“Follow your dreams.” “Take risks.” “Be brave.” In hopeful America where ambition is as tall as the Empire State Building, we romanticize the risk-takers who take big, bold steps toward their dreams: the aspiring novelists who quit their soul-sapping day jobs to toil away in anonymity, the artists who sacrifice everything. We want grand gestures done in the name of creativity: a Leo Tolstoy who sacrifices his material possessions to go on a spiritual quest, a Van Gogh who devotes his life to his art, despite the fact that he can never make a living from his paintings.
In our cultural consciousness, being an artist means living in a bohemian studio in Brooklyn or Montparnasse and leading a Dionysian life of cheap wine, cocaine and excess. An artist can’t work a conventional job at a bank or an insurance company, he certainly can’t have a normal, quiet life and rejoice in the trappings of the middle-class bourgeoisie.
To be a “real” writer, you have to write full time and make money from your writing. Working a regular 9-to-5 job while pursuing your art on the side is seen as cowardly. After all, shouldn’t a “real” writer fearlessly pursue his dreams instead of care too much about practical matters like mortgage payments and 401ks?
But nothing is more damaging to the muse than demanding she support you financially. No matter how much we glamorize the myth of the starving artist, there’s nothing glamorous about stressing about money. Buoyant spirit and overall beautiful human being Elizabeth Gilbert is a passionate champion of working to provide for your creativity. Before she wrote her blockbuster bestseller Eat, Pray, Love, she worked countless jobs to sustain herself while writing. At various points in her life, she was a tutor, a cook, a waitress, a bartender. At fifteen, she made a pact with her creativity: “I will never ask you to support me financially. I will support both of us.” Instead of “be brave” and quit her day job, Gilbert worked so she could pay the rent and focus on what really mattered: her art.
Despite the destructive myth that being a “real” writer means writing for a living, Mason Currey’s “delightful book of quirks and oddities,” Daily Rituals reveals many of the most distinguished writers held ordinary occupations during the day. Below are three world class writers who had regular jobs despite their massive success in writing:
1. T.S. Eliot
Is there anything less poetic than working at bank? Yet titan of modernist poetry T.S. Eliot worked as a clerk at London’s Lloyd’s Bank for nearly a decade. From 1917-1925 in between writing some of the most revolutionary poetry of the century, Eliot wore a pin-striped suit, parted his hair seriously to one side and worked what would appear to be a rather dull office job in the bank’s foreign transactions department. Like the rest of us bread-and-butter slaves, he commuted on a crowded train every morning (“I am sojourning among the termites,” he wrote to British writer and critic Lytton Strachey) and worked Monday through Friday from 9:15-5:30.
The banker’s life may have lacked the thrill and romance of the poet’s, but Eliot was grateful for a steady paycheck and reliable gig. Before his job at Lloyd’s, he worked as a teacher at Highgate School where he taught French and Latin. To subsidize his meager income, he wrote book reviews and lectured at evening extension courses at Oxford and University College London. Not only was teaching exhausting, it narrowly paid the bills and barely left him enough time for his true calling. Therefore, when he got the position at Lloyd’s, Eliot was overjoyed. Two days after receiving the appointment, he wrote his mother, “I am now earning two pounds ten shillings a week for sitting in an office from 9:15 to 5:00 with an hour for lunch, and tea served in office…Perhaps it will surprise you that I enjoy the work. It is not nearly so fatiguing as school teaching and it is more interesting.”
Though Eliot did eventually leave his bourgeois job at the bank for a more “literary” position as an editor at Faber and Gwyer (later Faber and Faber), his years at Lloyd’s helped him establish himself as a writer. Had he not had the stability afforded by a 9-to-5 job, perhaps Eliot would have never written “The Wasteland” or been able to show us fear in a handful of dust.
2. Wallace Stevens
Wallace Stevens was yet another poet who spent his days in a gray-colored cubicle. Rather than chase his literary dreams after graduating from Harvard, Stevens took his father’s advice and made the sensible choice to attend law school. He later accepted a position at Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company, where his main responsibility was evaluating insurance claims as an insurance lawyer. Stevens was so successful that he was promoted to vice president of the company in 1934.
Though it’s hard to imagine a poet indulging in trivial office gossip around the water cooler, Stevens loved the stability of the corporate 9-to-5. “I find that having a job is one of the best things in the world that could happen to me,” he once confessed, “It introduces discipline and regularity into one’s life.”
Many of us think that to write you need yawning vistas of time: a year long sabbatical, an entire summer, at least an afternoon of uninterrupted hours. However, we’re often more productive when we have more— not fewer— demands on our time. When you have a full-time job, you have to make time to write. Stevens, for example, would write poetry on long walks during his lunch hour (like Henry David Thoreau and William Wordsworth before him, he knew walking was the fertile soil where the seeds of great ideas were planted). When inspiration unexpectedly struck at the office, Stevens would scribble fragments of poems onto bits of paper, file them in the lower right-hand drawer of his desk, and have his secretary type them.
Like Eliot, Stevens kept a day job because he didn’t want to worry about dollars and cents. We may romanticize poets who die destitute in garrets, but there’s nothing romantic about being penniless. In fact, money troubles distract from creativity and cause enormous stress. Stevens’ substantial salary as a lawyer ($20,000 a year, equivalent to about $350,000 today) promised money— or lack of it— never interfered with his poetry. “I am just as free as I want to be and of course I have nothing to worry about money,” Stevens once wrote, grateful for his days at the office.
3. Anthony Trollope
Many know that Anthony Trollope was one of the most prolific writers of all time, but fewer know that he wrote many of his 47 novels, 42 short stories and 5 travel books while employed. From 1834 to 1867, the English novelist worked as a civil servant at the General Post Office and only wrote in the three hours before dressing for breakfast.
Trollope’s routine was strict and unvarying. In his Autobiography, he admitted, “I allowed myself no mercy.” Every morning— no matter what— he rose at 5:30 and began working. To hold himself accountable, he paid an old butler 5 pounds to wake up with him and bring him coffee. “I owe more to him than to any one else for the success that I have had,” Trollope once said, half-seriously.
With only a few hours before he had to be at the post office, Trollope required himself to produce at least 250 words every quarter of an hour. By the end of the morning, he’d have written a whole 10 pages of a novel, a pace— if sustained— that would result in 2,400 pages, or several lengthy novels, by the end of a year.
Trollope’s dedication to his craft was no doubt influenced by his mother, who took up writing later in life to support her six children and Trollope’s ailing father. Like most women throughout history, Mrs. Trollope was primarily responsible for housework and child-rearing. To be able to write and still fulfill her domestic duties, she rose before sunrise everyday. Both Trollope and his mother are proof that if you really want to write, you can find the time…even if it’s at 5:30 in the morning.