Any successful author will tell you that before they hit the literary bigtime, they had to do a whole lot of hustling to support their writing habit. On July 5, 1880, playwright George Bernard Shaw was able to quit his day job, but some of these authors continued to work at their 9-to-5’s even after they were published. Here are the day jobs of ten of our favorite writers:

George Bernard Shaw: Telephone company employee

George Bernard Shaw took his last day job at the Edison Telephone Company in his early 20’s, where he worked in a basement in London and performed “demonstrations” for visitors of how telephones worked. As he humorously commented in his preface for The Irrational Knot, he said his audience was typically uncertain “as to whether they ought to tip me or not: a question they either decided in the negative or never decided at all; for I never got anything.”

Frank O’Hara: Museum clerk

The famous poet of the New York School of the 1950s and 60s got his paychecks from the Museum of Modern Art, where he worked as a clerk at the information desk, a shop employee, and eventually as an associate curator, a position he held even as his literary career flourished with the publication of Lunch Poems in 1965; in fact, many of his poems were written in his MoMA office or on his daily lunch break.

Arthur Conan Doyle: Surgeon

The creator of Sherlock Holmes was, like Holmes’ sidekick, a physician by trade before he became a famous writer. He served as a surgeon in South Africa during the Boer War and on a ship during a seven-month Arctic expedition. In fact, the inspiration for his deductive detective came from a surgeon he met while he was a student at Edinburgh University, who could determine information about a patient’s job, activities, and habits just by observing them.

William Carlos Williams: Physician

Another doctor-cum-author, Williams was a pediatrician and obstetrician who practiced in Rutherford, New Jersey. However, unlike Doyle, Williams never gave up his medical career; he held a private practice for 40 years, writing poems on prescription pads between house calls. Due to Williams’ relative obscurity in his lifetime, most of his patients had no idea that their physician was also a poet.

Kurt Vonnegut: Car salesman

Kurt Vonnegut, who previously worked as a police reporter and a public relations writer for General Electric, had a short stint as a manager of a Saab dealership in Cape Cod to support his family, an experience he wrote about in his essay “Have I Got a Car for You!” which was collected in A Man Without a Country.

William S. Burroughs: Exterminator

In addition to being, at various points in his life, a robber, drug dealer, bartender, and private detective, William S. Burroughs was a door-to-door exterminator in Chicago in his youth, despite (or perhaps because of) his apparent hatred of insects; Burroughs wrote a short story, Exterminator!, based on his experience with the job.

Wallace Stevens: Insurance lawyer

The Pulitzer Prize-winning Wallace Stevens spent years of his life working in insurance, first as a lawyer and then as a vice president of the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company in Connecticut, where he worked from 1916 until his death in 1955. Throughout his life, he managed to balance his family with successful careers in business and literature; in fact, he even took an eight year hiatus from poetry after the birth of his daughter to focus on his insurance work and parenting.

Margaret Atwood: Barista

As Margaret Atwood wrote in her essay Ka-Ching!, her first job was at a coffee shop in Toronto in 1962, where she worked for a summer to help pay for her education. Even though she had little experience, the job proved not too difficult, except for a broken cash register that frustrated the soon-to-be Governor General’s Award winner so much that she had to quit.

Charlotte Brontë: Governess

The author of Jane Eyre drew on personal experience to create the title character of her most famous novel, as Bronte herself was a governess for several years, traveling between multiple families and eventually also taking a stint as an English teacher in Brussels in 1842.

Paul Laurence Dunbar: Elevator operator

The talented poet Paul Laurence Dunbar originally wanted to study law, but couldn’t afford the necessary education; however, finding work in his local Dayton, Ohio was a struggle due to racial discrimination. He finally secured a job as an elevator operator, where he found time to write poetry and eventually launch his literary career.

If you want to learn more about the day jobs of famous writers, check out NYPL’s digital resources, including Biography in ContextAmerican National Biography, and the Literature Resource Center.

This post originally appeared on the New York Public Library website


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The Brontës Charlotte (1816–1855) Emily (1818–1848) Anne (1820–1849).” Gérin, Winifred. British Writers, edited by Ian Scott-Kilvert, vol. 5, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1979, pp. 105-153. Literature Resource Center.  Accessed 3 July 2017.

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