There is truly no such thing as an overnight success story. Even when great authors are seemingly catapulted to fame — with their names gracing the top of bestseller lists and bookshelves nationwide — there is still a process that happened behind the scenes. Before ever signing an autograph or being approached by a book agent, many of the world’s most acclaimed authors had a starting point, a 9-to-5 job or a side gig that helped pay the bills.
Today, in the spirit of curiosity and learning from the greats, we are taking a look at where renowned authors got their start. Perhaps, if you or someone you know is discouraged by small beginnings, this list will inspire you to keep going.
Before he sold more than 350 million copies of his beloved sagas of supernatural fiction, suspense, crime, science-fiction, and fantasy, Stephen King worked as a custodial worker at a high school. The Portland, ME native credits the idea behind his novel “Carrie” to his time as a janitor.
2. Coffee Barista
OK, so it probably was not called that at the time, but author Margaret Atwood did the same things your local Starbucks barista does today. For her first job, she served coffee and managed the register at a Toronto coffee shop inside a small hotel. Although she didn’t love the job, her coffee gig inspired her writing in “Ka-Ching” and helped her pay for school.
In his 1889 essay “The Decay of Lying,” Oscar Wilde wrote that “Life imitates art far more than art imitates life.” This proves to be true for William S. Burroughs who worked as an exterminator. In 1960, he wrote “The Exterminator,” a collection of stories in collaboration with Brion Gysin. In 1973, he also wrote another short story collection called “Exterminator!” It seems like he really liked the job!
4. Dental Hygiene Salesman
We now know him as a New York Times bestselling author. However, before Nicholas Sparks’ name ever graced a bookshelf or the film credits on a big screen, his day job was selling products over the phone. Other odd jobs Sparks held during his years of pre-literary success were in the food, real estate, and manufacturing industries.
5. English as a Foreign Language Teacher
J.K. Rowling is very candid about her tumultuous personal journey before her literary success. Another interesting part of her story is her nonlinear career path. For a short time, she taught English as a foreign language in Portugal. She also worked as a bilingual secretary and researcher at Amnesty International’s London offices.
6. Factory Worker
Charles Dickens brought the world acclaimed pieces of literature such as “Oliver Twist” (1838), “A Christmas Carol” (1843), and “Great Expectations” (1861). His writing was inspired by his personal experience of living in poverty. As a child, Charles worked 10-hour days at a factory pasting labels onto shoe polish.
7. Nightclub Waitress
Beloved author Maya Angelou lived a full life of highs and lows that inspired her writing. As a teenager, Maya channeled the pain of a childhood sexual assault into the art of dancing. She eventually would audition for a professional theater, but her plans were put on hold when she got pregnant at 16 years old. She then moved to San Diego where she got a job as a nightclub waitress. During this time, she dabbled in drugs, prostitution, and dancing at a strip club.
Prior to writing “As I Lay Dying” and “The Hamlet,” William Faulkner worked as a postmaster in Mississippi. He is said to not have been the best employee — often losing mail, ignoring customers, and writing instead of working.
9. Ambulance Driver
Novelist and short story author Ernest Hemingway pulled from personal experiences to inspire his writing. The love of travel and adventure that he poured into his prose was likely sparked by his time as a war veteran and international correspondent. Prior to that, at just 19 years old, in 1819, Ernest spent his time working for the Red Cross driving ambulances.
Early on in her career, American author Toni Morrison taught at Texas Southern University and then at her alma mater Howard University from 1957 to 1964. In 1965, Morrison became a fiction editor at Random House. Although she worked for a famous publishing company for several years, Morrison did not publish her first novel, “The Bluest Eye” until 1970. She was 39 years old.
What were some of your early jobs or side gigs? Let us know where you got your career start. Share them with us @meetcopper so we can continue to share them with our Copper Community.