Before I Was a Writer

10 May 2022

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Many writers spend years dreaming of when they’ll quit their day jobs to write full time. Millions of us around the world spend our spare hours at the keyboard, blogging, journaling, drafting, and redrafting. Few of us can sell enough writing soon enough to avoid the dreaded “regular job.” I worked as a cashier, a cocktail server, and later, a bookseller. When we’re working, we write whenever we can, between shifts, on cigarette breaks, in our heads as we navigate the days. Day jobs can be obstacles. Or, they may give unexpected raw material for memorable stories.

Keep reading for a list of writing heroes who started out dreaming, too. Some hated every minute, while others found a goldmine of inspiration. If your favorite author isn’t on the list, share their inspiring origin story below in the comments section.

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Agatha Christie

In 1917, Christie became an apothecary’s assistant for an annual wage of £16, roughly £800 ($1000 USD) today. Her pharmaceutical knowledge figures in many of her novels, including in 1920, Hercule Poirot’s Mysterious Affair At Styles.

Robert Frost

Frost dropped out of Dartmouth College after just two months, returning home to Lawrence, Massachusetts. He worked as a teacher and classroom assistant and sold his first poem, “My Butterfly: An Elegy,” in 1894 during a stint at a light-bulb filament factory.

James Joyce

Joyce paid the bills as a singer and a pianist after abandoning his medical degree. Later, he taught English in Croatia and Italy before returning to Ireland to open Dublin’s first cinema, The Volta.

Franz Kafka

For nine months, Kafka worked for an insurance firm but left when long hours — 8am to 6pm—interfered with his writing. In 1911, he co-founded an asbestos factory.

Harper Lee

Lee worked as a reservation clerk at Eastern Airlines for years before receiving a gift from friends with the note: “You have one year off from your job to write whatever you please. Merry Christmas.” That year, she produced the early drafts of To Kill a Mockingbird.

Hilary Mantel

Mantel earned a Bachelor of Jurisprudence degree, then became a social worker in a geriatric hospital and later worked in a department store before turning to writing full time.

Haruki Murakami

After working in a record store during college, Murakami and his wife opened Tokyo coffeehouse/jazz bar, the Peter Cat.

Vladimir Nabokov

At Wellesley College, and later Harvard, Nabokov curated the butterfly collection at the Museum of Comparative Zoology. He wrote many nonfiction books on butterflies and moths, visiting the country every summer to collect new specimens.

JD Salinger

In 1941, Salinger was an activities director aboard the luxury Caribbean cruise liner, MS Kungsholm. Slight Rebellion Off Madison, a short story written then, went to press in 1946. The story’s protagonist, Holden Caulfield, launched Salinger into his iconic novel, Catcher in the Rye.

Kurt Vonnegut

For a short time, Kurt Vonnegut worked as a reporter for Sports Illustrated. He later found work in the PR department at GE and in 1957, opened a Saab dealership. By 1963, the year Cat’s Cradle became a bestseller, he was teaching English at the University of Iowa’s Writers’ Workshop.

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Now that you’ve had a few hints, try this quiz from on the unusual day jobs of famous writers.

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The Bizarre Day Jobs Of 20 Famous Authors by Paul Anthony Jones HuffPost, Updated 6 December 2017

The Early Jobs of 24 Famous Writers by Adrienne Crezo Mental Floss, 26 June 2012

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