Former professions of famous writers

John MacBeath Watkins

Most writers did something else before they became famous writers. I've long been fascinated by this, because the experiences they bring to bear on their writing shapes the narrative.

Herman Melville was a merchant mariner who later became a customs inspector when he found his writing wouldn't support him.
Aphra Bhen, secret agent


Mark Twain was a printer's devil, then a riverboat pilot before the Civil War and a journalist after that, before becoming a successful novelist, essayist and lecturer.

Dante Alighieri was a cavalry soldier and later joined the physicians' and apothecaries' guild before writing The Divine Comedy.

Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, better known only as Cervantes, was also a military man, serving as a marine in the Spanish Navy during the Battle of Lepanto, where he was wounded three times, leaving his left arm limp. Returning to Spain, his ship was captured by an Algerian corsair, and he worked as a slave for five years and made four unsuccessful escape attempts before his parents ransomed him and he could begin his literary career.

Solomon Northup, born free in New York, was kidnapped in Washington D.C. and worked for 12 years as a slave before he was rescued. New York had in 1840 established funding for rescuing its citizens who were kidnapped and sold into slavery, so apparently this was a problem for quite a few free New York blacks.

Frederick Douglass was born into slavery, and escaped at about the age of 18, later writing his autobiography and becoming an influential abolitionist and reformer.

Chester Himes get busted for armed robbery when he was 19, and began writing in prison. If you haven't read If he Hollers Let Him Go, do so immediately.

Nathaniel Hawthorne began writing while working at the Boston Customs House. He was also a magazine editor at one point, but earned most of his money in the customs service.

Captain Frederick Marrayat, who set the pattern of square-rigged adventure stories, served in the British Navy, as a midshipman under the infamous Lord Cochrane, later invented a lifeboat (and got the name "lifeboat" Marrayat) and developed a flag signalling system known as Marrayat's Code. After the Napoleonic wars ended, he held the rank of captain and could still get commands, but he wrote a novel, Frank Mildmay, or, The Naval Officer, and sent it off to a publisher. When he returned from a two-year voyage, his book had been published and he was a best-selling author. He gave up his commission and devoted himself to writing.

Like Twain, Ernest Hemingway was a journalist before he became a novelist, but not until after he served as an ambulance driver in World War I. George Orwell was a journalist as well as well, but not until after he'd served as a policeman in Burma. Orwell also served in an Anarchist unit in the Spanish Civil War.

Joseph Conrad ran away from his home in Poland at the age of 17, and became a merchant mariner. He became a Captain in the British merchant marine, and worked at that until his health forced him to return to land and become a writer. Another merchant mariner was Jack Vance, a science fiction writer. He was nearly blind, but memorized the eye chart to become a able-bodied seaman.

Vance also studied physics and engineering. Robert Heinlein, another science fiction writer, studied engineering at the Naval Academy and had a career as a naval officer until he was forced by his health to retire and become a writer. Isaac Asimov, famous for inventing the laws of robotics, was a biochemistry professor. Arthur C. Clarke was a pensions auditor before World War II, became a radar operator during the war, and studied physics and mathematics after the war.

Aphra Bhen, one of the first famous northern European women writers, was a spy until poverty and debt drove her to writing. Ian Fleming, Graham Greene, John le Carre, Muriel Spark, and Compton McKenzie (an early gay writer and author of Whiskey Galore) also served in intelligence. Christopher Marlowe, who bought jokes for his plays from Shakespeare, was also a spy.

Mary Wollstonecraft worked as a lady's companion and a governess before becoming pregnant out of wedlock, not once, but twice. The second time she married British author William Godwin and began her career writing and campaigning for women's rights.

Jane Austen, born to the landed gentry, lived at home and seems not to have worked outside of it before beginning her literary career.

Baroness Emma Magdolna Rozália Mária Jozefa Borbála "Emmuska" Orczy de Orczi, aka Baroness Orczy, despite her noble birth, had little money and worked as a translator before writing Gothic novels which are still read.

Charlotte and Anne Bronte were governesses, and Emily Bronte worked as a teacher until the 17-hour days broke her health and she returned home.

W. Somerset Maugham was a medical student when he started writing, but he was so successful as a writer he had no need to practice medicine.

Dorothy Sayers is another who gained literary success without a prior career. She was also one of the first women to receive an MA from Somerville College in Oxford when those degrees became available to women.

Josephine Tey was the pen name of Elizabeth Mackintosh, a physical education teacher.

Ursula Le Guin did an MA in French and Italian literature, but worked as a secretary before she became one of the most respected living writers of science fiction and fantasy.

George Eliot was a magazine editor named Mary Evans before she was published as a writer under he pen name. George Sand was an often-straying housewife named Amantine Dupin before being published under her pen name.

Louisa May Alcott worked as a teacher, seamstress, governess, and domestic helper, before success as a writer allowed her to focus on this craft.

Jack London escaped long hours working in a cannery to become an oyster pirate. After his oyster sloop got damaged beyond repair, he worked for the Fish Patrol, hunting poachers such as he had been. He signed on with a sealing schooner, and on finishing the voyage, fell on hard times and became a tramp. At this point in his life, he was still only 17, and became a high school student. A saloon keeper lent him money to go to college when he was admitted, but finances forced him to drop out.

He was 21 when he left for the gold fields of Alaska, and suffered scurvy there. He decided that the only way to get out of poverty was writing, and early on even when published, he was paid badly and late. By 1900, his fortunes had turned, and he made $2,500 writing that year. Keep in mind, that's about what a modest house cost in 1900.

One might have expected a man with such a heroic career to write the ultimate hero stories, but that fell to Robert E. Howard, now remembered for the Conan stories. He did a little journalism and worked as a stenographer for an oil company.

Flannery O'Connor was interested in birds, and raised peacocks, emus and ostriches before gaining her literary fame.

Isabel Allende worked for the U.N. and later translated romances into Spanish before launching her literary career.

Maya Angelou worked as a street-car conductor, night club dancer, prostitute, madame, and actor before gaining success as a writer. Robert Ludlum, after serving in the Marines, became an actor and theatrical producer before writing thrillers.

William Faulner, rejected by the U.S. Army Air Force in World War I, changed the spelling of his name and lied about his birthplace to join the RAF. He was still training when the war ended. He also worked at a post office in New York before being asked to resign for "moral reasons." Faulkner was, of course, a drunk, and likely was drunk on duty. He often elaborated his RAF experiences, fabricating war wounds, including a metal plate in his head.

F. Scott Fitzgerald, born with every advantage, was doing badly in college when he dropped out in 1917 to join the army. He worked for an advertising agency before gaining a reputation as a writer, then drank himself to an early death.

More later.

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