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling with D. H. Lawrence by Geoff Dyer, hoping for a sort of non-fiction The Archivist. It’s a bit that–and a lot of self-indulgent blathering–but in one of the very nice bits (p89ff) Dyer pulls together some things said by (or about) Lawrence, Rilke and Rodin about the life and the work of an artist. So many of them seems to sacrifice personal connection to Art. Lawrence never had hat problem, says Dyer, because he actually was the son of a coal miner and so knew perfectly well that his life of itinerant writing should never be described as “hard work.”


    February 17, 2011 at 5:52 am

  5. See my quote of the day! (I just stumbled across this quote a couple of days ago, so your comment is particularly appropriate.)


    February 17, 2011 at 8:08 am

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