7 Famous Authors and their Day Jobs

— Nina on

As summer winds down and a new school year starts back up again, it seems like only yesterday when we celebrated the completion of our many school projects and exams. It’s hard not to wonder, “Where did the time go?”

It may feel like we have trouble accomplishing everything that we want to do, but despair not! Some of our favorite authors in the classical canon pushed through their own daily grind just like the rest of us, and they still managed to write literary masterpieces.

Let’s take a look at a brief history of the behind-the-scenes work of some renowned writers and their day jobs.

1. Willa Cather, Powerhouse Magazine Editor

Best known texts: Her “Great Plains Trilogy”—O, Pioneers!, The Song of the Lark, and My Ántonia, which portray life on the rugged American frontier at the time of westward expansion.

Willa Cather left the Midwest for the comparatively bustling Northeast shortly after graduating from the University of Nebraska, Lincoln in order to pursue a career in journalism. In time, she made her way to New York City to become editor of fiction and poetry at McClure Magazine, a popular periodical now famous for its role in shaping American investigative journalism.

A hardworking, successful, cosmopolitan figure in the realm of literary journalism, Cather left her position at McClure’s at the start of her middle age to fully devote her attention to novel writing. It was after this that she wrote the famous “Great Plains Trilogy” for which she is so acclaimed.

2. Joseph Conrad, Man of the Sea

Best known texts: Lord Jim and Heart of Darkness, which illustrate the effects of European colonialism in the late 19th century.

As a young man, Joseph Conrad left Poland to work as a marine merchant across Europe, mostly on British ships. Since voyages were long and toilsome, reading was a principal recourse for the sailor. After two decades of work, Conrad left the mariner’s life to take up a career in writing. He went on to write several works colored with the sights and experiences of his life at sea.

3. T.S. Eliot, Pencil-Pushing Banker

Best known texts: “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and The Waste Land, which draw heavily on allusions to Western and Eastern cultures and serve as hallmarks of modernist poetry.

While Eliot’s works are thought of as a pinnacle in English literary culture, the poet wrote some of his most famous works in-between grinding away at desk jobs to make ends meet for himself and his wife Vivienne. Eliot lectured at various colleges in England for a short period before he took a clerical position at Lloyd’s Bank in London.

It was during his years at Lloyd’s that he wrote his seminal work The Waste Land. This poem’s themes include feelings of social discomfort and isolation of the modern world, and we can only assume that his time at desk jobs helped to inform this feeling. Though written before his stint as a banker, his famous poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufock” is similar in tone, the poem’s themes and images of existential malaise and social discomfort likely informed by his personal experiences at the time.

4. H.D., Actress and Film Critic

Best known texts: Her imagist poems, such as "The Garden” and “The Orchard”, which illustrate the resilience of nature and powerful feminist themes.

A modern renaissance woman, the American Imagist poet H.D. was also involved in the world of cinema. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, H.D. wrote reviews for a film journal jointly founded by her and her colleagues. During this period, she also acted in three silent films directed by close friend Kenneth Macpherson. One of these films, Borderline (1930), takes up the subject of interracial relationships from a fairly progressive point of view.

5. Franz Kafka, Insurance-Company Suit

Best known texts: The Trial and The Metamorphosis, which capture themes of absurdism, isolation, and serve as a heavy critique of bureaucracy.

Iconic in the corpus of 20th-century European literature, Kafka’s prose is acclaimed for a strain of absurdity so distinct, it won the author his very own adjective of "Kafkaesque.” Though quite literally synonymous with the strange and absurd, Kafka led a professional life that was as straight-laced as they come. A degree-holder in law, for most of his adult life Kafka earned his living as an insurance officer at a workers’ compensation institute in Prague.

6. Edith Wharton—Architect, Landscape Artist, and Interior Designer

Best known texts:The Age of Innocence and Ethan Frome, which deal with societal pressures, expectations, and tragedies in, respectively, the urban and rural United States.

Wharton was comfortable in American high society, and she also had a keen eye for architectural design and decorative taste. It’s not widely known that she wrote The Decoration of Houses, a guide on interior design often held as a cornerstone in American architectural history. Both the grounds and manor of her magnificent Massachusetts estate, The Mount (now a US National Historic Landmark) are of her own design.

Next time you read one of Wharton’s novels, make note of her descriptions of settings as her attention to detail will give you some absolutely beautiful descriptions.

7. Virginia Woolf—Critic, Educator, and Intellectual

Best known texts: Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse, which challenge conventional perspectives, both mechanically and thematically.

Although this British novelist and feminist came from a highly cultured, well-connected, and well-off family, Virgina Woolf faced early struggles in establishing herself as a writer, critic, and intellectual. In her early life, the young Woolf wrote book reviews for a newspaper and taught liberal arts courses at a women’s college primarily for the working class—which she considered unsatisfying work.

For a look at some of her earlier work, consider Woolf's earlier novels The Voyage Out, Night and Day, and Jacob's Room as well as her short story collection Monday or Tuesday.