Blog 09.18.2021

Our Favorite Writers And Their Resumes

Our Favorite Writers and Their Beginnings 

We all know that creative geniuses started somewhere and not always in their chosen field. Many writers had jobs completely unrelated to their literary endeavors before they became well-known or “discovered” in the world of publishing. Here are just a few of our very favorite wordsmiths and some of their jobs before they made it big: 

  • T.S. Eliot—known for his Modernist poetic masterpieces, including The Waste Land (1922)—worked as a clerk at Lloyd’s Bank in the UK before becoming an editor and director of a publishing house.
  • Franz Kafka was actually an insurance clerk! He worked at the Workers’ Accident Insurance Institute, and one can see how that very clearly formed his outlook on life and how that sort of attitude worked its way into his fiction, especially The Trial (1914-15) and The Metamorphosis (1915). Dealing with the details of atrocious accidents in the workplace every day must have influenced Kafka’s nihilistic and absurdist plotlines where men wake up and have been transformed into a cockroach or are on trial for a crime they did not commit and do not fully understand. This, combined with the unflinching reality of life and its cruelties, absolutely helped define what we now refer to as “Kafkaesque.” 
  • Agatha Christie—the absolute queen of mystery fiction—worked in a chemist’s shop (or pharmacy) as an assistant.  

So, here’s a lesson in having a 9-5 job: it’s not always a bad thing. While paying the bills, one may, as a creative person, be able to use material from their everyday lives as fuel for writing great fiction.

The Work You Do 

From Toni Morrison’s essay for The New Yorker, “The Work You Do, The Person You Are” (2017) she condensed some very wise advice from her father (upon complaining to him about her after-school job as a housekeeper):

“1. Whatever the work is, do it well—not for the boss but for yourself.

  1. You make the job; it doesn’t make you.
  2. Your real life is with us, your family.
  3. You are not the work you do; you are the person you are.

I have worked for all sorts of people since then, geniuses and morons, quick-witted and dull, bighearted and narrow. I’ve had many kinds of jobs, but since that conversation with my father I have never considered the level of labor to be the measure of myself, and I have never placed the security of a job above the value of home.”

Of course, most writers (even famous Nobel Prize-winning ones) work or worked as teachers and professors, including Toni Morrison, Joyce Carol Oates (both at Princeton), and Vladimir Nabokov, but some also had odd (and even dangerous) jobs that influenced their lives and helped shape their persona. Probably the greatest example of this is when Ernest Hemingway volunteered to work as an ambulance driver during the First World War, an undertaking that had numerous hazards. Keep in mind that he was also only nineteen years old!

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