Jobs Writers Do
J.D. Salinger was the activities director on a cruise ship? William Faulkner as a bridge playing postmaster? Book columnist Carole McKellar takes a look at the day jobs of some of the world's finest writers.
Several well-known writers held full-time jobs in fields related to literature. Toni Morrison remained an editor at Random House and taught university literature classes while her novels were winning prizes and legions of readers. Virginia Woolf and her husband, Leonard, created and ran Hogarth Press, which is now an imprint of Random House.
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.
There is a tradition of physician writers dating back to antiquity. In mythology, Apollo was the god of both poetry and medicine. Perhaps the doctor’s role as observer allows a unique perspective of the human condition.
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.
More published authors who were trained as healers include:
In addition to long-term careers, it is interesting to learn about early jobs authors held and to imagine the effect of those jobs on subsequent writing. Agatha Christie worked in an apothecary, which provided knowledge of pharmaceuticals she later used in her mystery stories.
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.