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

The Complementary Arts

4 May 2022

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There are many reasons a writer takes a break. Overwhelming obligations, jumbled thoughts, headaches, and crying babies. The neighbor mowing his lawn and the phone lighting up with scam calls. The vast empty page and the impossible task of stringing words across the white abyss. Did I just call a blank page the ‘white abyss?’ Break time, please.

Some authors claim that writer’s block is a myth; they’ve heard of it, but never had it. Warren Ellis [comic book writer, Transmetropolitan] asserts, “when a writer cannot write… Then that person isn’t a writer anymore.” If I ask my six-year-old, he’ll agree. What do you call a writer who isn’t writing? Just a regular person.

“Writer’s block is a

fancy term made up

by whiners so they

can have an excuse

to drink alcohol.”

― Steve Martin

As a regular person, I once had a case of writer’s block that lasted twenty years. It started when my diary was read by immigration officials during an ill-fated (read: poorly planned) move to the UK. A quiz on my romantic daydreams and amateur poetry, as interpreted by a dour airport bureaucrat, sliced away the uninhibited part of me that could pour thoughts onto the page. Now every word was subject to review by outsiders. The diary wasn’t a safe place anymore.

When I married, set up housekeeping, and fell into a thankless low-level job, I stopped writing except in fits and starts. I destroyed the stories I wrote with relentless editing. “Ms. Immigration might read this,” I thought as I snipped out dialogue, details, emotions, and revelations. I tried poetry, letter writing, and Bridget Jones-inspired journaling, but always lost steam. Writer’s block was winning. That’s when I discovered the complementary arts.

“If you get stuck, get

away from your desk.

Take a walk, take a bath,

go to sleep,make a pie,

draw, listen to ­music,

meditate, exercise;

whatever you do, don’t

just stick there scowling

at the problem.”
― Hilary Mantel

I improved my meager cooking skills, sketched illustrations for a picture book, and threw myself into meticulous housework. At the store, I skipped the bakery aisle, making bread and cakes from scratch instead. I taught myself knitting, making sweaters, gifts, and baby clothes for charity. I confined my writing to thoughts, dashed off on scraps of paper during lonely shifts at work, tossed into the trash on my way out the door. Instead of writing stories, I told them in my head, imagining the kings I was cooking dinner for, a child smiling at my drawings, and the babies in Afghanistan wearing my little green jumpers. I built virtual cities in video game simulators, inventing a family for each house, an owner for every shop. Writing, writing, writing, in my head while cultivating the complementary arts of daily life.

“Housework won’t kill

you, but then again,

why take the chance?”

― Phyllis Diller

Now, I’m rarely in the mood for a break from writing. After years spent on hiatus, I have no more time to waste. When my keyboard yawns in boredom and my thoughts scatter, I’m furious. The process is too slow. The house is too noisy. I am too lazy to pull it together and work. Forget knitting and cooking and container gardening. Housework? For the birds. Where are the words I need? Why is it so hard to do my dream?

Though I don’t want them, I return to the complementary arts again and again. Kids’ science projects, doing the laundry, and restorative naps. Drawing treasure maps, spot-cleaning the bathroom, and following my favorite baseball team. My sanity demands it. Imagine an office job without weekends. Look at the quality of life for people who work seven days a week. They are exhausted. And they probably drink too much. They need time for the complementary arts.

“Writing about a writer’s

block is better than not

writing at all.”
― Charles Bukowski,

The Last Night of the

Earth Poems

For writers, writing is essential to life. We have an urge to “write through it,” to shrug off writer’s block, and force inspiration to arrive on demand. Stress levels rise, frustration creates tension, and every word is more grudging than the last. We blame ourselves and wonder whether we are still writers. When chattering birds nest outside your window or a cat’s meow derails the morning’s work, the relief of the complementary arts can save the day. A home-cooked lunch and a nap in the afternoon, a digital collage of the clutter in your head, or singing your favorite song loud enough for the neighbors to hear. Clear your thoughts with your complementary arts and tell the world you’ve never had writer’s block.

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Posts of Interest

As I add new Posts of Interest to the home page, previously published notes and articles will appear below.

Share ideas, notes on the writing life, news of upcoming writers’ events and other writing ephemera in the comments section below or leave a message on my Contact Me page.

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Not Another Book List

8 September 2022

Anyone can create a list of outstanding books to read. If you want bestsellers, promising new writers, or classics to revisit, there’s a list for that. These are not suggestions. You’ve heard enough of those. Read on if book recommendations bore you.

Read my full article.

Hitting the Press

5 September 2022

The Streets of Sorrow, a short story inspired by true events, will appear in print in the coming weeks. Accepted for publication in Evening Street Review‘s fall edition, my piece tells the story of an old writer and a young writer. Not nearly as hopeless as its dire title, The Streets of Sorrow tackles the mysteries of memory, art, and shared human experience.

Print editions are for sale at

How A-muse-ing; or Use an Inspiration Tape Like a Champ

13 June 2022

Though there’s not a lot of room for analysis in a little-known (but totally awesome) 90s comedy, there’s plenty to say about inspiration tapes. Artists throughout history have turned to muses.

Read my full article.

Before I Was a Writer

10 May 2022

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.

Read my full article.

The Complementary Arts

4 May 2022

Can you cure yourself of writer’s block? Maybe.

Read my full article.

Editing Software or Not: How Much Comes Down to Mechanics?

11 April 2022

A manuscript tarnished by typos, missed words, and formatting errors, doesn’t stack up well. It faces stiff competition from authors who have gone the extra mile polishing their pieces.

Read my full article.

A Woman of Letters

31 March 2022

For a writer, letter writing is not a lost art. In our letters, we practice our craft, learning how our words can touch, amuse, and gall our reader.

Read my full article.

Writing About Writing

22 March 2022

Every writer hears, “Write what you know.” And what every writer knows is writing, its intricacy, weight, and solitude. With so many hours spent alone at the keyboard, is anything more authentic to writers than transcribing their daily experiences and emotions?

Read my full article.

The Writer’s Game

13 March 2022

Baseball’s literary tradition is undeniable. Generations of writers take inspiration from the chalk lines and grassy diamonds of baseball fields.

Read my full article.

Don’t A-BAN-don Me

10 March 2022

Calls to ban books from school libraries and reading lists is on the rise again. Fighting censorship has never been more important.

Read my full article.

Edit, Edit, Edit.

23 February 2022

When a piece is in its fourth or fifth draft, further edits are hard to find. Kearns gives writers a quick demonstration of how to look again.

Read my full article.

What Would Mother Think?

11 February 2022

Great fiction is drawn from life, mixing writers’ lived experiences with the imagined worlds of their characters. When art co-mingles with life this way, real feelings are at stake. Read more.

Baby Steps

20 January 2022

Until last week, I’d never sold a story. Not for money. And while my first fee is modest, it required me to produce my first invoice. Read about my crash course.

Creating Lifelike Characters

19 November 2021

Characterization can be the difference between a good story and a great one. Read more about ways to look deeper into your characters as you bring them to life.

Writers’ group blues.

17 November 2021

Critique groups, writers’ clubs, style guides, webinars: they are ubiquitous for unpublished writers. Resources like these intend to aid aspiring writers in finding their voices, refining their process, and getting stories in print. Can these methods deliver on their tantalizing promise? Well, there may be one thing missing. Read my full article.

November is the time to get inspired.

1 November 2021

National Novel Writing Month begins November 1st. Join writers across the globe as they get to work on that novel. Read my full article.

More details at:

Publishing Notes

20 October 2021

Publishing… and Other Forms of Madness

Erica Verillo dishes up direct advice on approaching agents and editors while outlining common pitfalls for aspiring writers. Her comprehensive blog includes links to publishers seeking novelists, prose writers and poets, as well as up-to-date lists of paying markets.

Archived Reviews

Below, you’ll find full reviews of the books I’ve included in past Jennifer Reads posts.

If there’s a book you’d like to see reviewed here, leave a comment down below or send a message via my Contact Me page.

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18 June 2022

Elsa Sosa explains what she knows of her father’s life and legacy, pulling together tales of family and childhood in the Dominican Republic.

Read my full review.

If I Survive You by Jonathan Escoffery

7 June 2022

It’s hard to avoid phrases like, “powerhouse short stories,” and “dazzling debut.” Each story enlightens the rest, making the collection a perfect balance of tenderness and grit, hope, and despair.

Read my full review.

Untamed Passions of an Enigmatic Jamaican Man by Donovan Moore

Reviewed, 20 May 2022

Moore isn’t shy with the juicy details. Not so with matters of the heart. He withholds recollections of childhood and close friendships. On an endless quest for a love that satisfies the soul, he admits himself a philandering husband doomed to the sadness of repeated losses.

Read my full review.

Send Her Back and Other Stories by Munashe Kaseke

Reviewed, 13 May 2022

New immigrants and first-generation Americans bring life into focus. Through their eyes, we see ourselves again for the first time.

Read my full review.

In the Marble Maze by Olafur Gudnason

Reviewed, 7 May 2022

In the Marble Maze is one of many memorials Gudnason creates for Engilbjort. As he sorts through relics, photos, and clothing, he takes time to remember.

Read my full review.

Figurines by Jamie Boud

Reviewed 29 April 2022

Figurines is the tumultuous story of a mother and daughter lost in a cycle of abuse, neglect, and mental illness.

Read my full review.

Vigil Harbor by Julia Glass

Reviewed 22 April 2022

On a Massachusetts peninsula, the town of Vigil Harbor is steeped in history while besieged by a tumultuous world.

Read my full review.

By the Iowa Sea by Joe Blair

7 April 2022

Joe Blair’s excellent memoir roils and surges like the flooded Iowa rivers which were his inspiration.

Read my full review.

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Fred: And Unbecoming Woman by Annie Krabbenschmidt

Reviewed, 24 March 2022

Part memoir, part treatise, part confessional, Krabbenschmidt’s book opens its heart to embrace the world as a fully human being.

Read my full review.

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Remembrances of Things to Come: Daily Life in France from 1003 to 1975 by Douglas Bullis

Reviewed, 17 March 2022

A history book with a difference, Remembrances of Things to Come, takes readers on a tour of times past.

Read my full review.

A More Perfect Union by Alexander Moss

Reviewed, 24 February 2022

Ever get chills reading the morning headlines? Ever worry about how bad it could get? A More Perfect Union has an unexpected solution.

Read my full review.

Stories for the Apocalypse #1: Notes on the New Normal by Ben Tallon

Reviewed, 10 February 2022

Grab a beverage. Forget what they’re saying about you on social media. Stories for the Apocalypse #1 is altered reality with a vicious grin.

Read my full review.

Milkman by Anna Burns

Reviewed, 28 January 2022

Winner of the Man Booker Prize 2018, Milkman is a novel of importance not for the history it records but for the human story folded in its pages.

Read my full review.

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My Secret Radio by Michael Hallock

Reviewed, 12 January 2022

The story of a Southern Gothic everyman drawn by Fate through a late-20th century coming-of-age, My Secret Radio reflects on humanity and the cycles of history.

Read my full review.

DeadStar: Who the Hell Was Garth Tyson

Reviewed, 29 December 2021

by Nick Griffiths

A cast of outspoken characters framed by a compelling mystery, DeadStar offers obscure rock history with the requisite effing and blinding.

Read my full review.

The Last Days of Dogtown by Anita Diamant

Reviewed, 13 December 2021

I first reviewed this novel on Good Reads in June 2011. Ten years later, I still receive regular comments from fellow readers about this haunting gem.

Read my full review.

The Mighty Franks by Michael Frank

Reviewed, 27 November 2021

Michael Frank gives us his coming of age story in the form of this emotional memoir of a remarkable family.

Read my full review.

Giving Up the Ghost by Hilary Mantel

Reviewed, 8 November 2021

Written before her highly acclaimed Booker Prize-winning novels Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, Mantel comes to terms with a childhood of illness and poverty, nosey neighbors and social sleights. The keen girl who observes it all is a born writer.

Read my full review.

The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes (And How to Avoid Them) by Jack M. Bickham

Reviewed, 29 October 2021

This comprehensive style guide leads the way through a minefield of writing pitfalls. With chapter titles like, Don’t Make Excuses and Don’t Worry What Mother Will Think, Bickham leads aspiring writers over the narrow path to great stories.

Read my full review.

Writing In General and the Short Story In Particular by Rust Hill

Reviewed, 16 October 2021

Rust Hill breaks down modern fiction with the insights of a veteran reader, editor and lecturer, assuring us in his introduction that originality makes the difference between “slick fiction” and a fine story. “If you’ve actually got that, you’re the kind of person who could possibly really use this book, without probably really needing it….”

Read my full review .