Many creatives have dreams of quitting their day job to follow their passions. However, the reality for most of us is that dreams don’t pay bills. And the even harsher reality is that many people are forced to grind away at boring or tedious jobs. At least until they hone their craft enough for a breakthrough. Some make it, and some don’t. But, lucky for us, these famous authors finally did make it. They didn’t let their early career failures get in the way of their writing. And now we have their works to enjoy today. Some of them even incorporating aspects of their failed jobs into their work.

Kurt Vonnegut: Car Salesman

Kurt Vonnegut opened up a Saab dealership in 1956.

Kurt Vonnegut is famous for being darkly satirical and offering superb social commentary. But you may know him as the favorite author of your freshman college roommate who was also an English major. Vonnegut was an American writer with a career spanning 50 years. In that time, he stole the literary hearts of many and published 14 novels. His most famous novel, Slaughterhouse-Five, was a New York Time’s best seller. And the work vaulted him into new heights of fame.

Vonnegut, however, wasn’t a best-seller in all facets of his life. In fact, his Cape Cod Saab dealership has become a part of his author folklore. In 1957, Vonnegut purchased a Saab dealership after leaving his public relations job at GE. He optimistically believed that the dealership would be a quick way to make some extra cash to support his writing. He still had not written Slaughterhouse-Five at this point and was trying to find new ways to support his family on his modest author income. Unfortunately for Vonnegut, his dealership not only experienced poor sales and slow days, but it also kept him from his writing.
Vonnegut eventually had to close the dealership and admit failure. But not everything from his days selling Saab vehicles was a bust. Vonnegut was later able to use his time dealing cars as inspiration for the character Dwayne Hoover in his novel, Breakfast of Champions. The novel would spend 56 weeks on the New York Time’s best selling list. And so it goes.

Agatha Christie: Pharmacy Assistant

Agatha Christie used the knowledge gained from her time as a pharmacist in her crime novels.

Agatha Christie is an English novelist, best known for the 70+ detective novels that were published between 1920 and 1976. In fact, Christie is considered the best-selling novelist of all time, an accolade bestowed upon her by Guinness World Records. Christie’s most famous novel, And Then There Were None, has sold more than 100 million copies, making it one of the best selling books of all time.

Christie eventually became known as “The Queen of Crime” with her detective novels by following a certain formula. However, the formula she became known for in her books wasn’t the only formula that Christie was paid for. She qualified as an “apothecaries’s assistant” in 1917 and continued her pharmaceutical dispensing until the end of 1918. 
Her time spent as a pharmacist paid huge dividends on her writing career. Poisons often played a role in a large number of her books. Her first published novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, incorporates poison as a central plot point.  In 2011, Michael Gerard, a pharmacology professor, wrote The Poisonous Pen of Agatha Christie. The book discusses all the poison-related murders used in Christie’s plots. It even includes a 75 page list of all the compounds and chemicals Agatha Christie mentions in her books.


Stephen King: Janitor

Stephen King got the idea for the novel that launched his career while working as a janitor at the same school he was teaching.

Stephen King is an author that has become world-renowned for his horror and thriller narratives. And the horror novel, Carrie, was partly influenced by a job King held before becoming famous. Some of you may remember Carrie as the book which launched King’s career. He broke through with the text after earning a $400,000 advance for paperback rights. It’s also the same book he almost gave up on and his wife dug from the trash.

King, who was an English teacher full-time, also took several part-time jobs to make ends meet. One of those jobs was as a janitor at his high school during the summers. This worked out for King because it provided him a break from his students while still being on familiar ground. It also paid dividends on his writing. This summer job was a direct influence on the locker room scene in the breakout novel.
Stephen King didn’t stay a janitor for long. The advance he received from Carrie transformed his life. It also encouraged him to keep writing. And with more than 50 novels published during his lifetime, the school’s janitor went from mopping the floors to selling more than 350 million copies of his work. And to think, the idea for his breakthrough narrative all came while scrubbing rust stains off the shower drains in the girls locker room.

Douglas Adams: Bodyguard

Douglas Adams worked a lot of odd jobs before penning his magnum opus.

Douglas Adams is an English author best known for his series,  The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the GalaxyBut the famous “trilogy” of five books didn’t start gaining momentum as a radio series until 1977. Yes, Adams understands that a trilogy is meant to be three, not five. It’s part of the joke, and it’s part of his charm. But Adams’s charm didn’t get his writing off the ground at first. But it did land him a peculiar job. In 1976, Adams took a job as a bodyguard for the royal al-Thani family of Qatar. He has mentioned, that besides laying drunk in a field with a copy of Hitchhiker’s Guide to Europe, his time spent as a bodyguard was also time spent coming up with ideas for the comedy science fiction series.

Despite becoming a household name during his lifetime, fate had the last laugh on Adams. Douglas Adams died young, suffering a heart attack soon after turning 49 years of age. Despite his relatively young death and having to wait till his late 20’s to get published, Adams accomplished a great deal. He had 8 novels published that were all well-received. Adams also wrote for the TV show, Doctor Who, and had a helping hand in several video games. Also, he once played guitar with Pink Floyd.

Hugh Howey: Yacht Captain

Hugh Howey lived on a boat for several years so he could buy time to work on his craft.

Hugh Howey is known for his story, Wool. Many people don’t know it, but Wool was originally meant to be a stand-alone short story. However, it eventually developed into an entire series as it gained popularity. Because of this, Howey is often heralded as a champion of self-publishing. He used Kindle’s Direct Publishing system to help launch his career. And he is one of the few authors to find world-renowned success doing so.

But Howey, like many aspiring authors, had some bumps in the road. His list of former jobs includes roofer, audio technician, and yacht captain. What’s most interesting about Howey’s last job is the way it came about. Howey decided to live on a boat after finding it cheaper than having a home. He lived on his boat for several years and worked odd-jobs with other people’s boats to make income. This lead to his life on the sea as a yacht captain. And while he eventually left the sea to follow his wife inland, Howey remembers the water fondly.

Arthur Conan Doyle: Ship’s Surgeon

It’s interesting that for all the time Doyle spent as a ship’s doctor, it never really showed up in any Sherlock Holmes stories.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was a British author, best known for creating the character of Sherlock Holmes.  But many readers don’t know that he was also a formidable physician. And it was his work as a physician that helped to create some of the plot devices used in his works. From 1876 to 1881, Doyle studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh Medical School. And upon his graduation, Doyle took a job as a surgeon on the SS Mayumba during the ship’s voyage to the West African coast.

His time spent on the SS Mayumba wasn’t the only time Doyle would work on a ship, however. Doyle also served as a doctor on a whaling ship off the coast of Greenland in 1880. Doyle later reported, however, that he rarely had to administer medicine. In fact, he didn’t recall performing any doctor duties while on the whaling ship. Most of his time was spent keeping the captain company and breaking up quarrels between the various crew members.
Working on a ship wasn’t the low-light of Doyle’s career, surprisingly. He has credited the experience as a founding step into adulthood in his journals. After returning from sea, Doyle eventually set up an office to practice medicine. It was a facility that specialized in ophthalmology, or the study and medical treatment of eye diseases. Doyle never treated a patient in this office, however, or any patients for that matter. So, it’s a good thing that whole Sherlock Holmes character worked out for him.