It's fitting that Sonny Brewer got the idea for his latest book because of a flat tire. That's because Don't Quit Your Day Job: Acclaimed Authors and the Day Jobs They Quit takes the advice usually given to aspiring writers and pokes a hole in it.
"Writers are told two things: 'Don't quit your day job' and 'Write about what you know,'" Brewer said. "Both those pieces of advice are wrong."
Flat wrong, you could say. Brewer's collection of essays by writers such as John Grisham, Pat Conroy, Rick Bragg and Winston Groom reveals the jobs they took – and gratefully left – on their way to becoming full-time, successful authors.
Brewer will appear Saturday from 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. at the Eagle Eye Book Shop in Decatur to talk about the book and sign copies.
"I thought I was unique in having had so many jobs, but it turns out that's not the case," said Brewer, a novelist, editor and essayist from Fairhope, AL, whose books include The Poet of Tolstoy Park, A Sound Like Thunder and The Widow and the Tree.
Brewer had started a memoir called Forty Hats about his former day jobs when that fateful flat tire in Jackson, MS, delayed his trip and changed his direction. Over cheeseburgers, Brewer told a friend, Lemuria bookstore owner John Evans, about his work-in-progress.
Evans misinterpreted Brewer's concept to include other writers.
"Oh yeah, that's a much better idea than about my own varied working life: electronics technician and honky-tonk singer to car salesman, house builder and bookstore owner and coffee shop manager," Brewer recalled thinking.
He asked 23 writers to contribute.
"They all got it immediately," he says.
William Gay writes about hanging sheetrock in the hills of Tennessee – though when he tells his wife that he's quit his job, she wants to know how they're going to eat. Connie Mae Fowler reminisces about plastering houses, Pat Conroy about teaching school and Tom Franklin about delivering pizza.
Grisham was the only writer Brewer didn't know personally. When he approached him at a bookstore signing, Grisham said he'd been asked 1,000 times about his transition from lawyer and state representative to full-time writer, so he welcomed the opportunity to answer in print.
Before Grisham became a lawyer, he laid miles of chain-link fence, crawled under houses for a plumbing contractor and even sold men's underwear at Sears.
Those jobs don't sound so bad when you consider Daniel Wallace, who cleaned the muck out of dog cages at a veterinary clinic, describing it as "My **** Job" in his title.
"That's a pretty awful job," Brewer said, "but he learned something from it."
Brewer recently saw a blog posted by a woman who read Don't Quit Your Day Job.
"She said had she read it years ago, she would have made a different choice about what she's doing," Brewer said. "She talks about having given up writing, and maybe that's not the right thing to have done."
Brewer hopes other readers are inspired by the essays to get cracking on something creative, and then work hard at it.
"Write your stories, paint the watercolor, make the quilt, learn to be a gourmet cook, do something that engages your creative nature and do it with passion," he said, "which sometimes will become costly.
"Maybe a spouse will throw you out for quitting your day job, but at whatever cost, practice your art."
That brings up the second piece of wrong-headed advice: "Write what you know."
Brewer believes that writers feel a compulsion to tell their stories.
"John Steinbeck said a formula for success in writing is an aching urge to convey something that you think is important to somebody who you want to hear it," he said.
Of course, you also have to get a publisher.
Brewer said Grisham's first book was rejected 16 times. "Would you or I take a hint after the 11th rejection? He did not. He submitted it again, and finally number 17 said, 'Hey, this is awesome.'
"What about those other 16 editors, were they asleep at the wheel? They're probably making pizzas today for failing to see they had in their hands the work of a man who would become the sixth best-selling author in the English language of all time."
Maybe they should have quit their day job.