It’s not unusual for professors and journalists to end up as influential writers—just look at Toni Morrison, Ezra Pound, and John Updike. But sometimes our wordslinging heroes take a longer, less direct route to greatness. Oftentimes, those experiences will end up in the author’s work. Other times, it’s just an odd footnote. Here are ten great writers who held non-writerly jobs before their big breaks.
1. George Orwell
Before writing 1984, George Orwell (born Eric Arthur Blair) was an officer of the Indian Imperial Police in Burma. He shouldered the heavy burden of protecting the safety of some 200,000 people, and was noted for his “sense of utter fairness.”
2. Herman Melville
Though one might expect the author of Moby-Dick to have some experience at sea, it’s interesting to note that Melville was employed as a cabin boy on a cruise liner after his attempts to secure a job as a surveyor for the Erie Canal were thwarted. He made a single voyage from New York to Liverpool.
3. Kurt Vonnegut
The Slaughterhouse-Five author was the manager of a Saab dealership in West Barnstable, Massachusetts—one of the first Saab dealerships in the US. He also worked in public relations for General Electric, and was a volunteer firefighter for the Alplaus Volunteer Fire Department.
4. Jack London
While everyone knows about London’s experiences in the Klondike Gold Rush, a time that heavily influenced his writing (um, The Call of the Wild, anyone?), it’s not-so-common knowledge that as a very young man, Jack London worked at a cannery, then became an oyster pirate. And his sloop was named Razzle-Dazzle.
5. John Steinbeck
A strange job, perhaps, but working as a tour guide at a fish hatchery led the Tortilla Flat author to his first wife, Carol Henning. Later, he would work long hours at a grueling warehouse job until his father began supplying him with writing materials and lodging to focus on his literary career.
6. Jack Kerouac
Perhaps most famous for being a self-proclaimed dharma bum, it’s no surprise that Kerouac worked some odd jobs. These include but are not limited to: gas station attendant, cotton picker, night guard (detailed in On the Road), railroad brakeman, dishwasher, construction worker, and a deckhand.
7. Richard Wright
The celebrated author of Native Son and “The Man Who Was Almost a Man” fell on hard times during the Great Depression, like almost everyone else. He secured a job as a postal clerk, only to be laid off. It was then, living on federal assistance, that Wright began making literary contacts and having work published in journals.
8. Joseph Heller
Coiner of the phrase and lauded author of Catch-22, Heller grew up very poor and had to work at a young age to help support his family. Before going on to literary greatness, he was a blacksmith’s apprentice, messenger boy, and file clerk.
9. Joseph Conrad
Though it’s apparent in reading Conrad’s work (especially Heart of Darkness) that he lived a large part of his life at sea, it’s maybe less obvious that he spent part of that time involved in gunrunning and political conspiracy.
10. Harper Lee
The author of one of the great American novels and winner of the 1961 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction had worked as a reservation clerk at Eastern Airlines for years when she received a note from friends: “You have one year off from your job to write whatever you please. Merry Christmas.” By the next year, she’d penned To Kill a Mockingbird.
Know any other “before they were famous” stories about literary giants? Share them in the comments!
Today is October 10, 2010—10.10.10! To celebrate, we've got all our writers working on 10 lists, which we'll be posting throughout the day and night. To see all the lists we've published so far, click here.