Side Hustles: Polish Writers’ Other Jobs
#language & literature
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Polish Writers’ Other Jobs, ‘Falsehood of a Woman’ by Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz, 1927, photo: National Museum in Warsaw, center, witkiewicz_deception_of_woman.jpg
In the history of Polish literature, many talented authors have also had day jobs – and they’ve found some rather peculiar ways make ends meet. From attorney to fisherman, electrician to psychotherapist, let us introduce you to the array of secondary professions which some of the best-known Polish writers have taken on.
Writing books has never been easy money in Poland. Since few people abroad know Polish, and Poles comprise a small nation, the question necessarily arises: can one make a living from writing? Striking it rich as an author seems challenging and even improbable. So how do writers earn money? Is writing a profession, a hobby, a vocation or a mission? The answers to these questions may show how writers manage to survive in everyday life… and life, as we all know, rarely resembles fiction.
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Mind you, we won’t go into scholars, critics, translators, editors, publishers or journalists. Most writers obviously choose to work in these professions. Others, however, have had to support themselves by doing other things before gaining literary acclaim.
Juliusz Słowacki (1809-1849) was an attorney and a diplomatic courier. Having graduated from the Law Department at Vilnius University, he worked at the Government Income and Treasury Commission in Warsaw. In 1831, he was employed by the Diplomatic Bureau of the National Government, which was established by insurgents during the November Uprising. That year, he went to Paris and London as a diplomatic courier. He never came back to Poland.
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Front page of ‘The Doll’ by Bolesław Prus, published by Gebethner and Wolff, Warsaw, 1890, photo: Cyfrowa Biblioteka Narodowa Polona
Bolesław Prus (1847-1912) worked as a private tutor, a photographer, a public speaker, a locksmith and a bank cashier. He also moonlighted as a journalist. Eventually, his side hustle as a columnist and writer became a considerable source of income for him.
Gabriela Zapolska (1857-1921) was an actress. She knew all the theatrical techniques, and her stage experience inspired her to become a popular playwright. She also wrote short stories, novels of manners, psychological novels, melodramas and press articles.
Stanisława Przybyszewska (1901-1935) was a civil servant and a teacher. She made her name with a play called The Danton Case, filmed by Andrzej Wajda (Danton).
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Bolesław Leśmian (1873-1937) was a notary. Due to fraudulent practices of his partner, he got into financial difficulties, which he struggled with until his death.
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‘Multiple Self-Portrait in Mirrors’ by Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz, c. 1915-1917, Petersburg, photo: Museum of Art in Łódź
witkacy autoportret wielokrotny.jpg
Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz (Witkacy) (1885-1939) was a painter, illustrator, photographer, philosopher, art theorist and critic. He established his Portrait Firm, which helped him overcome his financial struggles.
Tadeusz Boy-Żeleński (1874-1941) was a doctor. He continued his medical practice until he could finally make a living from writing. In his articles, he advocated secular culture and a rational approach towards tradition and national literature. He translated more than 100 classic French works into Polish.
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Bruno Schulz teaches a practical class in the Public Gymnasium in Drohobycz, 1934, photo: Laski Diffusion / East News
Bruno Schulz (1892-1942) was a teacher of practical classes and drawing. This outstanding illustrator, graphic designer and painter used a truly creative and poetic language in his collections of short stories called The Street of Crocodiles and Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass.
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Andrzej Bobkowski (1913-1961) owned a shop for model makers. The author of Sketched in Quill established his business in Guatemala, where he migrated after the war.
Stanisław Grzesiuk (1918-1963) was an electrician and the administrative director of a hospital. He was a self-taught writer, famous for his trilogy: Pięć Lat Kacetu (Five Years in Concentration Camps), Boso, ale w Ostrogach (Barefoot But in Spurs) and Na Marginesie Życia (On the Margin of Life). He was also a bard who promoted the pre-war songs of the working classes living in Warsaw.
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Jan Brzechwa (1898–1966) was an attorney specialising in copyright. He worked with various artistic organisations in Poland, such as the Polish Writer’s Union or Pen-Club.
Witold Gombrowicz (1904–1969) was a court reporter and a bank officer. He had a well-paid position at the Banco Polaco in Argentina, but in fact, he didn’t have many things to do at work. According to his colleagues, he spent hours in the toilet. And that’s precisely where he wrote his novels.
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Marek Hłasko (1934-1969) was a driver. His experience at the Transport Base in Bystrzyca Kłodzka inspired him to write Next Stop – Paradise. He frequently changed jobs, as he got easily bored.
Michał Choromański (1904-1972) was a tutor, paramedic and hospital officer, drawing teacher, and a literary director of a workers’ club. The reality of working in a hospital inspired him to write Jealousy and Medicine.
Andrzej Chciuk (1920-1978) was a soldier, cook and a teacher. He was born in Drohobycz, just like Bruno Schulz and Kazimierz Wierzyński. He worked different jobs to support himself. After the war, he migrated to Australia and wrote nostalgic books, such as Atlantis or Moon Land.
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Henryk Worcell (1909-1982) was a dishwasher, canteen worker, waiter, farmer and librarian. He made his name with his novel called Hotel Pacific, which was later filmed by Janusz Majewski. Between 1949 and 1955, he was forced to cooperate with the Security Office.
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Jan Himilsbach, Warsaw 1974, photo: Witold Rozmysłowicz / CAF / PAP =
Jan Himilsbach (1931–1988) was a borer in a mine, a porter, a stoker on fishing cutter boats, a stoneworker and an actor. There were many anecdotes about him. Janusz Głowacki recalled that one of the other writers wanted Himilsbach to be thrown out of the Polish Writers’ Union. Himilsbach had a great comeback. He said: ‘Mr Koźniewski, you’re a great writer. Shelves in all bookshops are filled with your books. But my books aren’t there. Because they’re sold out!’
Zbigniew Herbert (1924–1998) was a louse-feeder during the war, a salesman in a metal shop, a teacher, a bibliographer, an information gatherer, a time measurer, a senior assistant at a design office and the head of the office at the Polish Composers’ Union. From 1956, he made a living writing poetry.
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Jan Twardowski (1915–2006) was a priest. In his poems and prose, he conveyed a Catholic message and taught his audience how to live a good life.
Stanisław Lem (1921–2006) was a medical student before 1939. During the war, he worked as an assistant to a mechanic and as a welder. He later returned to his studies, but he deliberately failed his final exams to avoid working for the army under the communist regime.
Joanna Chmielewska (1932-2013) was an architect. Having graduated from the Warsaw University of Technology, she worked for the Blok studio and the Energoprojekt and Stolica design studios. She described her studio experiences in her novels, for example in Lesio.
Janusz Leon Wiśniewski (1954) holds a Master in Physics and Economics, a PhD in Computer Science and a Habilitation in Chemistry. He is a university teacher and a licensed fisherman. He lives in Frankfurt, where he creates software for chemists. In his free time, he writes books.
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Nobel Prize winner Olga Tokarczuk (1962) is a psychotherapist. She graduated from the Psychology department at the University of Warsaw and later worked at the Mental Health Clinic in Wałbrzych.
Miłosz Biedrzycki (1967) is a geophysicist. He makes a living as a seismic consultant for international oil corporations in places like Romania or the Arabian Peninsula. When he comes back home, he sits down and writes poems.
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If these examples point the fact that it's difficult for Polish writers to make a living as artists, there’s also some other wisdom to take away – no matter what your job is, you should write if you have something to share.
stanisław ignacy witkiewicz
Bolesław Prus (Aleksander Głowacki)
Janusz Leon Wiśniewski
Originally written in Polish by Janusz R. Kowalczyk, Jan 2019, translated by AJ, Mar 2019