One of Our Greatest Literary Stylists Was a Full-time Business Executive
Wallace Stevens, one of the 20th century’s most celebrated poets, was a full-time insurance executive for The Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company. The son of a wealthy lawyer, Stevens attended Harvard, where he became recognized on campus as a prolific and multitalented writer. He moved to New York City to become a poet. His father was a lover of literature but was also prudent. He disapproved of Stevens’ literary aspirations and directed his son to cease writing and study the law.
Stevens eventually caved to his family’s pressure and went to New York University Law School. He practiced law at several New York firms for more than a decade before becoming an insurance lawyer and executive.
Stevens wrote most of his poetry on his daily two-mile walks to and from work: “I write best when I can concentrate, and do that best while walking.” He would take slips of paper in his pockets and jot down words. His secretary would type them up for him.
Despite the job demands, Stevens produced a fantastic body of imaginative work in his spare time. He won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1955 for Collected Poems (1954.)
A Paycheck Comes First
Artists of all kinds have kept their jobs their entire lives. Among just the writers,
- T. S. Eliot did some of his best work while employed at Lloyds Bank in London.
- Two-time Poet Laureate Ted Kooser was also an insurance executive for much of his career. He would get up early, write poems for an hour and a half, and then go to work.
- Pulitzer winner A. R. Ammons was a sales executive at his father-in-law’s scientific glass firm.
- Richard Eberhart, another Pulitzer winner, worked at the Butcher Polish Company, his wife’s family’s floor wax business.
- Poet Laureate James Dickey started his career at an advertising agency to “make some bucks.” A copywriter, he worked on the Coca-Cola and Lay’s Potato Chips accounts. He famously said, “I was selling my soul to the devil all day… and trying to buy it back at night.”
- William Carlos Williams was a doctor in New Jersey practicing pediatrics and general medicine.
- Novelist Henry Darger was a custodian at a Chicago hospital.
- Harvey Pekar was a VA Hospital clerk in Cleveland. He held this job even after becoming famous. Until he retired in 2001, he declined all promotions.
- Jules Verne was an agent de change (a broker) on the Paris Bourse. He woke up early each morning to write before going for the day’s work.
- Novelist Jodi Picoult worked at an ad agency and a financial analyst, a textbook editor, and an eighth-grade teacher. She wrote her first novel when she was pregnant with her first daughter.
Disregard the Inspirational Mumbo Jumbo
Each of these authors had ambitions to be a writer but didn’t think they could earn a living at it initially. They started working as a means to an end. At the same time, they plodded away at writing, honing their craft, trying to appeal to readers, and refusing to stop trying because of their ambition and passion.
The boilerplate career advice “Do what you love and the money will follow” is aspirational but hardly practicable. Plenty of people are passionate about their craft, but few people can turn those passions into an actual paycheck.
Many people want to “do what they love” and specialize in, say, 17th-century Metaphysical poetry, get disheartened when there aren’t a lot of job positions available in that field, let alone that narrow area of expertise.
Pursue a passion but as a hobby. Work at it, and until you can find people who’ll like your work well enough to pay you for what you love to do, get a day job that’s acceptable and pays reasonably well. A steady professional income will take the pressure off. You’ll still be pursuing what you love, and, hopefully, someday, you can make a full career of it.
For now, though, let the money follow, if only from a different source.
Idea for Impact: Cultivate a Passion, But Don’t Expect to Make it a Career Right Away
To follow a passion, go get a day job. Think of it as your side gig. Then make time to cultivate your passions. When you’re good at something that people are likely to want, the money will come.
Despite the well-meaning counsel to follow your passion, the truth is, it’s easier to pursue your passion and achieve your dreams if you can afford to work free. Until then, seek the peace of mind that comes from being able to pay your bills and attaining financial stability.