Throughout history, creative types such as writers have had to support themselves with day jobs until such time as they became famous.
Harper Lee, for instance, was an airline ticket agent before she penned “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Anne Rice, author of “Interview with the Vampire,” was working the scary realm of the insurance industry. William Faulkner was terrible in his stint as a postmaster but subsequently did well for himself writing novels. And hard as it is to imagine the reclusive J.D. Salinger being gregarious, he once worked a cruise ship as its high seas entertainment director.
This month’s exercises focus on a handful of iconic wordsmiths being transported to a wobbly economy in the 21st century and having to suddenly find gainful employment that will enable them to keep a roof over their heads.
These discussion questions provide a good foundation prior to choosing which exercises to try first.
1. Would you rather have a low-paying job in a writing profession or a high-paying job in a field that didn’t interest you?
2. Depending on the genre of film you’d like to write, what type of non-writing job do you think would give you the best hands-on experience for your chosen storyline(s)?
3. Who is your favorite modern-day writer today? What was he or she doing for a living prior to becoming a household name?
4. In a long ago time, wealthy benefactors would sometimes provide lodging and food for artists, musicians and writers to spend all their energy being creative. The catch was that they were under the direction of the benefactor to produce something the latter personally requested. Would you be able to function in this particular work-for-hire arrangement? Why or why not?
5. Should writers give away their work for free? Why or why not?
6. If you could only work evenings and weekends on your writing craft, what type of day job would best suit your needs? Why?
For each of the following set-ups, write a 3-5 page scene in which each famous literary character has to interact with customers, colleagues, interviewees, or even callers to a radio talk show.
Accomplished storyteller as he was, Charles Dickens was not a particularly pleasant person, especially when it came to the needs of his own family. While he would generously throw open the doors of his house to impoverished relatives, for instance, he had no shortage of criticism when it came to kvetching about the length of their stay and how much food they were eating.
Your assignment: Dickens takes a floor manager job at an all-you-can-eat-buffet restaurant. Given his micro-managing disposition, he is constantly monitoring the patrons’ food choices and how many return trips they make to the dessert bar.
Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley is most famous as the author of “The Modern Prometheus,” a work better known as “Frankenstein.” The idea came about as a result of Mary and a circle of friends sitting about on a rainy day in Switzerland reading ghost stories. None other than Lord Byron thought it would be a hoot if they could see who in their plucky little group could come up with the best horror tale. Mary won.
Your assignment: Being fond of little children, Mary thinks she’d be a natural fit to run a local daycare center. All seems fine until she gets to Story Hour right before their afternoon naps.
EDGAR ALLAN POE
Even during his briefest flirtations with happiness and publishing success, Edgar Allan Poe was a man predisposed to melancholy, gloom and rampant paranoia.
Your assignment: Poe lands the unlikely job of a sales clerk at a greeting card store. No matter the occasion for which patrons are buying an appropriate card, the glum wordsmith refuses to look on the bright side of life whenever his assistance in the selection process is solicited.
SIR ARTHUR CONAN DOYLE
So popular was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s clever protagonist, Sherlock Holmes, that readers would often write letters to the fictional detective seeking his advice about missing relatives, stolen pin money, and straying spouses. Annoyed that his alter ego was more popular than he was, Doyle conspired to kill Holmes’ off in a fatal plunge at Reichenbach Falls. Fans were not amused.
Your assignment: Whilst contemplating how he can plausibly resurrect the much-loved sleuth, Doyle takes a job at a personnel recruitment agency. As he interviews a prospective candidate, it’s clear that Holmes’ powers of deduction have rubbed off (i.e., “I see by the ruddiness of your complexion and the caked mud on your boots that you’ve spent a great deal of time outdoors…”).
There was nothing that Jane Austen’s characters loved more than to find true and ever-lasting romance with suitable (and, hopefully, wealthy) partners.
Your assignment: Jane is the go-to gal for any woman (or man) who wants to present themselves as attractively as possible in online videos for a popular dating network. In Jane’s book, even the most hopeless lovelorn client can be made over into a smart and stellar catch.
The name Theodor Geisel may not spring to the forefront of memory as someone famous but there’s probably no one on the planet who doesn’t recognize his pen name: Dr. Seuss. “Ted,” as his family called him, originally thought about becoming a scholar but realized that drawing cartoons was a lot more enjoyable. He also had a penchant for letting his whimsical characters speak in rhyme, a devise that made it easy for young readers to follow along and recognize sound patterns.
Your assignment: Dr. Seuss is a new middle manager at a government agency. Not only does he love to have meetings but he believes that meetings in which all of the participants have to speak in rhyme are much more fun.
THE GRIMM BROTHERS
Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm were linguists and folk lorists who felt that fairy tales were a nifty way to get children to understand the difference between good and evil, to not talk to strangers (human and otherwise) in the creepy woods, and to assume that stepmothers will likely never have your best interests at heart. Today, their tales have been translated into over 100 languages and have been successfully adapted to stage and screen.
Your assignment: Given their keen grasp of interpersonal relationships and human psychology, Jacob and Wilhelm decide to take their expertise to the airwaves with their own talk radio program. To their puzzlement, several of the callers have problems that the brothers assumed had already been wrapped up happily ever after.
As part of my ongoing commitment to supply great lesson plans for today’s classrooms, I always enjoy getting feedback on how the material is used and what kind of new content you’d like to see in future columns. I’m also happy to answer any questions related to specific problems your students may be struggling with. Just drop me a note at or through my website at http://www.authorhamlett.com.
Former actress/director Christina Hamlett is an award winning author, professional script consultant, and ghostwriter. Her credits to date include 34 books, 163 plays for young actors, and 5 optioned feature films.