There’s a dirty little secret in the literary world. Professors and teachers don’t love revealing it. Scholars often clasp a hand over their ears to avoid hearing the awful truth. The secret is that poetic demi-god T.S. Eliot worked at a (gasp) BANK (gasp). Not to mention, he kept working at the bank well after the publication of his famous, and still widely heralded releases The Wasteland and Prufrock And Other Observation.
There’s a myth about writers that they/we/I love to perpetuate. Our work is writing. Everything else is busy work that tampers with our creative abilities. In our minds, it’s not to be enjoyable.
But Eliot, perhaps the unofficial Laureate of English-language poetry for the last century, enjoyed working for Lloyds, the London-based bank. He actually liked his small office that he shared with another worker. And he liked the consistency. And he liked the pay, though he worked hard in attempts to earn a raise.
He could’ve made a career from his poetry. His friends, powerful beyond all means in the literary community, tried to bribe him to leave. They set up an account to pay him a salary each week – more than he was earning at the bank.
Their point was that the world needed Eliot’s poetry. They, the other writers, needed it. His time was better spent writing than punching numbers at the bank.
The man who published The Wasteland, perhaps the piece-de-resistance of 20th century poetic publication, refused the artist lifestyle to stick with the bank and the stability the latter provided him.
He resigned from the bank in 1925, though in his resignation letter he cites his wife’s deteriorating health as his reason for exit, not a focus on his writing. The lessons he learned at the bank helped him, also, as he planned and distributed his own literary publication – and kept the journal financially fit.
The point of the story is not to reveal the austerity of Mr. Eliot. Sure, he was a far cry from the Beat poets who came only a few decades later. Rather, I think, his story illustrates the beauty of balance. Eliot liked his job. He liked writing, too — but writing never became a means of escape for him.
He wrote with creativity, not desperation. That’s the distinction. He wrote as a hobby and he dutifully worked as banker for his professional career. He was happy to do it.
Our jobs may never be our absolute true passion, that privilege is probably reserved for a lucky few. But we can certainly do something we like. And I think it’s this idea that renders our hobbies less necessary and more delightful.
Either way, it’s important to find a balance in profession and hobby. This is especially true when your hobby is based on a passionate talent, as in Eliot’s case. Far too many writers have wrecked their lives because of their talents, and you won’t find Eliot’s name on that list. He was happy to bank and happy to write, and though (and perhaps because) the two don’t mix, he found a balance that worked in his life.