Between work and family obligations, many of us don’t feel like we have enough time or energy to check off everything on our to-do list, let alone pursue our dreams of writing the Great American Novel. But even if you can’t—or don’t want to—quit your day job, there’s no need to give up on your creative ambitions. Here are [five of] nine celebrated authors throughout history who kept regular day jobs at the same time they were writing and publishing some of their greatest works. [We'll complete the list in our next post.]
1. 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.
2. 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.
3. 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 period most 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.
4. 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.
5. 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.