Odd jobs of famous writers

In my last post about the daily lives of famous creatives, I pointed out that many of the greats didn’t have the pleasure/burden of a day job–at least in their heyday. I’m sure most had day jobs at some point. And thanks to the good ol’ Huffington Post, we know what some of those were.

Here are some interesting facts about famous writers–before they were famous.

Chuck Palahniuk

  • Got his BA in journalism
  • Worked for a local Portland newspaper
  • Became a diesel mechanic and fixed trucks
  • Worked at a hospice center


J.D. Salinger

  • Went abroad with his father with the goal of learning more about the family’s ham and cheese business
  • Worked as an apprentice in a Polish slaughterhouse
  • After forgoing a future in the family biz, worked as an activity director on a Caribbean cruise ship
  • Went into WWII with the Counter-Intelligence Corps of the Fourth Infantry Division


Ayn Rand

  • Worked in Leningrad as a tour guide
  • Sought to write screenplays after moving to America
  • Worked as an extra in films
  • Sold subscriptions for newspapers
  • Waited tables
  • Worked as a filing clerk
  • Became the head of a wardrobe department
  • Worked as an assistant (unpaid) at an architecture firm to gather details for The Fountainhead

ayn rand

Franz Kafka

  • Became a clerk at a law firm after attending university for law
  • Worked for an insurance company, sometimes up to 60 hours a week
  • Helped manage his father’s business while also working at The Workman’s Accident Insurance Institute of Prague


F. Scott Fitzgerald

  • Worked for an ad agency, writing “slogans for trolley placards”
  • Fixed the roofs of cars while working at Northern Pacific Shops

Source: Huffington Post Books Blog




Daily Lives of Famous Creative People

flaubert quote(If by “regular” and “orderly,” he means “boring,” I’ve got this covered)

If you’re like me, you’ve read a great book or listened to a great album and thought, “How the hell did this masterpiece come to be?” It’s only natural to want to peek into the lives of the creators–in search of secrets or something to explain the genius.

So, of course, when I saw this post on ShortList.com, I analyzed it intensely. My conclusions? Not many of the greats spent time at a day job (lucky bastards!). And they are not big sleepers (this does not bode well for me). They have an enviable balance of creative work and food/leisure time. Some throw in a little exercise. If I had it my way, I’d live like Charles Darwin–a few daily walks and a nap; but I’d have Beethoven’s bedtime. I can mix and match, right?

creative life

Note: Click on the table for more details about what, exactly, these great minds were doing in each time slot. Interesting stuff.

Source: ShortList.com



So, I have an agent.

Let me explain why this is pretty awesome.

In my mind, there are 4 big steps for a writer who wants to publish a book with a big publishing house:

STEP 1: Write the f-ing book. This involves about a billion sub-steps, which I shudder to think about, let alone list.

STEP 2: Get an agent. Again, this involves lots of steps in itself. There are query letters involved, in which the writer does her best to brag a little and sell the story based on a 1-2 line synopsis. Typically, there are lots of rejection letters in response, enough to wallpaper a living room.

When people ask me why an agent is necessary, I compare it to why a real estate agent is necessary when selling a house. Literary agents know the biz. They have connections and relationships at big publishing houses. They can help writers get the best deal, the best editor, the best marketing. Of course, it’s totally possible for writers to self-publish, but it’s tough to get a paycheck or a big audience that way. There are success stories out there though!

STEP 3: Sell the book to a publisher. The agent does this while the writer sits back drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes and talking to cats and whatever else people think writers do.

STEP 4: Publish the damn thing. Each publishing house has editors who help shape the book into what it will be when you see it at Barnes & Noble (or, preferably, your local ma-and-pa bookstore. I am starting to realize that Amazon.com is evil). There are lots of revisions for the writer at this stage, usually.

Note: Some writers are under the impression that there is a step 5 that entails getting rich and gaining fame on a book tour. I am not under the illusion that this step exists. Unless you’re J.K. Rowling.

So, now I have successfully completed steps 1 and 2.

Granted, I have been here before. I have written several books over the past several years. And in the last decade, I have had 2 agents. I met my first agent at a party. I think she was drunk. That’s the only way to explain why she agreed to sign me on the spot, based on me drunkenly explaining my book’s story. This all actually happened. By the time she read the thing, she was not so enthusiastic. I met my second agent at a forum hosted by my grad school program. She read my book (a different book than the first agent read) and was very enthusiastic–a good sign. Then she promptly fell off the face of the earth and, to this day, I’m not sure if she ever did an hour of work on my behalf. I Googled the shit out of her and found that many writers had the same experience with her. I would say it was a scam, except that I never paid her a dime (which no writer should. Agents are paid on commission when they sell a book. If someone asks you to pay something before then, they are shady).

Given these past disappointments, I was dragging my feet on sending out my latest book. I worked on revisions for months. Then I reached the point when I really didn’t have anything left to revise. It was as good as it was going to be. And, frankly, I was sick of reading the thing.

Over the years, through my past submissions, I’ve developed a list of “agents who rejected me, but were really nice about it.” When I decided it was time to send my book out into the world, I consulted that list. I figured I’d go one at a time, starting with the person who was the nicest. Seriously, people, this is how it went.

I emailed her saying, “you probably don’t remember me, but…” (because, really, I’m 100% sure she didn’t remember me at all), and included a synopsis, a bit about me, and the first 5 pages of my book (all pasted in the body of the email). The next day, she wrote back and said she loved what I sent and wanted to read the whole thing. I believe my reaction was something like, “Holy shit balls!” I sent it off to her.

A week later, she emailed again. I stared at her email in my inbox for, like, an hour before I decided to open it. I was pretty sure it was going to say some variation of, “The writing is really good, but this just isn’t for me.” Instead, it said that she loved it and wanted to talk to me ASAP. Again, I believe my reaction was, “Holy shit balls!”

I talked to her last week. It was surreal to hear her gushing about my story, my characters. She said, and I quote, “This is the type of book every agent wants.” She said she assumed I was in talks with other agents and I told her, “Frankly, I’m not. You were first on my list.” She sent me a contract, I read through it. It was standard. If you’re wondering, 15% commission is what to expect from an agency contract, and it’s best if there’s no time requirement on the contract (my first 2 agents had 2-year contracts, which were like prison sentences for me; this one did not have that requirement).

So, I have an agent.

And she says my book will go to publishing houses as soon as TODAY.

You know what I think about that? HOLY SHIT BALLS.

Love letters from famous writers

I gotta say, if you’re a writer, a love letter is a tall order. There are expectations involved. I wrote my own vows when I got married last month, and my now-husband did the same. His friends told him he was crazy to attempt such a thing, since stringing words together is my daily life. As if wedding vows are a competitive affair. But, you know what? His were better. And I’m not just saying that to be a cute newlywed. I keep them in my day planner and they still make me blush.

Here are a few excerpts from love letters of famous writers (from this Huffington Post article). Enjoy.

From Dylan Thomas to Caitlin Thomas
Dylan claims to have loved his wife Caitlin at first sight, and to have proposed upon their first meeting.

Dylan Thomas - portrait of Welsh poet with wife Caitlin Thomas.
“I want you to be with me; you can have the spaces between the houses, and I can have the room with no windows; we’ll make a halfway house; you can teach me to walk in the air and I’ll teach you to make nice noises on the piano without any music; we’ll have a bed in a bar, as we said we would, and we shan’t have any money at all and we’ll live on other people’s, which they won’t like one bit. The room’s full of they now, but I don’t care, I don’t care for anybody. I want to be with you because I love you. I don’t know what I love you means, except that I do.”
Read the entire letter here

From Virginia Woolf to Vita Stackville-West
Vita, the partial subject of Woolf’s Orlando, was Woolf’s close friend. The two shared a brief, passionate relationship as well.

Love letters Virginia Woolf
“Look here Vita — throw over your man, and we’ll go to Hampton Court and dine on the river together and walk in the garden in the moonlight and come home late and have a bottle of wine and get tipsy, and I’ll tell you all the things I have in my head, millions, myriads — They won’t stir by day, only by dark on the river.”
Read more of the letter on Brain Pickings

From John Keats to Fanny Browne
Keats and Brawne were betrothed from 1818 until his death in 1821.

Love letters John Keats
“…write the softest words and kiss them that I may at least touch my lips where yours have been. For myself I know not how to express my devotion to so fair a form: I want a brighter word than bright, a fairer word than fair. I almost wish we were butterflies and liv’d but three summer days—three such days with you I could fill with more delight than fifty common years could ever contain.”
Read the entire letter on poets.org

From Oscar Wilde to Lord Alfred Douglas
Wilde and Douglas had a tumultuous affair peppered with frequent break ups and reconciliations.

Oscar And Bosey
“Your sonnet is quite lovely, and it is a marvel that those red rose-leaf lips of yours should be made no less for the madness of music and song than for the madness of kissing. Your slim gilt soul walks between passion and poetry. I know Hyacinthus, whom Apollo loved so madly, was you in Greek days.”
Read the entire letter on Thought Catalog

From Henry Miller to Anais Nin
Miller and Nin had a tumultuous, years-long affair in Paris.

Love letters Henry Miller
“Anais, I only thought I loved you before; it was nothing like this certainty that’s in me now. Was all this so wonderful only because it was brief and stolen? Were we acting for each other, to each other? Was I less I, or more I, and you less or more you? Is it madness to believe that this could go on? When and where would the drab moments begin? I study you so much to discover the possible flaws, the weak points, the danger zones. I don’t find them — not any.”
Read the entire letter on Letters of Note

>> Read more love letters here

Remembering Maya Angelou

When we left on our honeymoon, I vowed I would use my phone minimally on the trip. I wanted to disconnect from all the usual distractions–news, social media, email, etc. But, a few days in, like a sick addict, I couldn’t resist pulling up my Facebook feed. And then I saw that Maya Angelou had passed away.

You know what comes to mind when I think of Maya Angelou? High school. In my lit class, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings was a big deal. A BIG deal. It seems like we talked about it for the entirety of a semester. I had already fallen in love with writing by the time I read that book, but that book changed what I thought of as writing. That book, and Maya, showed me that the line between prose and poetry can be a blurry one.


Last year, I read a post on The Daily Beast that made me like Maya Angelou even more. From that post, here are a few entertaining insights into her writing process:

I’ve read of some eccentric writing habits of yours, involving hotel rooms without pictures on the walls, sherry, and headgear. How did you first come upon that cocktail for writing success, and has the routine evolved over your career?

And headgear! Ha! It was head ties, not headgear! Well, I was married a few times, and one of my husbands was jealous of me writing. When I write, I tend to twist my hair. Something for my small mind to do, I guess. When my husband would come into the room, he’d accuse me, and say, “You’ve been writing!” As if it was a bad thing. He could tell because of my hair, so I learned to hide my hair with a turban of some sort.

I do still keep a hotel room in my hometown, and pay for it by the month. I go around 6:30 in the morning. I have a bedroom, with a bed, a table, and a bath. I have Roget’s Thesaurus, a dictionary, and the Bible.

Anything else in the hotel room?

Usually a deck of cards and some crossword puzzles. Something to occupy my little mind. I think my grandmother taught me that. She didn’t mean to, but she used to talk about her “little mind.” So when I was young, from the time I was about 3 until 13, I decided that there was a Big Mind and a Little Mind. And the Big Mind would allow you to consider deep thoughts, but the Little Mind would occupy you, so you could not be distracted. It would work crossword puzzles or play Solitaire, while the Big Mind would delve deep into the subjects I wanted to write about. So I keep the room. I have all the paintings and any decoration taken out of the room. I ask the management and house-keeping not to enter the room, just in case I’ve thrown a piece of paper on the floor, I don’t want it discarded. About every two months I get a note slipped under the door: “Dear Ms. Angelou, please let us change the linen. We think it may be moldy!” But I’ve never slept there, I’m usually out of there by 2. And then I go home and I read what I’ve written that morning, and I try to edit then. Clean it up. And that’s how I write books!

Do you still drink sherry when you write?

Not so much anymore. I stopped about two years ago.

You have said that nothing frightens you as much as writing, but nothing satisfies you as much either. What frightens you about it?

Will I write a sentence that will just float off the page? Easy reading is damn hard writing. But if it’s right, it’s easy. It’s the other way round, too. If it’s slovenly written, then it’s hard to read. It doesn’t give the reader what the careful writer can give the reader.

What would you like carved onto your tombstone?

[Laughs] “I did my best, I hope you do the same.”

>> Read the whole interview

The writing world will miss you, Maya!


Daily routines of famous writers

I haven’t written a word of fiction in a few weeks now. It’s a much-needed break. I’m getting married this weekend and then going on my honeymoon. I’ll revisit my book after the honeymoon, then get ready to send it out into the world.

The other day, though, an idea popped into my head for a new novel. It always surprises me when these ideas arrive, seemingly out of nowhere. Every time I finish a book or story, I think, “Maybe that was it. Maybe I won’t write again.” And then an idea comes. Before I know it, I’ll be back to my writing routine.

I found this Brain Pickings post about the daily routines of famous writers. I’m always inspired by these types of things. There’s something motivating about knowing that even the best have to follow their own rules for writing. Even the best have routines. Good writing doesn’t just happen.

Joan Didion
Routine Joan Didion 2“I need an hour alone before dinner, with a drink, to go over what I’ve done that day. I can’t do it late in the afternoon because I’m too close to it. Also, the drink helps. It removes me from the pages. So I spend this hour taking things out and putting other things in. Then I start the next day by redoing all of what I did the day before, following these evening notes. When I’m really working I don’t like to go out or have anybody to dinner, because then I lose the hour. If I don’t have the hour, and start the next day with just some bad pages and nowhere to go, I’m in low spirits. Another thing I need to do, when I’m near the end of the book, is sleep in the same room with it. That’s one reason I go home to Sacramento to finish things. Somehow the book doesn’t leave you when you’re asleep right next to it. In Sacramento nobody cares if I appear or not. I can just get up and start typing.”

Henry Miller
If groggy, type notes and allocate, as stimulus.
If in fine fettle, write.

Work of section in hand, following plan of section scrupulously. No intrusions, no diversions. Write to finish one section at a time, for good and all.

See friends. Read in cafés.
Explore unfamiliar sections — on foot if wet, on bicycle if dry.
Write, if in mood, but only on Minor program.
Paint if empty or tired.
Make Notes. Make Charts, Plans. Make corrections of MS.
Note: Allow sufficient time during daylight to make an occasional visit to museums or an occasional sketch or an occasional bike ride. Sketch in cafés and trains and streets. Cut the movies! Library for references once a week.”

Haruki Murakami
“When I’m in writing mode for a novel, I get up at 4:00 am and work for five to six hours. In the afternoon, I run for 10km or swim for 1500m (or do both), then I read a bit and listen to some music. I go to bed at 9:00 pm. I keep to this routine every day without variation. The repetition itself becomes the important thing; it’s a form of mesmerism. I mesmerize myself to reach a deeper state of mind.”

E.B. White
“I never listen to music when I’m working. I haven’t that kind of attentiveness, and I wouldn’t like it at all. On the other hand, I’m able to work fairly well among ordinary distractions. My house has a living room that is at the core of everything that goes on: it is a passageway to the cellar, to the kitchen, to the closet where the phone lives. There’s a lot of traffic. But it’s a bright, cheerful room, and I often use it as a room to write in, despite the carnival that is going on all around me. A girl pushing a carpet sweeper under my typewriter table has never annoyed me particularly, nor has it taken my mind off my work, unless the girl was unusually pretty or unusually clumsy. My wife, thank God, has never been protective of me, as, I am told, the wives of some writers are. In consequence, the members of my household never pay the slightest attention to my being a writing man — they make all the noise and fuss they want to. If I get sick of it, I have places I can go. A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.”

Jack Kerouac
Routine Jack Kerouac 2“I had a ritual once of lighting a candle and writing by its light and blowing it out when I was done for the night … also kneeling and praying before starting (I got that from a French movie about George Frideric Handel) … but now I simply hate to write. My superstition? I’m beginning to suspect the full moon. Also I’m hung up on the number nine though I’m told a Piscean like myself should stick to number seven; but I try to do nine touchdowns a day, that is, I stand on my head in the bathroom, on a slipper, and touch the floor nine times with my toe tips, while balanced. This is incidentally more than yoga, it’s an athletic feat, I mean imagine calling me ‘unbalanced’ after that. Frankly I do feel that my mind is going. So another ‘ritual’ as you call it, is to pray to Jesus to preserve my sanity and my energy so I can help my family: that being my paralyzed mother, and my wife, and the ever-present kitties. Okay?”

Ernest Hemingway
routine ernest hemingway 2

“When I am working on a book or a story I write every morning as soon after first light as possible. There is no one to disturb you and it is cool or cold and you come to your work and warm as you write. You read what you have written and, as you always stop when you know what is going to happen next, you go on from there. You write until you come to a place where you still have your juice and know what will happen next and you stop and try to live through until the next day when you hit it again. You have started at six in the morning, say, and may go on until noon or be through before that. When you stop you are as empty, and at the same time never empty but filling, as when you have made love to someone you love. Nothing can hurt you, nothing can happen, nothing means anything until the next day when you do it again. It is the wait until the next day that is hard to get through.”

Don DeLillo
“I work in the morning at a manual typewriter. I do about four hours and then go running. This helps me shake off one world and enter another. Trees, birds, drizzle — it’s a nice kind of interlude. Then I work again, later afternoon, for two or three hours. Back into book time, which is transparent — you don’t know it’s passing. No snack food or coffee. No cigarettes — I stopped smoking a long time ago. The space is clear, the house is quiet. A writer takes earnest measures to secure his solitude and then finds endless ways to squander it. Looking out the window, reading random entries in the dictionary. To break the spell I look at a photograph of Borges, a great picture sent to me by the Irish writer Colm Tóín. The face of Borges against a dark background — Borges fierce, blind, his nostrils gaping, his skin stretched taut, his mouth amazingly vivid; his mouth looks painted; he’s like a shaman painted for visions, and the whole face has a kind of steely rapture. I’ve read Borges of course, although not nearly all of it, and I don’t know anything about the way he worked — but the photograph shows us a writer who did not waste time at the window or anywhere else. So I’ve tried to make him my guide out of lethargy and drift, into the otherworld of magic, art, and divination.”

Kurt Vonnegut
“In an unmoored life like mine, sleep and hunger and work arrange themselves to suit themselves, without consulting me. I’m just as glad they haven’t consulted me about the tiresome details. What they have worked out is this: I awake at 5:30, work until 8:00, eat breakfast at home, work until 10:00, walk a few blocks into town, do errands, go to the nearby municipal swimming pool, which I have all to myself, and swim for half an hour, return home at 11:45, read the mail, eat lunch at noon. In the afternoon I do schoolwork, either teach or prepare. When I get home from school at about 5:30, I numb my twanging intellect with several belts of Scotch and water ($5.00/fifth at the State Liquor store, the only liquor store in town. There are loads of bars, though.), cook supper, read and listen to jazz (lots of good music on the radio here), slip off to sleep at ten. I do pushups and sit-ups all the time, and feel as though I am getting lean and sinewy, but maybe not. Last night, time and my body decided to take me to the movies. I saw The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, which I took very hard. To an unmoored, middle-aged man like myself, it was heart-breaking. That’s all right. I like to have my heart broken.”

Ray Bradbury
“My passions drive me to the typewriter every day of my life, and they have driven me there since I was twelve. So I never have to worry about schedules. Some new thing is always exploding in me, and it schedules me, I don’t schedule it. It says: Get to the typewriter right now and finish this. […]I can work anywhere. I wrote in bedrooms and living rooms when I was growing up with my parents and my brother in a small house in Los Angeles. I worked on my typewriter in the living room, with the radio and my mother and dad and brother all talking at the same time. Later on, when I wanted to write Fahrenheit 451, I went up to UCLA and found a basement typing room where, if you inserted ten cents into the typewriter, you could buy thirty minutes of typing time.”

Simone de Beauvoir
“I’m always in a hurry to get going, though in general I dislike starting the day. I first have tea and then, at about ten o’clock, I get under way and work until one. Then I see my friends and after that, at five o’clock, I go back to work and continue until nine. I have no difficulty in picking up the thread in the afternoon. When you leave, I’ll read the paper or perhaps go shopping. Most often it’s a pleasure to work. […]If the work is going well, I spend a quarter or half an hour reading what I wrote the day before, and I make a few corrections. Then I continue from there. In order to pick up the thread I have to read what I’ve done.”

Susan Sontag
“I write with a felt-tip pen, or sometimes a pencil, on yellow or white legal pads, that fetish of American writers. I like the slowness of writing by hand. Then I type it up and scrawl all over that. And keep on retyping it, each time making corrections both by hand and directly on the typewriter, until I don’t see how to make it any better. Up to five years ago, that was it. Since then there is a computer in my life. After the second or third draft it goes into the computer, so I don’t retype the whole manuscript anymore, but continue to revise by hand on a succession of hard-copy drafts from the computer. […] I write in spurts. I write when I have to because the pressure builds up and I feel enough confidence that something has matured in my head and I can write it down. But once something is really under way, I don’t want to do anything else. I don’t go out, much of the time I forget to eat, I sleep very little. It’s a very undisciplined way of working and makes me not very prolific. But I’m too interested in many other things.”



Wedding photos of famous writers

So, I’m getting married in 19 days. I just did that math and had a brief panic attack. I am so glad to have my latest round of book editing done because these wedding details (dress alterations! guest seating assignments! party favors!) are killing every brain cell I have taking up all my time.

I found some pleasant distraction looking through photos of famous authors on their wedding days. Here are some favorites:

Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe Ernest Hemingway and Elizabeth Hadley Raymond Carver and Maryann Burk Roald Dahl and Patricia Neal Virginia woolf and Leonard Woolf William Styron and Rose

From top: Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe, Ernest Hemingway and Elizabeth Hadley, Raymond Carver and Maryann Burk (he was 19, she was 16!), Roald Dahl and Patricia Neal, Virginia and Leonard Woolf, and William and Rose Styron.

And I’ll leave you with this funny and true quote from Oscar Wilde:

“How can a woman be expected to be happy with a man who insists on treating her as if she were a perfectly normal human being.”