Day Jobs of Famous Writers Before They Were Famous
Most writers have been faced with the challenge of making a living while waiting for that big break. Day jobs I’ve held included dishwasher, custodian, film processing lab technician, copy-editor, advertising copywriter, publisher, and print shop stripper (it’s nothing dirty; I “stripped” negatives into paper frames which were used to “burn” offset printing plates–with today’s direct-to-plate technology, printers may not even need strippers anymore).
Here’s a look at jobs held by a few famous writers before they were famous. Some of them eventually were able to write full-time, others never sold enough books and had to keep their day jobs, and others like Scott Turow (who continues to practice law) and John Grisham (who remains interested in politics and considered running for U.S. Senator from Virginia in 2006) maintain their non-writing career interests.
- Dashiel Hammet: The author of hard-boiled detective stories and novels started out as a private detective. His first case? To track down a thief who had stolen a Ferris Wheel.
- John Grisham: Author of such legal thrillers as The Firm and The Pelican Brief, is an attorney who, from 1983 to 1990, served as a Democrat in the Mississippi House of Representatives.
- Jack London: The author of White Fang, The Call of the Wild, and The Sea Wolf had a variety of experiences, including oyster pirate, gold prospector, and rail-riding hobo .
- Langston Hughes: One of the first African American authors who was able to support himself by writing, he was, according to legend, discovered by poet Vachel Lindsay while working as a busboy at the Wardman Park Hotel in Washington, D.C. Hughes had dropped his poems beside Lindsay’s plate. In his poetry reading Lindsay included several of Hughes’s poems, which resulted in journalists clamoring to interview the “busboy poet.”
- William Carlos Williams: The poet and fiction writer was an excellent pediatrician and general practitioner, although he worked harder at his writing than he did at medicine.
- Ralph Waldo Emerson: The American poet, philosopher, and essayist assisted his brother William in a school for young women they ran out of their mother’s house. He later was a minister and lecturer.
- Henry David Thoreau: He began as Emerson’s handyman, moved on to selling vegetables, returned to the family pencil business, was a tutor and a teacher.
- Nathaniel Hawthorne: The author of The Scarlet Letter and The House of the Seven Gables was a weighter and a gauger at the Boston Custom House, which housed government offices for processing paperwork for the import and export of goods. Later he was Surveyor for the districts of Salem and Beverly as well as Inspector of Revenue for the Port of Salem. He also wrote a campaign biography of his friend, Franklin Pierce, in which he left out some key information, such as Pierce’s drinking. On his election, Pierce rewarded Hawthorne with the position of United States consul in Liverpool.
- Dan Brown: Before striking gold with Angels and Demons, The Da Vinci Code, and The Lost Symbol , he was a high school English teacher.
- Zane Grey: Early 20th century author of such popular novels as Riders of the Purple Sage, he would eventually publish nearly 90 books and sell more than 50 million copies worldwide. After years of rejection, he sold his first book at age 40 and was able to give up his day job as a dentist, a job that he hated.
- J. K. Rowling: After her daughter was born and she separated from her husband, the author of the Harry Potter series left her job in Portugal, where she taught English as a second language, and returned to school to study for her postgraduate certificate of education (PGCE) so she could teach in Scotland. She completed her first novel while on welfare.
- Mary Higgins Clark: After graduating from high school, she was secretary to the head of the creative department in the internal advertising division of Remington-Rand, a business machines manufacturer. She took evening classes in advertising and promotion and was promoted to writing catalog copy–future novelist Joseph Heller was a coworker. She also modeled for company brochures with aspiring actress Grace Kelly. Her thirst for adventure led her to become a stewardess for Pan American Airlines where she was on the last flight allowed into Czechoslovakia before the Iron curtain cut off east from west.
- Harlan Ellison: The man who would later distinguish himself as a preeminent speculative fiction and mystery writer held many jobs before he was 20 years old, including tuna fisherman, itinerant crop-picker, hired gun for a wealthy neurotic, nitroglycerine truck driver, short order cook, cab driver, lithographer, book salesman, department store floorwalker, and door-to-door brush salesman.
- Scott Turow: The author of such best selling novels as Presumed Innocent and Reversible Errors, still practices law as a partner of the Chicago firm of Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal, although on most of his cases he works pro bono.
- Nicholas Sparks: After graduating from college the author of such best sellers as The Notebook, Dear John, and The Last Song tried to find work in the publishing industry and applied to law school but had no luck in either area. So he embarked on other careers, including real estate appraisal, waiting tables, selling dental products by phone, and starting a manufacturing business.
This post is dedicated to my cousin, Unitarian minister and scholar Dr. Wesley Hromatko, who inspired me to look into the day jobs of some famous authors.