A Saturday Rumpus List of Writers In Unsuitable Employment


This week brought another spate of bad job-creation news in the United States. This surprised, I think, precisely no one other than pundits, whose job it is to be professionally surprised. The culture of work in this country is unstable at the moment; sometimes I wonder whether not being sure of how to make your living opens your eyes to this in a way not available to the comfortably employed. That’s been my experience, anyway, having gone from a stable job to, well, whatever this current status is.

As a gesture of comfort I compiled the below list of kinda crappy and/or annoying jobs writers have held, along with the evidence of their instability, so that any worried/unemployed/underemployed Rumpus folk can feel they have kin in the writing lineage.*

1. Kurt Vonnegut managed a car dealership for Saab. At this link you can find the letterhead to prove it. He tried to learn car mechanics, but the Saab people felt he had no talent for it and kicked him out of their classes.

2. George Saunders was a geophysical engineer but he also bummed around Texas for a while before doing his MFA.

3. John Steinbeck was a construction worker on Madison Square Garden, and hated it. According to his biographers, he quit the day a man tumbled from the ceiling rafters and died.

4. Harper Lee was an airline reservations clerk who found herself, in 1956, without enough time off to go home for Christmas. Friends who hosted her for the holiday in Manhattan instead gave her a big present: she could take a year off to finish her novel. And she did.

5. J.D. Salinger worked as the entertainment director of a cruise line. According to a biographer, he “acted in plays, accompanied daughters of rich passengers to dances, and spent his days organizing and paying deck sports.” The biographer claims Salinger enjoyed it, but note that he only did it the once.

6. Richard Wright sorted mail in Chicago. He started as a temporary worker, but when he tried to apply for a more permanent position he couldn’t measure up to the physical requirements. He weighed, at that time, less than the then-required one hundred and twenty-five pounds.

7. Anthony Trollope worked for the postal service, too, in England. Apparently we have him to thank for the invention of the letterbox.

8. Patrick DeWitt was a dishwasher for six years, and a construction worker, too.

9. Robert Frost worked in wool mill, replacing the carbon of arc lamps balanced precariously over the moving machinery and sneaking off to the roof to read, according to his biographer Jay Parini.

10. Langston Hughes was working as a hotel busboy at the Wardman Park Plaza hotel the day Vachel Lindsay dined there. Hughes left three of his poems by Lindsay’s plate; that night, at a reading Hughes was not permitted to attend becase he was black, Lindsay read them aloud and announced he’d found a major new talent. Hughes proudly posed in uniform for the papers, who picked up the story.

11. James Joyce literally sang for his supper on occasion. No recordings of his singing exist as far as I know but here, you can hear the musicality of his voice in this recording of his reading.


*There are too many men on this list. A whole other list here to be written about the number of women whose “other” job — often on top of a third “paying” job — is caretaking. But since those aren’t counted in the kind of job statistics that got me to put the list together, I didn’t explain all that here.

Michelle Dean has written for a variety of places, including The Awl, ELLE and Bitch. More from this author →