Attention doctors, bankers and insurance brokers—don’t give up on your literary dreams. These nine writers published some of their best stuff while holding down day jobs.
Herman Melville – Customs inspector
Popular for a string of colorful novels based on his adventures at sea, Melville turned to more serious, complex fiction starting in the late 1840s. As a result, he promptly lost his readership—and his financial stability. Not only did “Moby Dick” (1851) bomb with readers and critics, but the strain of writing it drove Melville to a nervous breakdown in 1856. “Dollars damn me,” Melville wrote to his friend Nathaniel Hawthorne about his struggles to support his family. In 1866, he finally secured a steady income (about $4 a day) as a deputy customs inspector at the New York docks. He held that post for the next 22 years while continuing to write in the evenings, on weekends and during vacation. Melville died in 1891, largely forgotten by the literary world, but the much-delayed publication of his last novel “Billy Budd” in 1924 helped revive interest in his work.
Anton Chekhov – Doctor
As a young man, Chekhov attended medical school at Moscow University, even while supporting his entire family (his father had declared bankruptcy) by publishing short, funny sketches about Russian daily life. He qualified as a physician in 1884, and sporadically practiced as a doctor throughout much of his literary career. Considered one of the greatest short-story writers in history, Chekhov also wrote classic plays like “The Seagull,” “Uncle Vanya,” “Three Sisters” and “The Cherry Orchard.” As he put it, “Medicine is my lawful wife, and literature is my mistress.” As a bonus, Chekhov’s medical practice enriched his writing by bringing him into contact with all corners of Russian society, from peasants to aristocrats.
Bram Stoker – Theater manager
While working as a civil servant and part-time unpaid drama critic in Dublin, Stoker befriended the famous actor Sir Henry Irving after writing a glowing review of one of his plays. In 1878, when Irving took over London’s Lyceum Theatre, he asked Stoker to be his business manager. The newly married Stoker uprooted his life and moved to London. He worked for Irving for almost 27 years, keeping up with the actor’s voluminous correspondence and managing the theater’s ledgers. Stoker also somehow found time for writing, and published nine books over that periodmost famously “Dracula” (1897). When Irving died in 1905, Stoker lost the job he had loved, but he kept writing (including a biography of Irving) until his own death seven years later.
Franz Kafka – Insurance executive
Soon after he completed his law studies at the University of Prague, the young Kafka decided on a career in insurance, all the while determined to write in the evenings. In 1908, he took a job at the Workers’ Accident Insurance Institute for the Kingdom of Bohemia. Over the near-decade Kafka remained with the company, he was known for his tireless work ethic, and became his boss’ right-hand man. He also kept writing, publishing one of his best-known short stories, “The Metamorphosis,” in 1915. Two years later, a bout of tuberculosis forced Kafka to take a sick leave from his job. He retired in 1922, and died two years later after traveling to Austria to undergo treatment in a sanatorium. Only a fragment of Kafka’s fiction would be published during his lifetime. The rest came to light thanks to his old friend and literary executor, Max Brod, who disobeyed the author’s request to destroy any unpublished manuscripts.
Virginia Woolf – Publisher
In 1917, Woolf and her husband, Leonard, bought a used printing press and started Hogarth Press, named for their home in the London suburb of Richmond. Leonard thought publishing would give Virginia, whose mental health was precarious, something to occupy her mind when she wasn’t writing; the two writers also wanted to publish their own work without dealing with the annoyance of editors. Virginia loved the work of printing, writing to her sister Vanessa that, “you can’t think how exciting, soothing, ennobling and satisfying it is.” The Woolfs published the works of other writers as well, including Katharine Mansfield, T.S. Eliot and Sigmund Freud (although they turned down James Joyce’s “Ulysses”), and by the 1930s Hogarth Press had grown into a major publishing house. Virginia gave up her half of the business to John Lehmann in 1938, three years before she committed suicide.
T.S. Eliot – Bank clerk and publisher
In 1917, when he was 29 years old, Eliot began working in the foreign transactions department of Lloyds Bank of London, a post he would hold for the next eight years. Smack in the middle of that time, Eliot published his masterful poem “The Waste Land” (1922), which won him an international reputation, along with other poems and essays. Eliot thrived on the routine of office life so much that when some of the members of the famed Bloomsbury group offered to set up a monetary fund in order to enable him to give up the job at Lloyds, he declined. He finally left the bank to become a director at the publishing house Faber & Faber, where he worked into his seventies. While in that post, he continued to publish his own poetry while shepherding into print the work of other great modern poets such as Ezra Pound, W.H. Auden, Marianne Moore, Louis MacNeice and Ted Hughes.
Wallace Stevens – Insurance executive
After graduating from New York Law School and working for various law firms in New York City, Stevens made the switch to insurance. In 1916, he began working at Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company in Connecticut, where he would work for the rest of his life, becoming vice-president in 1934. The steady job (and comfortable income) didn’t stifle Stevens’ creativity, beginning with the publication of his first book, the critically lauded “Harmonium,” in 1923. By the early 1950s, Stevens was considered one of America’s greatest contemporary poets, and he won a Pulitzer Prize for his “Collected Poems,” published in 1954.
William Carlos Williams – Doctor
A native of Rutherford, New Jersey, Williams studied medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, where he forged friendships with fellow poets Ezra Pound and Hilda Doolittle (H.D.). In 1910, he returned to his hometown and devoted himself to a dual career as a doctor and poet. He maintained a thriving medical practice for the next 41 years, often jotting poems on his prescription pads. Despite his focus on local life, he remained active in the avant-garde poetry world, publishing in various journals and winning literary prizes (including the National Book Award in 1950 for the third volume of his five-book-long epic “Paterson”). In 1951, Williams suffered the first of a series of strokes and was forced to give up his work as a doctor. He continued writing poetry until his death in 1963, winning a posthumous Pulitzer Prize for his last work, “Pictures from Brueghel, and Other Poems.”
Toni Morrison – Editor and teacher
After teaching literature at Texas Southern University and Howard University, Toni Morrison took a job editing textbooks for a division of Random House in Syracuse, New York in 1964. The newly single mother of two young sons, she got up before dawn to work on what would become her first novel, “The Bluest Eye” (1970). Morrison later transferred to Random House’s New York City offices and began working as a fiction editor, even as she was publishing her own work with Knopf (owned by Random House). Only after she published her third novel “Song of Solomon,” which won the 1977 National Book Critics Circle Award, did Morrison quit her editing job. She later taught writing and literature classes at the State University of New York at Albany and Princeton University, all the while adding to the formidable body of work that would earn her the 1993 Nobel Prize for Literature.