This time of year, we often find ourselves thinking about the origins of some of our favorite writers — how they found themselves on the writing path, what they read, how they learned. And we’ve been surprised to realize how many successful and even legendary writers dropped out of school and ended up (at least for the most part) teaching themselves. Now, don’t get us wrong — kids, you should definitely stay in school — but it’s worth noting that many of those without a formal education, or without much of one, went on to achieve great success (read: Pulitzers/Nobels/The New York Times Best Seller list) with independent learning. Read about a few of our favorite literary dropouts after the jump.
The Pulitzer-Prize winning author is a lesson in following your dreams if we’ve ever seen it. Lee had been interested in literature from high school, but in college, decided to pursue a career in law. Though her interest in writing only increased as she grew older, in her junior year at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, she was accepted into the school’s law program, set up so students could begin their law studies concurrently with undergraduate work. After only a semester, she dropped out, and moved to New York City to become a writer. And we all know how that story ended — not too shabbily.
When memoirist and comic essayist Augusten Burroughs wanted to drop out of school at age 13, his mother and her shrink helped him fake a suicide attempt to accomplish it. By age 17, he had gotten his GED, and after legally changing his name, enrolled at and promptly flunked out of Holyoke Community College. Eventually, he moved to New York and got a job at an advertising agency, and published his first bestselling memoir, Running with Scissors, at the tender age of 37.
In Dickens’ earliest years, he enjoyed a private education, but when he was 12, his father was tossed into debtors’ prison and everything changed. Little Charles was forced to drop out of school and take a job at a boot blacking warehouse, where he worked ten-hour days for six shillings a week. Eventually, after an inheritance gave his father the cash to get out of prison, Dickens went back to school, but his experiences in the factory (and the neglect he felt it showed on behalf of his mother) carry through much of his work.
In high school, Beat hero Jack Kerouac was no poet — he was a jock, star of the football team. His athletic skills won him a scholarship to Columbia University, but he and the coach didn’t get along. The two argued constantly and Kerouac was benched for most of his freshman year. Then, he cracked his tibia and, his already tenuous football career over, dropped out of school.
Though Faulkner was already writing as a teenager — only poetry, mind you — he didn’t much care about school, and dropped out at age 15 to work in his grandfather’s bank. Despite his lack of a high school diploma, he enrolled as a special student at Ole Miss when he was 22 (where his father worked), but dropped out again after only three semesters. We’re tempted to “tsk” but hey — the man didn’t do that badly for himself.
The young Sam Clemens dropped out of school at the tender age of twelve, when his father died, and all the children of the family had to pitch in. His elder brother Orion was already a printer, and he-who-would-be-Mark-Twain took a job as a printer’s apprentice, his only compensation being board and clothes. A few years later, Orion bought out a small printer, and the two brothers worked there together, the younger just beginning to flex his writing muscles.
Comics legend Harvey Pekar graduated from high school in 1957, and went on to Case Western University, only to drop out after a year when “the pressure of required math classes became too much to bear.” He then joined the Navy, and when he was discharged, went home to Cleveland for the rest of his days.
George Bernard Shaw
The famous playwright attended several schools in his youth before dropping out entirely at age 14, finding little value in formal education. “Schools and schoolmasters, as we have them today,” he once wrote, “are not popular as places of education and teachers, but rather prisons and turnkeys in which children are kept to prevent them disturbing and chaperoning their parents.” A voracious learner and reader, he spent hours in the National Gallery of Dublin reading about art, history, and literature, and beginning to write on his own.
The legendary science fiction author was pulled out of school when his father, a professional cricket player, fractured his thigh. Wells was only 11 years old, but the loss of the grand part of the family’s income forced the children to take apprenticeships — Wells hated his, as a draper at the Southsea Drapery Emporium. His experiences there later inspired the novels The Wheels of Chance and Kipps.
Jack London is famous for having a variety of very odd jobs (he had a stint as an oyster pirate, people) throughout his life, but you may not know that he began this practice at the ripe age of ten. By the time he was thirteen he had quit school, still working a handful of jobs, but devouring every book he could find. He published his first collection of short stories at age 24.