Wallace Stevens, poet and insurance executive, argued that “poetry and surety claims
aren't as unlikely a combination as they may seem.” Don't Quit Your
Day Job collects fifty accounts of famous people like Stevens who made
it big in some field of excellence while holding down some other job. When we grow
weary of defining ourselves in terms of our occupations, we can turn to historical
examples of people who have managed to find fulfillment in two distinct worlds.
Faulkner published his first poem, “L'Après-Midi d'un Faune,” in 1919. His new status
as a veteran entitled him to enroll in classes at Ole Miss, though once again he
found himself bored, and again dropped out after just a few weeks. How, then, to
make a living? He looked for a desk job that would let him remain on campus without
taking too much time away from his literary endeavors, and got himself appointed
postmaster at the university. As one biographer says, “It was…an improbable position
for a person known to be both indifferent to mail and allergic to routine.” Still,
Faulkner was grateful for the income. The eccentric “poet-postmaster” became a well-known
character around the university.
Stoker served [the actor Henry] Irving as business manager [of his theater] for
twenty-seven years. And he was good at what he did, helping to make the Lyceum the
place to be seen in late Victorian London. Stoker introduced a number of innovations
that now seem utterly natural: he was the first to number the seats, for instance,
and to offer tickets for specific places in each section of the theater. He encouraged
patrons to make reservations for seats in advance. And he advertised the theater's
entire season as a whole, rather than emphasizing a single play at a time.
In 1852 Trollope made two of his most lasting inventions. The first was literary:
he conceived the outline of his most famous novels, the series known as the Chronicles
of Barsetshire. The second was part of his business: he proposed to the English
postal service that they change the way letters entered the system. Stamps were
widely available at every shop, but people still had to travel long distances to
the main post office to mail their letters. Why, he asked, couldn't there be drop
boxes, perhaps mounted on posts by the side of the road, where people could leave
their stamped letters, and wait for the postman to pick them up?
Reconfiguring the entire intellectual would have been enough for most people, but
Newton began to consult with the Royal Mint on the side. The English monetary system
was under threat from counterfeiters and “coin-clippers,” cheats who would snip
bits of silver and gold from coins and sell the precious metal for extra income.
Newton advised the government on how to redesign English coins, and by systematically
replacing all the old currency with new coins with milled edges–like our modern
quarter or dime–where any clipping would destroy the ridged patterns, he largely
solved the problem of clipping.