Did you know that Kurt Vonnegut was the manager at the first Saab dealership in the United States? Or that Stephen King was a high school janitor and it was there that he came up with the idea for the opening girls’ locker room scene in Carrie? True story. In honor of Labor Day, it seems apt that I supplement last Friday’s Day Jobs of Poets post with a longer piece on some of the kooky day jobs of famous and successful writers, including a few that they never stopped working at even after they made it big!
Harper Lee worked as a ticket agent for Eastern Air Lines for over eight years before her friend, Broadway composer Michael Martin Brown, gave her a Christmas present of one year’s wages, saying, “You have one year off from your job to write whatever you please.” Lee used the time wisely; the first draft of To Kill a Mockingbird was completed within that year, and the rest is history.
Bram Stoker was the personal assistant of actor Henry Irving and the business manager for the Lyceum Theater in London, even after Dracula was published.
Jack London was a gold miner during the Klondike Gold Rush, as well as, and no I’m not joking, an *oyster pirate* when he was younger. Yes. An oyster pirate. That is a very real thing. If you don’t believe me, read up on it yourself here. London also worked in a cannery before he became an oyster pirate (can you blame him for making that career shift?).
James Joyce used to literally sing and play piano in order to be able to put food on his table while he was trying to get Dubliners published.
Richard Wright worked as a postal clerk in Chicago while he wrote short stories and poems from 1927 to 1930, only to be laid off because of the Great Depression.
Lewis Carroll was a virtual jack of all trades: in addition to being the creator of Alice in Wonderland, he was also a mathematician, photographer, and teacher.
Jorge Luis Borges worked as an assistant at the Buenos Aires Municipal Library and eventually became the director of the National Library.
Charlotte Brontë was an extremely underpaid governess, earning a mere $1,834 a year for her work (and yes, that is an adjusted salary).
William Faulkner was a postmaster at the University of Mississippi after he dropped out of the same college. He wasn’t the biggest fan of the job, however, which is made abundantly clear in his resignation letter: “As long as I live under the capitalist system I expect to have my life influenced by the demands of moneyed people. But I will be damned if I propose to be at the beck and call of every itinerant scoundrel who has two cents to invest in a postage stamp. This, sir, is my resignation.”
Tomas Tranströmer, winner of the 2011 Nobel Prize for Literature for his poetry, still moonlights as an occupational psychologist for the Swedish government.
Vladimir Nabokov was an entomologist, and a pretty good one at that: DNA analysis in 2011 proved his theory of butterfly evolution to be true.
J. D. Salinger was the entertainment director on a Swedish luxury cruise liner, where he, according to biographers, “acted in plays, accompanied daughters of rich passengers to dances, and spent his days organizing and playing deck sports.” He drew inspiration from his experiences aboard the cruise to write the short story “Teddy.”
William S. Burroughs also drew from his day job, using his experiences as an exterminator (which he reportedly really enjoyed doing, by the way) to create his novel Exterminator!
Don DeLillo worked as a parking attendant when he was a teenager, and was so bored on the job that he took up reading, which then lead him to pick up writing later in life.
Ken Kesey was a voluntary participant in CIA psych tests, which more often than not involved him being unknowingly drugged with LSD. It was during one of these hallucinations that he (or the drugs) came up with Dr. Broom from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
Jack Kerouac basically did everything that you could possibly do as a day job. Some of these included night guard (which he used in On the Road), railroad brakeman, cotton picker, deckhand, construction worker, and dishwasher.
John Steinbeck also worked a myriad of odd jobs, including apprentice painter, fruit picker, and Madison Garden construction worker. He hated the latter job, and quit the day that a man fell from the rafters and died.
George Orwell was an officer of the Indian Imperial Police in Burma, and was known for his “sense of utter fairness” as he protected some 200,000 people.