Dispatches | July 30, 2014

By Michael Nye

As a young writer and also a current college student, I often think about the business of writing and how best to prepare oneself for a writer’s life. Rachel’s post about the Flannery O’Connor quote and the way experiences translate to our writing got me thinking about the career choices we make as writers. I’ve read a lot of bios in the back of books and literary journals, and I realized recently that rather unintentionally I’ve divided these people into two camps in my mind: writers and people who do others things who also like to write.

Years ago, in the infancy of my interest in this field, I’m sure I would have scorned that latter category of people who chose to have another career, another passion, before or in addition to the writing life. How dare they divide their attentions between writing and…anything else? For a true writer, what else could there be?

But over the years, I’ve come to realize that there are plenty of excellent writers who take their profession and use it to fuel their passion. Living, then, is a source of inspiration, even in the working world where we may feel most lifeless.

Immediately I think of Herman Melville, who was a sailor for many years before he began to publish his stories, inspired and informed by his years at sea. Ernest Hemingway served as an ambulance driver during World War I, which later lead to the writing of A Farewell to Arms. More recently, authors like John Grisham and Kathy Reichs have found commercial success by writing about their working worlds – criminal defense law and forensic anthropology, respectively.

“But wait,” you say, “those jobs are interesting. How am I supposed to draw inspiration from my job as a toll booth operator/trash collector/assembly line worker?” (Do we even have those anymore? Aren’t all assembly lines managed by robots now?)

John Steinbeck worked as a fruit picker for a while prior to his publishing of The Grapes of Wrath. Mark Twain (or Samuel Clemens, as he was known then) was a steamboat captain on the Mississippi River before he created Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. Charles Bukowski wrote a number of poems about his time in the employ of the postal service.

New England janitor Stephen King spent endless hours spent wheeling a mop cart through the halls of an empty high school, which eventually inspired him to write the opening girls’ locker room scene for a novel called Carrie.

So there.

As wonderful as it can be to spend all of your waking hours surrounded by other academics and people who love literature, or just sitting in front of your computer typing up a new chapter (or cooking, or scrolling through Facebook, or playing with your dog – whatever it is you do when you’re supposed to be writing) I would like to propose that there is great merit in being inspired by the world through your own unique experience. We are shaped by the strange and wonderful things that happen to us on any given day, and it is these experiences that strike the match of inspiration for the stories we tell.

What kind of jobs have you had that inspired you? Any weird stories to share that turned into to a work you love? Divulge your trade secrets in the comments below!

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