Jobs Writers Do
The idea of authors working full-time and writing in the evenings makes me feel absolutely slothful. Yet, there are many situations in which writers work out of necessity or dedication.
Wallace Stevens, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, turned down a professorship at Harvard University in order to continue working in an insurance firm.
Franz Kafka, novelist, also worked for an insurance company in what he referred to as a brotberuf, or bread job. Lewis Carroll, writer of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, was a mathematician, photographer, and Anglican cleric.
Jorge Luis Borges, Argentine writer, and Philip Larkin, poet, were librarians. T.S. Eliot, one of the twentieth century’s major poets, taught school, worked at Lloyd’s Bank, and later joined a publishing company responsible for publishing English poets like W.H. Auden and Ted Hughes. Frank McCourt, famous for writing Angela’s Ashes, taught high school English in New York.
I became interested in the idea of doctors who are also authors after reading When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi. A gifted neurosurgery resident, Kalanithi developed lung cancer at the age of 36 and died while writing the book. His gifts as a writer make the book shine as he details his life and impending death. He earned a master’s degree in English literature from Stanford University before following his love of science into medicine. Kalanithi’s life plan was to practice medicine while young, and to follow that with a second career as a writer. This book is beautiful and haunting, and I recommend it highly.
Abraham Vergese, M.D., wrote the foreword to When Breath Becomes Air. Vergese stated that Paul Kalanithi’s “prose was unforgettable. Out of his pen he was spinning gold.” That is remarkable praise from any reviewer, but it carries extra weight coming from Vergese, the author of one of my favorite books, Cutting for Stone.
Published in 2009, Cutting for Stone chronicles the lives of conjoined twins born in Ethiopia to an Indian mother who dies in childbirth. Vergese is an Indian physician born in Ethiopia, and his novel features much about the political climate and medical practices of the country.
- Anton Chekhov, Russian playwright and short story writer
- Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes
- William Carlos Williams, poet, winner of the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize
- Khaled Hosseini, Afghan-born American novelist best known for The Kite Runner
- Walker Percy, novelist from Covington, Louisiana, who wrote about faith and love
- W. Somerset Maugham, British playwright, novelist, and short story writer.
- Michael Crichton, Tess Gerritsen, and Robin Cook, writers of mystery & thriller genre
- Atul Gawande, author of Being Mortal and a writer for New Yorker magazine
- Siddhartha Mukherjee, oncologist and nonfiction writer of The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer and The Gene: An Intimate History
George Orwell was an Indian Imperial Police Officer until he contracted dengue fever and was sent back to England to recover. J.D. Salinger was the activities director on a luxury Caribbean cruise ship. John Steinbeck was a tour guide and manufacturer of mannequins. Kurt Vonnegut opened a Saab car dealership.
After graduating from college with a degree in English, Stephen King couldn’t find a teaching job so he became a high school janitor. He said the movie Carrie was inspired during his time cleaning girls’ locker rooms. Ken Kesey, author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, worked as a janitor in a mental hospital and tested LSD for a government-sponsored study. William Faulkner was a mailman (click here to read his spectacular letter of resignation), and Harper Lee worked for a while as an airline reservation clerk.
The writers mentioned here achieved success through hard work and perseverance. Offering advice to those who aspire to become writers, Stephen King said, “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.”
Novelist Jack London wrote, “You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.”
I am an enthusiastic reader, and I try to write something every day. I enjoy looking at my old journals, filled with snippets of poems or observations about the day-to-day. I hope you take inspiration from these fine writers and don’t let your day job keep you from writing.