Some of the best advice that renowned authors tend to share is that aspiring writers should live a life outside of writing—many other lives, if possible.
Below is a look into what six of the most renowned, impactful American authors of the 20th and 21st centuries were doing when they weren’t writing the books, poems, reports, and short stories that moved, radicalized, and even criticized a nation. Being erudite and readerly is important to any writers who want to create good work, but for many of the below, there would have been nothing without gaining life experience outside of a room with a pen and paper.
1. Langston Hughes was a busboy
Before poet, playwright, and novelist Langston Hughes went on to shape the Harlem Renaissance in the mid-1920s, he had brief lives as a cook, launderer, and busboy (though always while writing). After working various odd jobs in New York after graduation, he worked as a crewman aboard the S.S. Malone, where for six months he traveled to Africa and Europe. Hughes disembarked in Paris, where he accepted a stint as a cook at a nightclub. He eventually moved back to Washington, DC, living with his mother while continuing to write poetry, which he hadn’t stopped doing since he graduated.
One day while bussing tables at the Wardman Park Hotel, Hughes spotted Vachel Lindsay at a table; with a leap of faith, he went over to the renowned poet’s table and shared some of his own poems. Lindsay’s promotion of Hughes’s work was a major factor in the success of Hughes’s first collection of poems, The Weary Blues (as was Lindsay’s story of having “discovered” a talented busboy, despite Hughes’s already being a published poet!).
2. Alex Haley was in the Coast Guard
For Alex Haley, who is widely known for writing The Autobiography of Malcolm X and Roots: The Saga of an American Family, the resonant writing career didn’t flourish until some years into his career in the Coast Guard, a direction chosen by his father and him in order to bring discipline and growth into his life. Joining in 1939, Haley was subject to restrictions within rankings and found that many positions in the Coast Guard were not open to Black Americans at that time. During the Pacific War, Haley cultivated a love and appreciation for writing. As his fellow sailors endured boredom and the anxiety of being far from home, they watched Haley write copious letters to his friends and family. Soon, they started asking Haley if he would pen them love letters to their girlfriends for some money in exchange.
As Haley honed his literary ability, he published articles in Coast Guard Magazine and was even appointed editor for two other Coast Guard publications. Ten years after enlisting, Haley was finally able to change his rating to Journalist. Later that same year, he was named first chief journalist in the Coast Guard, a rating that was created just for him. From love letters to reportage of American experiences at war, Haley found a deep appreciation for the craft of writing on the seas.
3. Ida B. Wells was a teacher
Ida B. Wells’s fearless, first-of-its-kind reportage would transform critical journalism, but a family tragedy took her into the public school system first. After her parents died in a yellow fever epidemic in 1878, the sixteen-year-old future journalist and civil rights activist took a job as a teacher at a Black elementary school near her hometown so that she could keep herself and her younger siblings together. When Wells moved to Memphis, Tennessee, with her two youngest sisters in 1883, she continued to work in the school system while also becoming a focused journalist. Between school years, she took classes at historically Black colleges and became a rising voice for civil and women’s rights.
After being dismissed from her teaching post due to her criticisms of the conditions of Black schools in her region, Wells concentrated on contributing to Black-owned newspapers and reporting in detail on the seldom-covered lynchings in the the South. She was determined to cover the violence against Black people with honesty, and her investigative reports Southern Horrors (1892) and The Red Record (1895) were massively impactful in the national debate around lynching. Wells’s activism continued throughout her entire life, and even returned her to the classroom at times: in 1897, Wells founded the first Black kindergarten in Chicago, and in 1900 she lobbied successfully against the segregation of the city’s schools.
4. Jacqueline Woodson wrote standardized tests
Before becoming a writer of books, primarily for children and adolescents, Jacqueline Woodson did a somewhat different type of writing: she crafted short stories to be included in children’s standardized reading-comprehension tests. In this job, Woodson gave life to a fictional girl named Maizon. Woodson’s teacher and peers in her children’s-book-writing class at the New School encouraged her to develop Maizon’s story. They also prompted her discovery that she wanted to continue writing specifically for children, where she felt her voice was “very necessary.” Last Summer with Maizon was published in 1990, marking the start of Woodson’s prolific and influential career.
5. Richard Wright was a postal clerk
The ever-spirited Richard Wright turned all the precious time he could toward building a foundation from which to become a full-time writer. In 1925, after moving to Memphis, Tennessee on his own at seventeen years old, the future author of Native Son fostered a love for reading by borrowing books and publications from a segregated white library, where he told the staff that the material he was taking was for a white coworker. A couple of years later, he moved to Chicago and took a temporary job as a postal clerk, where he read between shifts. Wright got a permanent position with the Postal Service in 1929, and the relative stability it offered allowed him more time for his writing.
Then, in 1931, Wright lost his job and was forced to go on relief; the ensuing years were the firestarters of his political and literary life. Wright joined the Communist Party and a Marxist Party literary organization called the John Reed Club where he connected with other party members and wrote proletarian poems. Inspired by equitable communities, Wright founded the South Side Writers Group in 1933, from which he launched a new literary magazine called Left Front and published his poetry more regularly. By 1935, Wright had finished the manuscript of his first novel, published posthumously, which intimately detailed anecdotes about his time working at the Chicago post office.
6. N. K. Jemisin was a psychologist
After she graduated with a degree in psychology, author N. K. Jemisin worked as a counseling psychologist for young adults. However, Jemisin had long been fascinated by science fiction. At eight, she made up stories that combined science fiction and fantasy, but felt shut out of the genre because of the lack of Black women as characters and authors. As a counselor, she continued to write, but never considered publishing any of her work until a “mini midlife crisis” at the age of thirty. Newly motivated, Jemisin sent her completed novel to publishers and wrote short stories in a writing workshop, all while keeping her day job. She endured numerous rejections from publishers unsure how to market her novels, which had predominantly Black characters. This inspired Jemisin to rewrite her first novel with a predominately white cast, turning it into “this angry story about this lone brown girl going into this place full of mean white people.” A bidding war ensued, and The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, published in 2010, became the acclaimed first novel of Jemisin’s first trilogy. Still, it wasn’t until she was deep into the third book of her second trilogy that direct financial support from her readers enabled Jemisin to quit her job as a psychologist. Now one of the biggest names in modern science fiction, N. K. Jemisin draws on her education and work in psychology to bring life to her characters.
Lisa Kwon is a writer and reporter based in Los Angeles, CA, with an interest in arts and food culture. You can find her work at L.A. Taco, Eater, Cultured magazine, National Geographic, and Time Out.