5 Weird Jobs Famous Authors Had To Take To Make Ends Meet
The thing about being a writer is that it's actually really hard, and you should all be very proud of what a brave boy I am for doing it. The median wage for a full-time writer is only $20,300, which is roughly the same pay as jobs like "Crooning Hobo with a Heart of Gold" or "Public School Teacher." The point is that this is America, dammit, and if those namby-pambies think they deserve food just for "having ideas" and "entertaining millions," well, maybe they should take up a side job to help pay the bills. After all, that's what some of the greats have had to do.
Mark Twain Anonymously Wrote About Balls
Mark Twain is easily America's second-favorite Southern gentleman in a white suit with funny facial hair. Despite being a successful author and scrapbooking magnate, Twain was as poor as ... well, I was going to make a humorous comparison here, but in light of that statistic about the median income of authors, "as poor as an author" is actually pretty apt.
Twain lost almost all of his book bucks -- nearly $9 million in today's money -- investing in an invention that combined the convenience of a typewriter with the gigantic metal skeleton of a decommissioned locomotive engine. Twain was eventually able to dig himself out of debt by touring the world and doing comedic speaking engagements. A famous comedy writer becoming a famous stand-up comedian is a pretty logical progression, like an ice cream truck driver becoming a serial killer. But we're here to talk about his other side-hustle: writing dirty stories for men's magazines.
In Twain's time, there was a literary subgenre of "squibs," which were essentially trashy short stories published in magazines marketed toward men -- or as they were called in the 1890s, "magazines." Twain wrote a few of these, but the most (in)famous is a little story published in 1876 called "1601." Due to its salacious content, Twain didn't actually admit to writing it until 1906, just four years before he died. It's so filthy that it wasn't legal to print until the overturning of obscenity laws in the 1960s. The story is framed as a conversation between 17th-century England's heavy hitters, including Francis Bacon, William Shakespeare, and the queen. It's written in faux-Elizabethan argot, and the joke is that these fancy-pants tightasses talk about who can rip the nastiest fart or who has the best pubic hair. At one point, Shakespeare tells a story about a dude with four balls.
Now, there's some contention as to whether Twain wrote this tawdry little tale for money or just as an exercise. I keep asking my Ouija board, but all it does is start screaming and demand that I avenge the ghost in my apartment, so we'll probably never know. But it's probably fair to say that Twain wouldn't turn his nose up at a payday, especially if it meant he could get paid to talk about supernumerary testicles -- a subject he was rarely able to explore in his other work.
F. Scott Fitzgerald Wrote Unusable Screenplays
F. Scott Fitzgerald was one of the most famous authors of the 1920s, and also ever. He was renowned for his florid prose and trailblazing theme of "rich people are a pack of sad, vicious assholes." Now, that might seem obvious to anyone who's been outside, but in the 1920s it was revelatory. After writing a poorly selling, critically panned flop you've probably never heard of called The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald decided it was time to take it to the next level by moving to LA to be a screenwriter.
"Writing movies for major Hollywood studios and banging movie stars" might not exactly sound like a bad life, but it pretty much completely destroyed Fitzgerald. I know, I know. Hollywood? Preying on people's dreams? Crazy, right? The thing you need to understand about Fitzgerald is that while he was, in my opinion, one of the greatest novelists who ever lived, he apparently fluffed mad hog as a screenwriter. It turns out the guy who wrote a two-page internal monologue about character's thoughts on Princeton University's lunch programs in The Beautiful And Damned wasn't exactly a master of showing instead of telling.
Despite cranking out a dizzying amount of scripts, rewrites, and polishes, Fitzgerald only ever received a single screenwriting credit. It was on a now-almost-completely-forgotten romance film called Three Comrades. But hey, it's got a 100% on Rotten Tomatoes, so it's at least as good as Paddington 2.
Unlike fellow genius sellout William Faulkner, Fitzgerald would leave Hollywood a broken man. Virtually all of his screenwriting work was considered trash, by studio higher-ups and contemporaries alike. In fact, it was so bad that in the '70s, MGM did a little housecleaning and ended up burning most of it, confirming that movie studios wouldn't recognize genius if it was sitting in a box on their desk. At least one employee had the presence of mind to realize that hey, maybe these unreleased works by one of the most famous writers to ever live might have some value, so they kinda sorta stole them and sold them at auction.
So sure, maybe Fitzgerald wasn't a great screenwriter. But there's no way his screenplay for The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button would have been less tedious than the one we got (it would also have probably featured fewer weird quasi-pedophilic sex scenes).
Roald Dahl Wrote Bizarre Sex Stories For Playboy
Roald Dahl inspired millions of children's dreams, and at least a couple of their nightmares. When he wasn't busy murdering Italians with an airplane or tricking America into fighting the Nazis with his dick, he somehow found the time to be one of the most beloved children's authors since whatever maniac decided "Sad orphans live in an abandoned train" was a plot that could be milked for 152 books. Dahl wrote such beloved works as Charlie And The Chocolate Factory, Fantastic Mr. Fox, and The BFG, which means he has an impressive 66% great-to-terrible film adaptation ratio.
Writing beloved children's fiction wasn't all Dahl got up to. Besides writing a James Bond movie with Japanese people speaking some truly cringe-inducing "Engrish," in which Bond becomes a ninja for some reason, he also wrote dirty stories for Playboy. This wasn't a young writer just trying to make ends meet, mind you. By the time he was done writing for Playboy, his only really famous novel yet to be published was Matilda, in 1988. Aha, you say, but Playboy has published plenty of literary works, from authors like John Updike! Sure, but the stories Dahl wrote were pretty raunchy. They were later collected in a single book called Switch Bitch. As a child, I found this collection on my mom's bookshelf, recognized the name "Roald Dahl," and took it upon myself to read the whole thing.
To give you an idea, the story "Bitch" (sensing a pattern with these naming conventions?) is about a scientist who invents a perfume that drives men into an uncontrollable sexual frenzy. He ends up dying of sexual exhaustion before he can tell his friend, the narrator, the secret formula. So the narrator does what any one of us would if they had the last extant drops of uncontrollable fuck juice: He decides to use it to humiliate the president by making him bone a fat chick on live TV. Unfortunately(?), before he gets the chance, the perfume is accidentally spilled on him instead, causing him to turn into a seven-foot-tall rapping penis. He and the chubby lady get their fuck on, and then it ends. All the mystery and magic you've come to expect from a Dahl story, and all the coerced sex you haven't.
Slavoj Zizek Wrote An Abercrombie & Fitch Catalog
Slavoj Zizek is one of the most popular and contentious philosophers active today, due in no small part to his endearing nervous tics, writing a nonlinear dissertation that remains faithful to the retroactive affect of Lacanian psychoanalysis, and double-fisting hot dogs.
If you ask me, Zizek is a brilliant mind offering a valuable (if flawed) perspective on leftist ideology and cultural critique. But when he's not selling out venues for debates, writing books, or, and I cannot overstate how hilarious this is to me, double-fisting hot dogs like a cartoon dog from New York, the world's most famous Marxist theorist has also written ads for Abercrombie & Fitch. This is a fact so deliciously ridiculous and rich in irony that any further extrapolation, let alone jokes, would be tantamount to intellectual masturbation. So let's do it.
If you're not familiar with Abercrombie & Fitch, it's a clothing brand for teenage douchebags that makes the air in their stores 999,999 ppm cologne to keep the asthmatic nerds out. Their history is rife with controversy and capitalistic malpractice, so of course Zizek is the obvious guy to write ads for them. Abercrombie & Fitch used to publish a catalog, and in a 2003 quarterly issue, they asked the Z-Man to provide some philosophical commentary. You can read the piece for yourself here, but be warned that it's pretty much softcore porn. Here's a sample quote (keep in mind that this was written over an image of nude models):
It is only when her lover is able to discern the butterfly that is in her more than the girl herself that he will passionately desire her, that making love to her will not be only copulation.
Wow, good one. That really makes me want to buy a pink polo and ripped jeans? Honestly, this just makes me feel bad for the frustrated 2003-era preteen who went through all the trouble of convincing his parents it was a totally normal clothing catalog, checking the mail for months, intercepting it, and hiding it in his room, only to have his J/O session ruined by all this pesky philosophy.
Maybe he was actually making a grand statement on the inherent absurdity of how under capitalism, even criticism of capitalism has been commodified. Or maybe he did it for money. Maybe it was both, the proverbial having your cake and eating it too -- or in Zizek's case, having your hot dog and eating both it and your other hot dog. When asked about the ad, Zizek told The Boston Globe that he "spent literally 10 minutes on this assignment, just free-associating. I was in theoretical despair!" What better way to beat capitalism from the inside than by just half-assing your job?
Herman Melville Had To Take A Job Inspecting Ship Cargo
Herman Melville is, of course, most famous for writing Moby-Dick, a beautiful and moving novel about how animals are dicks. What you may not know is that it was considered an absolute piece of trash in its time. It sold poorly, was reviewed poorly, and ruined Melville's career so thoroughly that you would've thought it was a thousand-plus-page manifesto on the benefits of whale-fucking. (But it's not. That's the book your mom keeps giving me.)
Before losing everything because of Dick at the age of 32, Melville was a successful writer of semi-fictionalized accounts of his adventures in the Navy in what is now French Polynesia. These were analogous to trashy paperbacks. The fact that Moby-Dick is now considered a cornerstone of the American canon is like if Tucker Max decided to write the Great American Novel and it became a staple of high school literature, instead of ghostwriting Tiffany Haddish's memoirs.
Anyway, the point is that no publishers would touch Melville's work. Desperate for money to spend on beard oil and lanterns, Melville took a job working as a New York customs inspector. It was by all accounts a terrible job, and Melville's wife worried it was driving him insane (in the nearly 20 years he worked there, he never once earned a raise or promotion). Melville's job consisted of inspecting incoming cargo for whatever drugs people objected to in the 1860s, which must have been pretty bad, since it was a time when a doctor-barber would diagnose your toddler with devil-brain and prescribe "almost all of the opium" to cure it.
Melville worked in a tiny, dark, unheated shack on a wharf in New York, which is now almost certainly charging $3,200 a month as a "rustic seaside property -- only gently the scene of several murders!" If you'd like to know more about the six-day-a-week job that was so miserable it broke one of the most effusive and creative souls of its day, the U.S. Customs Border and Border Protection website has you covered, and holy shit that's not a joke.
Melville would retire in 1885 and spend the remaining six years of his life trying to write one more novel: Billy Budd, which wouldn't be published until decades after he died. See? Stick with it, writers, and someday you'll have the last laugh. From the grave.
For more, check out Show And Tell: A Cringe-Worthy Look At Our Teenage Notebooks:
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