8 Extraordinary Authors Who Kept Their Ordinary Day Jobs
While many aspiring authors harbor visions of the day they can hand in their resignation letter and walk away from their open-plan cubicle and into their dream life as a full-time author, most still need a steady paycheck before they can collect enough royalties from Amazon to support their lifestyle.
Holding onto a less than inspiring day job to pay the bills while pursuing your passion as a writer is not a new phenomenon. It’s worth recalling that many famous authors throughout history have kept their day jobs, whether for the financial security, or because they wanted to pursue their different passions.
While some famous authors left their day jobs to pursue their writing careers full-time, others continued to work well after they had achieved levels of fame and fortune that would have allowed them to call it quits.
Day job: Post office surveyor
One of the most prolific and esteemed English novelists of the Victorian era, Anthony Trollope wrote for three hours every morning before going to his job as a postal clerk. He finally resigned his position at the Post Office at the age of 52, having earned enough money from his forty-seven novels and dozens of short stories to replace the pension he forfeited by leaving.
Day job: Insurance clerk
After coming home from his day job as a compensation assessor at the Prague Workers’ Accident Insurance Institute, Kafka would pen his novels in at night.
As Sarah Stodola notes in her excellent book, Process: The Writing Lives of Great Authors, while his day job seemed to get in the way of Kafka’s dream of becoming a full-time writer, the conditions under which he worked — “the insubordination of the individual to the larger machine, the overwhelming and confusion-inducing bureaucracy, the incomprehensible structure imposed from some nebulous above” — inspired some of his greatest writing including The Trial and The Metamorphosis.
Day job: Airline ticketing agent
Having dropped out of law school, Harper Lee moved to New York to pursue a career as a writer. To pay her way she worked as a ticket agent for Eastern Airlines and British Overseas Airways Corporation (the precursor to British Airways), writing articles and short stories in her spare time, before writing To Kill a Mockingbird.
Day job: Insurance executive
In-between writing insurance policies and doling out claims as an executive at the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company, where he worked for nearly 40 years, Wallace Stevens wrote poetry, drafts of which he kept in a drawer in his office. In 1955, he won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.
Day jobs: English professor, butterfly researcher
During the 1940s, as a research fellow in zoology, Vladimir Nabokov was responsible for organizing the butterfly collection of the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University. While he was a professor of English literature at Cornell University in the 1950s, Nabokov wrote the novel that would launch him to global fame: Lolita.
Day jobs: Journalist, PR executive, car dealer, teacher
Considered one of the most influential American novelists of the 20th century, Kurt Vonnegut held a number of day jobs before his writing career took off: as a journalist for Sports Illustrated; PR executive for General Electric; and, briefly, as the owner of a Saab dealership in Massachusetts.
Once his career took off, he continued to work different jobs. He was working as an English teacher in the University of Iowa’s Writers’ Workshop when his novel Cat’s Cradle became a bestseller in 1963.
Day job: Pharmacist assistant
In 1917 Agatha Christie qualified as a pharmacist’s assistant until the end of World War I. She later drew on her knowledge of pharmaceuticals in many of her novels, the first of which, Hercule Poirot’s Mysterious Affair At Styles, was published in America in 1920, and in the UK in 1921.
Day jobs: Photographer, mathematician, teacher
Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, better known by his pen name, Lewis Caroll, continued to work at many jobs well after he achieved fame and fortune with the publication of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
He became a noted photographer and created over 3,000 images in his studio over a twenty-four year period before abruptly stopping for lack of time. And his talent as a mathematician won him the Christ Church Mathematical Lectureship at Oxford University in 1855, which he continued to hold for the next twenty-six years.
Thanks for reading! By day, I help the world’s leading management consulting firm McKinsey & Company to communicate their impact to global and domestic companies in the largest and most dynamic market in the world, China. I’m also the host of the Write With Impact podcast, where I interview talented writers about their craft. I blog about writing, creativity, technology, personal development, and other topics here on my personal blog. Or track my random musings on Twitter @glennleibowitz.