Lots of stories revolve around protagonists triumphing in spite of the odds, but not all of these stories are fictional — plenty of authors themselves have pretty remarkable pasts. Perhaps that’s what inspires their stories in the first place; even if they ended up as famous writers, many authors started out in completely random or unrelated day jobs. For example, most people know the story of J.K. Rowling’s rise to fame: She wasn’t always one of the most adored writers on the planet — in fact, when she began writing Harry Potter, her career wasn't going well.
In her commencement address at Harvard University, “The Fringe Benefits of Failure, and the Importance of Imagination,” Rowling explained why hitting “rock bottom” isn’t necessarily a bad thing: “I was set free,” she says, “because my greatest fear had been realized, and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter and a big idea. And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.”
So if you’re an aspiring author, or an aspiring anything, really, you can find inspiration from reading about the lives of successful writers: You don’t have to become famous overnight in order to succeed. Sometimes the most amazing stories come from seemingly unlikely places, and sometimes, you have to work some random jobs before you achieve your dream career.
Stephen King Was A Janitor
He may be a renowned author of over 50 novels, but Stephen King wasn't always a full-time writer — his time as a high school janitor helped inspire the novel Carrie. King originally threw the first draft of the story in the trash, but his wife Tabitha fished it out and told him to keep going because she wanted to know how it ended.
Harper Lee Was An Airline Reservations Attendant
Before she wrote To Kill a Mockingbird and Go Set a Watchman, Harper Lee worked as an airline reservations clerk in New York. She eventually quit when her friends helped support her financially so she could finally write full time. Talk about amazing friends!
Margaret Atwood Worked In A Coffee Shop
Margaret Atwood says her first job experience was NOT ideal: She had to deal with a difficult cash register, a rude ex-boyfriend who would come by just to stare at her and barely tip, and fellow employees who were definitely not friendship material.
Wendelin Van Draanen Was A High School Math Teacher
The author of beloved children's books such as Sammy Keyes and Flipped first began her career as a high school teacher. But she didn't teach English, as you'd probably expect — she actually taught math and computer science.
Douglas Adams Was A Bodyguard
Even published authors often have to work other jobs to make ends meet, and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy author Douglas Adams was no exception: At one point, he was a bodyguard for a wealthy Arabian family, while he simultaneously wrote for radio shows and Monty Python. Good writers are good multitaskers, apparently!
Suzanne Collins Wrote TV Shows For Kids
Before creating the character of Katniss Everdeen, Suzanne Collins had a career writing for children's television shows. She worked on everything from Clarissa Explains It All to Wow! Wow! Wubbzy, before eventually writing New York Times bestseller Gregor the Overlander, and finally, of course, The Hunger Games.
Sophie Kinsella Was A Financial Journalist
Madeleine Wickham, aka Sophie Kinsella, created the popular Confessions of a Shopaholic series — and perhaps she was inspired by her time working as a financial journalist. Kinsella found the job "uninspiring," and ended up writing her first novel during her lunch hours and at night.
John Green Was A Chaplain At A Children's Hospital
Before writing young adult novels, John Green was studying to become a minister. He worked as a chaplain at a children's hospital as part of the discernment process, and the stories of the people he met there eventually inspired his book The Fault in Our Stars.
Rainbow Rowell Was A Newspaper Columnist
Fangirl author Rainbow Rowell triple majored in news editorial, advertising, and English, and she held jobs in all three fields. For 10 years, she wrote for the Omaha-World Herald, so it's no surprise that her novel Attachments so perfectly captures the life of newspaper employees.
Neil Gaiman Was A Freelance Journalist
Fantasy writer Neil Gaiman faced plenty of rejection before his career took off. His short stories weren't being picked up for publication, so he finally decided to take a job as a freelance journalist. During this time, he learned about the publishing world from the inside, and apparently it worked — because he has a stellar amount of publications these days.
Nicholas Sparks Sold Dental Products Over The Phone
He's a well-known author now, but before Nicholas Sparks wrote The Notebook, he worked odd jobs, including selling dental products over the phone. The actors in Sparks' movie adaptations always have beautiful teeth.... Perhaps he's sharing some tips?
Octavia Butler Was A Potato Chip Inspector
She was a talented science-fiction writer and awarded the MacArthur Fellowship — but before her success as a writer, Octavia Butler worked as a potato chip inspector. She also worked as a dishwasher and a telemarketer, using these day jobs to support her writing. And they really were day jobs, because Butler would get up at 2 a.m. to do her writing before going in to work! Amazing.
Agatha Christie Was An Apothecaries' Assistant
She's known as a mystery novelist, Agatha Christie was once an assistant apothecary. She reportedly knew a lot about poisons, which was no doubt helpful as she created the characters of Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple. Just goes to show that you never know what knowledge will come in handy later.