Great writers all had one thing in common.
April 3, 2016
THERE IS AN OLD SAYING in the world of literature.
Got a story to tell?
Want to be a writer?
Good for you.
Don’t quit your day job.
Maybe you will be one of the fortunate souls who can earn a living writing and publishing books.
I hope you can.
I hope you do.
But don’t bet on it.
We look at great writers who have established their names and their reputations in the world of publishing.
We envy them.
We want to be just like they are.
Well, for the most part, they achieved success for one reason.
They didn’t quit their day jobs.
Let’s take a look at a few.
William S. Burroughs was an American novelist, satirist, essayist, short story wrier, and a major figure of the Beat Generation.
He is considered “one of the most politically trenchant, culturally influential, and innovative artists of the twentieth century.”
It’s said he wrote in the paranoid fiction genre.
Maybe there was a reason for it.
He worked in Chicago as a bug exterminator.
When the British marched off to war against Germany in 1914, Agatha Christie promptly jointed the Voluntary Aid Department and, for the next four years, worked in a military hospital, attending the troops.
She became an apothecaries’ assistant, earned only thirteen hundred dollars a year, and learned everything she could about pharmaceuticals.
Agatha was particularly intrigued with poisons.
She would use them extensively in her murder mysteries.
Poisons, she thought, made a wonderful and deadly weapon.
Arthur Conan Doyle studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh and served as a ship’s doctor on board an Arctic whaler. He became a surgeon aboard a ship headed to West Africa, and eventually opened his own medical practice in England.
Between patients, he had a lot of time on his hands.
He used it well.
He wrote his first novel: The Mystery of Cloomber.
No publisher wanted it until Sherlock Holmes saw the light of day in A Study in Scarlet.
Robert Frost was a schoolteacher and a classroom assistant.
He even worked for a light bulb filament company.
And, in his spare time, he began writing poetry.
He sold a poem.
In 1894, a publication bought My Butterfly: An Elegy.
It was a beginning.
But Frost kept the light bulbs burning just in case it didn’t work out.
Joseph Heller took a job as a blacksmith’s apprentice before joining the Army Air Corps.
He taught composition, fiction and dramatic writing at schools and colleges across the country, finally hooking up with an advertising agency.
He had the idea for novel. It would make you laugh. It would make you cry.
He sat down and, within a week, wrote the first chapter of Catch-22.
It’s a good thing he kept writing advertising copy.
It took another eight years before he finished the book.
It seems J. D. Salinger had an affair with Eugene O’Neill’s daughter.
The relationship didn’t turn out well.
He ran away from life and hired on as the activities director aboard a luxury Caribbean cruise ship.
He tried to write a little.
He even sold a short story to the New Yorker.
But, alas, it wasn’t published.
The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor changed a lot of things overnight.
Salinger was drafted, and the army sent him to Normandy.
His short story, Slight Rebellion Off Madison, didn’t turn up in the pages of the New Yorker until 1946. It was significant.
The story’s main character was a disaffected teenager named Holden Caulfield.
The world would know him better as the lost and confused soul in The Catcher in the Rye, published five years later.
Franz Kafka was a man most miserable.
He had day jobs. He hated them all.
But he kept working anyway, as an unpaid legal clerk, at an insurance firm, and at an industrial insurance institute as a compensation assessor.
It’s said Kafka even invented the hard hat.
But his work kept him frustrated and depressed.
It’s little wonder that his writing was so dark. His characters were almost always confronting an overbearing power, one that could easily break the will of men.
Kafka knew how his characters felt.
He felt the same way.
Harper Lee dropped out of law school in Alabama and headed for New York to become a writer.
She worked as a ticket agent for Eastern Airlines and BOAC, writing short stories and essays whenever she could find the time.
A childhood friend, Truman Capote, introduced her to Broadway lyricist and composer Michael Brown.
He thought she had talent.
Brown gave Harper Lee one year’s wages and told her, “You have one year off to write whatever you please.”
A year later, she handed her agent the first draft of “To Kill a Mockingbird.”