Ups and Downs: Famous Writers and their Day Jobs

20:25, Feb 21 2013

Recently, my working life has been improved by a new mug.

It's one of the orange-striped Popular Penguin mugs, with "Nineteen Eighty-Four" and "George Orwell" written on it. The Virginia Woolf model featuring "A Room of One's Own" would have suited me better, really, but they only come in lilac.

This mug is significant because it's the first mug I've purchased specifically for use at my desk. It's the perfect size, shape and colour combination, and the rescue orange makes it stand out nicely against the mess of discarded papers and bits of writing.

The embarrassing amount of satisfaction I get from the Orwell mug got me thinking about the ways famous writers behave in their day jobs. Perhaps Orwell had a Work Mug of his own?

In actual fact George Orwell, or Eric Blair by his real name, was a policeman before he was a writer. As he was born in India, Orwell's family sent him to train for the Indian Imperial Police in Burma when his marks at school failed to impress.

By all accounts he was an unorthodox but good policeman, learning Burmese very quickly and getting on well with the locals. There's even a rumour that he got blue circle-amulets tattooed on his knuckles to guard against bullets and snakebites.


In 1927, he returned to England after a bout of dengue fever and quit the force to concentrate on writing. His first full-length novel, Down and Out in Paris and London roughly describes how that turned out, but he also had a more comfortable time teaching at a private prep school in West London.

Just a few years earlier in 1917, Woolf and her husband Leonard founded the Hogarth Press. A moneyed member of the aristocracy with ongoing nervous problems, Woolf was not expected to work for her living and would have had a lot of trouble doing so, but she and Leonard ran their small letter-press with great success.

She found that the process of typesetting and printing helped her think about writing in a different way:
"Try to understand what a writer is doing. Think of a book as a very dangerous and exciting game, which it takes two to play at. Books are not turned out of moulds like bricks. Books are made of tiny little words, which a writer shapes, often with great difficulty, into sentences of different lengths, placing one on top of another, never taking his eye off them, sometimes building them quite quickly, at other times knocking them down in despair, and beginning all over again."

After the Woolfs printed a co-written collection, Two Stories, and other work by Virginia, they took on work from other writers within their group of friends, such as T.S. Eliot.

Eliot is a bit special within this list of writers who had to take other jobs to pay the bills. His most famous poem is about the breakdown of a boring and repressive society, but in real life Eliot was a very content employee at Lloyd's Bank of London for a long time after his work became famous.

Maybe this is where the unassuming, kindly J. Alfred Prufrock of his famous poem came from, with his "rich and modest" necktie and rolled trousers.

Interestingly, poet Ezra Pound set up what could have been one of the first-ever attempts at crowdfunding in order to try and free Eliot from the bank. He named it Bel Esprit or "a fine wit".

Through Bel Esprit, Pound and other writers tried to find 30 people to promise Eliot £10 per year for a modest £300 annual salary.

Unfortunately, evidence implies Eliot probably pulled in more like £500 each year from his work at the bank by the time Bel Esprit was attempted in 1922, and he rejected the offer on the grounds that it was too uncertain.

Eliot made a graceful exit from the bank in 1925 to work for the publishing firm that became Faber and Faber. He stayed there for the rest of his career and eventually became a director.

The lesson here seems to be that writing is a side project for just about everybody except those who can afford not to work. Poet William Carlos Williams and the Russian short-story writer Chekhov were both well-respected doctors in their time, and even the wild and furious poet Charles Bukowski worked for the American Postal Service for more than a decade.

Bukowski once said he was "horrified at what a man had to do simply in order to eat, sleep, and keep himself clothed."

I wonder if he would have been happier if he had a Work Mug.