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It Takes a Certain Type to Be a Writer
And Hundreds of Other Facts from the World of Writing
By ERIN BARRETT, JACK MINGO
Red Wheel/Weiser, LLCCopyright © 2003 Erin Barrett and Jack Mingo
All rights reserved.
Don't Quit Your Day Job
"In America you can make a fortune as a writer, but not a living."
Alas, this has always been the case. A few writers get rich; the rest eke out a living or are subsidized by inheritance or a patient spouse. Almost all writers have had to work another job to keep from starving.
A survey in 1978 by PEN, the international literary organization, was so depressing that the organization never bothered to update it. The survey found that the median annual income earned by published book writers was $4,700, with 68 percent making less than $10,000, and 9 percent earning nothing.
According to the latest from the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics, beginning salaries for newspaper staff writers and editorial assistants top off at a whopping $21,000 annually—making them some of the lowest paying jobs of all. After five years on the job, they can expect to make about $30,000.
Senior editors at the largest newspapers average only about $67,000 as a top salary.
These are the salaried positions; a large proportion of writers and editors freelance, making their annual salaries even iffier, and job security nonexistent.
The most William Shakespeare earned for writing a play was £8 ($1,325 in today's money). He never made more than an annual income of £20 ($3,313) from his writing. Luckily, his acting career paid a lot better, and he owned some real estate, making him fairly prosperous.
Harriet Beecher Stowe got lucky. She was just a "poor professor's wife" when she wrote Uncle Tom's Cabin. Her book sold 3,000 copies on its day of publication, and within a year it had sold more than 300,000 copies in the United States alone.
"To coin one's brain into silver is, to my thinking, the hardest job in the world."
—Edgar Allan Poe
Poe should know. It took him eighteen months of badgering to get paid after the New York Mirror published one of his poems. The poem was "The Raven," and the overdue payment was $10 ($178 in today's money).
"With the proceeds of my last novel, I purchased a small handbarrow, on which my guests' luggage is wheeled from the station to my house. It needs a coat of paint. With the proceeds of my next novel, I shall have it painted."
Before achieving his own fame, a young Sinclair Lewis sold plots and story ideas to Jack London.
Screenwriter Rod Serling was very reluctant to put himself in front of the camera to host his Twilight Zone TV show. In fact he had to routinely change shirts during filming because they became saturated with nervous sweat. His tense and terse delivery caught on, however, and he found himself spending more time on camera than writing. His creative output went further downhill a few seasons later when he was hired as host—without any creative input—for the abysmal Night Gallery. But at least he mercifully died during open-heart surgery before hitting rock bottom: he had been scheduled to begin hosting a 1976 comedy-variety show called Keep on Truckin'.
Dr. Pearl Zane Grey, a moderately successful dentist, became more successful by writing Western novels in between drilling patients (dropping the "Dr." and his first name for his literary works).
No wonder all of his stories were tinged with such paranoia: Franz Kafka was a civil servant who only dabbled with writing in his spare time.
Anthony Trollope worked for the British post office for thirty-three years. During that time he wrote four dozen novels by rising at 5:30 A.M. and writing a thousand words before trudging off to work. Within postal circles, however, his biggest claim to fame is that he invented the street-corner mailbox.
Another man of letters (literally!) was William Faulkner, who was postmaster of Oxford, Mississippi.
Charles Bukowski and Richard Wright both worked as mail carriers.
Leo Tolstoy found God and gave up writing fiction between 1878 and 1885 in favor of writing about his religious beliefs and society. He also gave up his property and sex life, denounced his former writings, and began working in the fields dressed as a peasant. Because of his fame as a former novelist, people made pilgrimages from all over the world to visit him and hear his word. The Russian Orthodox Church became so threatened by his ever-increasing spiritual power that, in 1901, it excommunicated him.
Horatio Alger wrote 134 rags-to-riches books about plucky poor boys being taken home and adopted by rich industrialists. His career as a Unitarian minister had been cut short in 1886 when a church committee investigated rumors of his "inordinate and imprudent" attention to the boys of his congregation. Accused of molesting two of them, he was allowed to resign his position. It was then that he began writing full time.
Erle Stanley Gardner, creator of Perry Mason, was himself a lawyer who rooted for the underdog. He was admitted to the California bar in 1911 and was known for defending poor Chinese and Mexican immigrants. In the 1940s, with some of his royalties, Gardner set up "The Court of Last Resort," an organization that took on cases of people who seemed unjustly imprisoned.
Poet Wallace Stevens was an executive in the legal department of the Hartford Insurance Company. An aside he was heard to mutter at one of his few poetry readings: "If only the boys back in the office could see me now."
Before they became the household names they are today, Cynthia Ozick, Dorothy Sayers, and Joseph Heller all wrote advertising copy.
Kurt Vonnegut wrote press releases for General Electric.
Amy Tan wrote horoscopes.
Before her literary career took off, Rita Mae Brown wrote screenplays, most notably for Roger Corman's schlock slasher film Slumber Party Massacre in 1982.
Henry David Thoreau was a pencil maker.
"O. Henry" (William Sydney Porter) began writing short stories while working as a bank teller. Unfortunately, he was convicted of embezzlement and was sentenced to five years in the federal penitentiary in Columbus, Ohio. His crime had attracted some notoriety, so he didn't want to use his real name for his writing. Porter tried out a number of pseudonyms before—true to his larcenous past—he "borrowed" the name of prison guard Orrin Henry.
Charles Dickens as a desperately poor child was forced to work at a shoe polish factory in London.
Young Langston Hughes was a busboy in a Washington, D.C., hotel, but it gave him an opportunity. At a formal dinner, he placed a packet of his poems next to poet Vachel Lindsay's plate. Lindsay liked what he saw and helped launch Hughes's career, making the former busboy a leading player in the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s.
Henry Miller worked as a branch manager for Western Union for nearly five years, a period that he said was "comparable for me to Dostoyevksy's stay in Siberia."
In Abraham Lincoln's time, Walt Whitman labored as a low-level clerk in the U.S. Government's Indian Department (later called the Bureau of Indian Affairs). Whitman was a loyal employee—his mournful poem, "Oh Captain, My Captain," was written about Lincoln's assassination.
Another poet fared better in the federal bureaucracy. In 1905, E. A. Robinson had not sold a poem for five years when he got an out-of-the-blue fan letter from President Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt arranged to have his own publisher take Robinson on, talked favorably about his poetry from the "bully pulpit" of the presidency, and hired Robinson into the Customs Department in New York City. The poet's only responsibilities there were to open his roll-top desk, read the paper for a while, close his desk, and leave the paper on his chair as he left so that his boss would know he'd been there. When William Howard Taft took office, though, Robinson was unceremoniously informed that he'd have to actually start working. He quit immediately.
Henry Fielding, the author of Tom Jones, was London's first police magistrate.
In 1842, Washington Irving was appointed ambassador to Spain.
Julia Ward Howe should've gotten rich for writing the much-performed "Battle Hymn of the Republic" (even if she stole the melody from a song called "John Brown's Body"). She didn't. In fact, Ward was paid a mere $4 from the Atlantic Monthly.
"In twenty years, I've never had a day when I didn't have to think about somebody else's needs. And this means the writing has to be fitted around it."
The first woman in history to actually earn a living as an author was probably Britisher Aphra Behn (1640–1689), who wrote a number of well-received plays, poems, and novels. She's buried in Westminster Abbey.
Other day jobs of famous writers:
Honoré de Balzac: law clerk
Daniel Defoe: seller of tobacco
Oliver Wendell Holmes: physician
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle: physician and ophthalmologist
William Carlos Williams: pediatrician
Benedict de Spinoza: lens grinder
George Orwell: Indian Imperial Police Officer in Burma
Paul Laurence Dunbar: elevator operator
A. E. Houseman: clerk at the patent office
Nathaniel Hawthorne: customs inspector
Eric Hoffer: longshoreman
Washington Irving: diplomat
Herman Melville: sailor
Charles Lamb: accountant
Marianne Moore: librarian
Vladimir Nabokov: entomologist
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry: pilot
Sir Walter Scott: attorney
Lew Wallace: major general in the Union Army
J. R. R. Tolkien: professor of Anglo-Saxon language and literature
Thomas Hardy: architect
Joseph Wambaugh: cop
Tom Paine: corset maker
Profits & Loss
Mark Twain bought one of the first telephones in 1876, the same year that Alexander Graham Bell patented it. Unfortunately, though, his love of new inventions was his downfall. He invested the bulk of the fortune he had made from books—about $200,000, or the equivalent of almost $4 million in today's money—in an automatic typesetting machine that didn't pan out. As a result, he became unable to pay his debts in 1895 and had to embark on a series of new books and speaking tours to recoup at least some of his personal savings. His loss, our gain.
Jack London was the first American author to earn a million dollars from his writing. He unfortunately lost the vast bulk of it to high living and bad investments.
Anaïs Nin wrote her famous erotica for hire because she needed the money. She had an anonymous rich patron who paid her $1 a page. She was told, "Take out all the poetry, it has to be nothing but descriptions of sex."
"I now have a library of nearly 900 volumes, over 700 of which I wrote myself."
—Henry David Thoreau, putting the best possible face on a bad situation. His publisher had just sent him 706 unsold remainders (out of a thousand copies printed) of A Week on the Concord & Merrimack Rivers.
Thomas Paine's revolutionary tract Common Sense sold 120,000 copies in the first three months of 1776. He could've made a fortune but ended up losing money on the deal. He had refused to take a penny of the profits, earmarking half for the publisher for taking the risk of being shut down by the British and the other half to buy mittens for Revolutionary Army troops. Unfortunately, the greedy publisher ended up taking it all. Worse, he had gotten Paine to pay the printer's bill and never reimbursed him for it.
Leo Tolstoy's library and manuscripts were destroyed by a mob of peasants in 1917.
Louisa May Alcott detested children but wrote Little Women solely because she was short of cash and her publisher demanded "a girl's story" from her.
Successful children's author Margaret Wise Brown went through her royalty checks as fast as she could get them. She blew her very first royalty check by purchasing a vendor's entire cart full of flowers.
If at First You Don't Succeed
There are hundreds of examples of publishers rejecting books that subsequently turned out to be bestsellers. Here are excerpts from actual rejection letters as collected in a wonderful book called Rotten Rejections by Andre Bernard:
The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells: "An endless nightmare. I do not believe it would take.... I think the verdict would be 'Oh don't read that horrid book.'"
The Bridge Over the River Kwai by Pierre Boulle: "A very bad book."
The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck: "Regret that the American public is not interested in anything on China."
Sanctuary by William Faulkner: "Good God, I can't publish this. We'd both be in jail."
Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert: "You have buried your novel underneath a heap of details which are well done but utterly superfluous."
The Diary of Anne Frank by Anne Frank: "The girl doesn't, it seems to me, have a special perception or feeling which would lift that book above the 'curiosity' level."
Lord of the Flies by William Golding: "It does not seem to us that you have been wholly successful in working out an admittedly promising idea."
The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame: "The form of the story is most unexpected."
The Last of the Plainsmen by Zane Grey: "I do not see anything in this to convince me you can write either narrative or fiction."
Poem by Sara Haardt: "This poem I can't take. We have 200 or 300 bales of poetry stored in Hoboken, in the old Norddeutscher-Lloyd pier. There are 300,000 poets in America."
Kon-Tiki by Thor Heyerdahl: "The idea of men adrift on a raft does have a certain appeal, but for the most part this is a long, solemn and tedious Pacific voyage."
The Blessing Way by Tony Hillerman: "If you insist on rewriting this stuff, get rid of all that Indian stuff."
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce: "The point of view is not an attractive one."
The Naked and the Dead by Norman Mailer: "Profanity and obscenity.... In my opinion it is barely publishable."
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov: "I am most disturbed at the thought that the writer has asked that this be published. I can see no possible cause that could be served by its publication. I recommend that it be buried under a stone for a thousand years."
Animal Farm by George Orwell: "It is impossible to sell animal stories in the U.S.A."
Swann's Way (Remembrance of Things Past) by Marcel Proust: "I can't see why a chap should need thirty pages to describe how he turns over in bed before going to sleep."
The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand: "It is badly written and the hero is unsympathetic."
Cornhuskers by Carl Sandburg: "Rather out of our line. I dare you to do us a soft and luscious lyric, capable of reducing a fat woman to sniffles."
And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street by Dr. Seuss: "It's too different from other juvenile books on the market to warrant its selling."
Lust for Life by Irving Stone: "A long, dull novel about an artist."
A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole:"Obsessively foul and grotesque."
The Time Machine by H. G. Wells: "It is not interesting enough for the general reader and not thorough enough for the scientific reader."
Mankind in the Making by H. G. Wells: "Only a minor writer of no large promise."
Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman: "We deem it injudicious to commit ourselves."
Lady Windermere's Fan by Oscar Wilde: "My dear sir, I have read your manuscript. O, my dear sir."
What's in a Name?
The Dewey Decimal System is named for Melvil Dewey, who developed it in 1876. Dewey served as the director of the New York State Library from 1889 to 1906 and founded the American Library Association in 1876. He also started the first library school in America in 1887, at Columbia University.
You've likely heard of the Scarlet Pimpernel, but perhaps you've wondered—what exactly is a pimpernel? No, not a type of dark bread nor a backup singer for Gladys Knight ... a pimpernel is a type of primrose that also comes in blue, purple, and white and was once known as "the poor man's weather glass" because its flowers close at the approach of bad weather. Author Emmuska Orczy, an English baroness born in Hungary, had her character in the story use a pimpernel as his flower calling card, the way the Lone Ranger used a silver bullet and Zorro used a Z.
The Postman Always Rings Twice had nothing to do with the mail service. The title was a private joke of author James Cain. His postman would ring his doorbell twice whenever the many-times-rejected book's manuscript came back from a publisher.
You might well wonder where Sir A. Conan Doyle came up with the name "Sherlock Holmes." The detective began as "Sherrinford Hope," which clearly wasn't up to snuff, so the cricket-playing author adopted the last name of a player named Mordecai Sherlock on a rival Cricket team from Yorkshire. The "Hope" had come from the whaling ship Hope, but Doyle replaced it in honor of Oliver Wendell Holmes who, like Doyle, happened to be a writer/doctor.
Sam Spade's first name was a secondhand discard—mystery writer Samuel Dashiell Hammett had stopped using his first name years earlier.
Excerpted from It Takes a Certain Type to Be a Writer by ERIN BARRETT, JACK MINGO. Copyright © 2003 Erin Barrett and Jack Mingo. Excerpted by permission of Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC.
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