The Day Jobs of 9 Women Writers
On strike day — nine women who made art and punched the clock
If you enjoy reading Electric Literature, join our mailing list! We’ll send you the best of EL each week, and you’ll be the first to know about upcoming submissions periods and virtual events.
This year’s International Women’s Day, which aims to celebrate and promote gender equality across the globe, will feature “A Day Without a Woman” — a general strike to bring home just how integral women are to the workplace and society at large, by momentarily removing them from the former and amplifying their voices in the latter: absence makes the cause grow stronger.
The organizers of the strike, the same people who brought us the Women’s March on January 21st, say that the day is about “recognizing the enormous value that women of all backgrounds add to our socio-economic system — while receiving lower wages and experiencing greater inequities, vulnerability to discrimination, sexual harassment, and job insecurity.”
While we pause our work, let’s take note of women writers who, in addition to their artistic endeavors, have played indispensable roles in the workforce: improving technology, healing the wounded and inspecting potato chips (someone’s gotta do it). Today, we celebrate them as women, writers and workers.
Atwood wrote an essay for an April 2001 issue of The New Yorker called “Ka-Ching!,” which detailed her experience working at a coffee shop in Toronto. Atwood’s eye for the dystopian was honed even at this early job; while she poured coffee and worked the cash register, “the booths were served by a waitressing pro who lipsticked outside the lines, and who thought I was a mutant.” Atwood’s days as a barista are obviously far behind; but in addition to writing her many award-winning novels, she’s also an inventor. While she was on tour for her novel, Oryx and Crake, she had the idea for a pen that would allow someone to write remotely, in ink. Atwood founded Unotchit Inc. to develop this remote robotic writing technology and the LongPen, which allows her to sign books without being physically present.
The upside to having a day job (aside from putting food on the table) is that it can generate material for books. Christie, the prolific mystery writer, learned about death first hand as part of a Voluntary Aid Detachment attending injured troops at a military hospital in Devon during World War I. Her next job, as an apothecary’s assistant, gave her knowledge of pharmaceuticals that would shape many of her novels—Christie used 30 different poisons to kill her characters and chose this method of death more often than any other crime writer.
Toni Morrison has always found a way to work with books, though her early job as a textbook editor was definitely less glamorous than some of her later career highlights, like winning a Pulitzer and the Nobel Prize for Literature. Morrison also worked as a fiction editor at Random House and taught at several universities.
If Elena Ferrante is indeed the Italian translator Anita Raja, then the author is a very busy and talented woman indeed. In addition to working as a German translator for Edizione E/O and helping to run an imprint called Collana degli Azzurri, Raja has also served as the head of a public library in Rome.
Clarissa Explains It All was the first Nickelodeon series to star a girl, and its popularity led to other female-led shows like The Secret World of Alex Mack and The Mystery Files of Shelby Woo. It’s not surprising, then, that one of the writers was Suzanne Collins, who would follow her stint writing for TV with a series of novels starring a kick-ass girl named Katniss Everdeen.
Before becoming a celebrated science fiction author and the recipient of a MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship, Octavia Butler would get up at 2 a.m to write so that she’d be on time for her many day jobs, which included everything from dishwasher to telemarketer to potato chip inspector.
The author of Here Comes The Sun was originally on a career path towards science: she earned a degree in Biology and Nutritional Sciences from Cornell University, followed by a Masters in Public Health, specializing in women’s reproductive health, at the University of Michigan. Even when she began to write fiction on the side, Dennis-Benn was a Project Manager in Gender, Sexuality and Health Research in the Department of Sociomedical Sciences at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health.
Before she wrote her best-selling novel Interview with the Vampire, Anne Rice worked with different kinds of blood-suckers: insurance claims examiners.
Harper Lee moved to New York City in 1949 to pursue her career as a writer. And like so many young artists, she had to take a job, any job, to pay the bills. Lee worked as a ticket agent for Eastern Airlines and BOAC (the precursor to British Airways). Seven years later, her friend, the Broadway lyricist and composer Michael Brown, gave her the Christmas present to top all Christmas presents: one year’s wages and the note, “You have one year off to write whatever you please.” She used that year well, writing and selling To Kill A Mockingbird.