by Juhi Singhal
The myth of the disheveled, fully-absorbed artist appeals to the romantic in all of us. But many artists, writers included, have not only bloomed later in life but have engaged in all manner of practical work to survive. So whether you are lamenting the burden of—or perhaps grateful for—The Day Job, know that you are in good company.
Wallace Stevens, winner of the 1955 Pulitzer Prize for poetry and considered one of the foremost Modern American poets of the 20th century, published his first collection of poems, Harmonium, in 1923 at the age of 44. Stevens had studied law at the New York Law School, and worked as a journalist and a lawyer, before settling into a career spanning almost 40 years at the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company. In 1954 he turned down a professorship at Harvard University, because he preferred to do nothing that would “precipitate the retirement that I want so much to put off.” Eschewing the apparent contradiction between Stevens the poet and Stevens the businessman, he once told a reporter, “It gives a man character as a poet to have this daily contact with a job.”
“One of the things that pulled me to both puppetry and writing speculative fiction is the world building,” says Nebula Award nominee and Hugo Award winner Mary Robinette Kowal. A puppeteer and a science-fiction and historical fantasy author, Kowal published her first book, a collection of short stories titled Scenting the Dark and Other Stories, in 2009. Kowal began working as a puppeteer in 1989, at one point with the Jim Henson Company. She co-founded her own production house and is the recipient of the UNIMA-USA citation of excellence, the highest accolade given to American puppeteers. In her own words, “It turns out that it [puppetry] is a really useful lens for talking about creating characters. For instance, in puppetry we say that ‘Focus indicates thought.’ What the puppet is thinking about is what it is looking at. . . . As a writer, I can take that same principal and direct your attention by what I show you on the page and the order in which I show it to you.”
A physician-writer who cites books as “being the calling to medicine,” Abraham Verghese is a graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop and the Senior Associate Chair for the Theory and Practice of Medicine at Stanford University’s Department of Medicine. Verghese’s first book, the memoir My Own Country: A Doctor’s Story of a Town and Its People in the Age of AIDS, published when Verghese was 39, was a finalist for the National Book Critic’s Circle Award. Pointing out a possible symbiosis between a day job and writing, Verghese says, “Get a good day job, one that you love, preferably one that consumes you and that puts your boat out in the river of life. Then be passionate about it, give it your all, get good at what you do. All that gives you plenty to write about, and it also takes the pressure off the writing. Counting on writing to pay the mortgage or your kid’s college tuition is decidedly risky.”
P.D. James has been variously called “the queen of crime and the doyenne of detective novelists” and “a serious novelist who happens to write detective tales.” Her latest novel, Death Comes to Pemberley, is according to NPR “a glorious plum pudding of a whodunit.” James began writing amidst the rigors of her day job at the British National Health Services and caring for her two young daughters and a mentally ill husband, because “there was never going to be a convenient time to start that first novel.” Her subsequent career as an administrator with the British Home Office—first in the police department and later in the criminal policy department—gave her first-hand knowledge of the experiences she was writing about. Despite success as an author, she continued in the Home Office until her retirement in 1981, perhaps because she “grew up thinking it was important to have a safe job with a cheque at the end of every month.”
James Herriot, possibly the world’s best known veterinarian, became a published author at age 53. He picked up the pen in his 40s in response to his wife’s challenge: she’d heard him sprinkle their dinnertime conversations with the words “my book” for decades, and told him that “Old vets of 50 don’t write books.” In the 40-plus years that have since elapsed, Herriot’s tales of the Yorkshire countryside and its human and animal inhabitants have been dramatized as a 12-year long television show and reissued with lovely covers. On the publication of his first book in the U.S., All Creatures Great And Small, the New York Times Book Review said, “Herriot charms because he delights in life, embraces it with sensitivity and gust and writes with grace.” Regarding himself as a “veterinarian who scribbles in his spare time,” Herriot once said, “If a farmer calls me with a sick animal, he couldn’t care less if I were George Bernard Shaw.”
Homepage photo credit: “Office Workers” via Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Online Catalog