The Odd Jobs of 7 Famous Writers

I’ve worked the night shift at a hotel for over four years now. I wrote a more in-depth article on the job a couple weeks ago, and I also wrote a novel about the hotel called The Nightly Disease. I think every writer should have many jobs outside of writing. You cannot be a writer without knowing how the world works, how people interact with each other. I’m obsessed with what jobs other writers have had. Such as...

07. Douglas Adams - Personal Bodyguard

Adams is best known for the hilarious and inventive Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy books, but before those were a thing, he also served as a bodyguard for a crazy oil tycoon who once apparently ordered everything from a hotel’s menu, then ordered take-out hamburgers after trying all the dishes. Maniacs. You know, it’s difficult for me to imagine Adams in this position, although, to be fair, I’ve hardly ever imagined him any positions—well, except for that one dream I had about him which I don’t feel comfortable sharing in a public forum.


06. Ken Kesey - Janitor in a Mental Health Hospital

Ken Kesey used to be a janitor for a mental health hospital, which I guess is not too surprising when you consider Kesey is the author of one of the best novels about psych wards in history. That’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, for all you illiterate dorks. You probably at least saw the Jack Nicholson movie. If you haven’t, then it’s quite possible you are an actual infant, and if that’s the case, get off the computer, you baby, you can’t even read yet. Not only did Kesey clean up the messes of the deranged, but he also volunteered for Project MKULTRA experiments, and we all know those ended well. Kesey often worked the night shifts at the Meno Park Veterans’ Hospital while high on hallucinogens, which I admit sounds like a pretty fun job.

Side note: Stephen King also started off as a janitor, but for a high school instead of a mental hospital, although is there really that much of a difference?

*Googles differences between high schools and mental hospitals*

Oh, turns out there are a bunch of differences, never mind. But seriously. How come more writing advice articles don’t recommend you become a janitor?


05. Jack London - Oyster Pirate

Now, you may be wondering what exactly the job of an oyster pirate entails. So were most people back when Jack London started randomly referring to himself as one. But, I mean. The title is kind of self-explanatory. It sounds very cool and all, but there’s not much mystery behind it. Jack London poached the shit out of some oysters. That was his thing. Well, besides calling the wild, but you have to remember that sometimes the wild didn’t pick up the phone. Maybe it was busy or maybe it just didn’t feel like talking. That’s when the oysters came into play.


04. Chuck Palahniuk - Movie Projectionist

To anybody who’s read Fight Club, this won’t come as much of a surprise. And, let's face it, if you're reading a LitReactor article, there's a decent chance you've read Fight Club or have at least seen the film. Try telling me differently and I won't believe you. Anyway, Palahniuk has also been a waiter, among many other gigs. Has he ever ejaculated into someone's soup? I mean...probably? It seems likely, at least. I’m at least 99% sure he’s inserted images of his penis into film reels. I admit I’m jealous I never snagged a gig as a projectionist when I was younger. Maybe I romanticize the idea too much, but man, I’d love to traumatize kids during Disney movies.


03. J.D. Salinger - Cruise Director

As many people will tell you, there is no bigger phony in this world than someone who attends a goddamn cruise, so obviously the author of The Catcher in the Rye was briefly the entertainment director of a cruise. If you’ve read Salinger’s short story “A Young Girl In 1941 With No Waist At All,“ you’ve most likely already guessed this. Here’s an excerpt:

The young man—his name was Ray Kinsella, and he was a member of the ship’s Junior Entertainment Committee—waited for Barbara at the railing on the port-side of the promenade deck. Nearly all passengers were ashore and, in the stillness and moonlight, it was a powerful place to be. The only sound in the night came from the Havana harbor water slucking gently against the sides of the ship. Through the moon mist the Kungsholm could be seen, anchored sleepy and rich, just a few hundred feet aft. Farther shoreward a few small boats corked about.


02. Octavia E. Butler - Potato Chip Inspector

It is unknown if potato chip inspectors receive an official badge, but in my fantasies, they absolutely do and yes, it’s shaped like a crispy, golden brown potato chip. Butler worked a series of odd jobs to pay the bills, including the very delicious-sounding potato chip inspector gig, and would wake up every morning at 2AM to write before work. That is dedication. Be more like Butler, you fools.


01. Stephen Graham Jones - Just About Everything

I know from podcast interviews I’ve listened to of Stephen Graham Jones that he’s worked quite a few odd jobs in his life, so I reached out to him directly and asked him to speak a little about them:

Man, I've been night janitor for the biggest daycare in Texas—I carried a pistol to walk those clowned-up halls at night, and had secret knives strapped all over my coveralls—I've been a roof-damage estimator when my foot was in a cast, I've painted numbers on curbs, I've washed dishes at a seafood joint, I've scraped water pump gaskets for endless hours for a transmission shop, I've hung ceiling tile and drywall, I've scraped houses to be painted, I've cleaned out places for remodel—never, never look through an old dermatologist's "odd stuff" files—I've worked off horses and tractors enough to realize they're pretty much the same animal. I've been a firewood delivery boy, I've proofed legal briefs, I've slung rock on a road crew in the 112 degree heat, I've moved furniture for cash money, I've painted—my biggest job was a sprawling-huge storage complex, which I had to use a roller for, since the doors weren't sealed tight enough to keep spray out—I've always and forever been in the warehouse, dollying fridges and pallets around, sweeping up mice droppings in the downtime, but mostly, since I was twelve and almost up until I got into this whole crazy writing thing, I've been a field hand. Chopping cotton, moving pipe, twisting a wrench on tool bars, digging holes for windmill feet, fixing fences, fixing flats—I once repacked a hundred and forty wheel bearings on cotton trailers in four days, after which my hands were just blood and blood and more blood. But all this field-experience probably led to what I consider my oddest job: working for DeKalb, a seed research outfit fifteen miles north of Lubbock, Texas. The work there was seasonal, so some months you'd be chopping the heads off sorghum, some months you'd be thinning—leaning over all day long, leaving two fingers' space between each sprout—but, in the winter, for a long bleak stretch of weeks, what I'd do was sit in a room with a tiny-tiny spoon, measuring three grams of seed into a small manila envelope. Ten, twelve hours of this per shift, I mean. And I loved it. Repetition, man, I could not get enough. That's the kind of job I can really do. It hasn't been my favorite job—washing dishes was really great, since the busboys would bring me leftovers from all the tables: I've never eaten so well—but it let my head just dial-tone down, like meditation. I miss that.

So, yeah. Holy shit, right? It's no coincidence that SGJ is one of the most prolific writers working today.

What cool writer jobs have I missed? Either gigs other writers have had, or ones you've worked yourself, we want to hear about them in the comments.

Max Booth III

Column by Max Booth III

Max Booth III is the CEO of Ghoulish Books, the host of the GHOULISH and Dog Ears podcasts, the co-founder of the Ghoulish Book Festival, and the author of several spooky books, including Abnormal Statistics, Maggots Screaming!, Touch the Night, and others. He wrote both the novella and film versions of We Need to Do Something, which was released by IFC Midnight in 2021 and can currently be streamed on Hulu. He was raised in Northwest Indiana and now lives in San Antonio.

To leave a comment Login with Facebook or create a free account.


smithreynolds's picture
smithreynolds from Spokane, WA USA is reading The writing on the wall. January 26, 2017 - 11:52am

This is bomb. I especially love the cuts from Salinger and Jones and the introduction to Octavia E. Butler. I put her on my to buy KINDRED list. I Just received your book in the mail, Max Booth III. I am looking forward to checking out your fiction.  This article bodes well for my enjoyment of your work. Thanks. gsr

Ronzermonster's picture
Ronzermonster from Portland, OR is reading Forture Smiles January 26, 2017 - 4:38pm

Speaking of projectionists, Apparently James Joyce and his wife owned and operated a cinema in Paris. So that's kind of cool.

patriciaL's picture
patriciaL January 30, 2017 - 2:44am

Thanks for posting such an outstanding article, these facts are so incredible! By the way, did you know that William Faulkner was a postmaster at the University of Mississippi and Kurt Vonnegut worked as a car dealer? Sounds weird but this infographic can prove it:

Who knows, maybe one day my life story will inspire the whole generation too :-) Well, unless I don't see my name in this list, I have to work hard and do my regular job.  

SimpleBloggin's picture
SimpleBloggin June 25, 2017 - 7:47am

I read your article and I got the impression that in your opinion the writer is not a profession. Although I understand what you mean. In ane case, I want to recommend you a very helphul site with a lot of great tools for copywriters, freelancers, recruits etc -