Cormac McCarthy Explains Why He Worked Hard at Not Working: How 9‑to‑5 Jobs Limit Your Creative Potential

Last sum­mer, a rumor cir­cu­lat­ed that Cor­mac McCarthy, one of America’s most beloved liv­ing writ­ers, had passed away. In the midst of a dev­as­tat­ing year for famous artists and their fans, the announce­ment appeared on Twit­ter, but it “was, in fact, a hoax.” As McCarthy’s publisher—recently merged jug­ger­naut Pen­guin Ran­dom House—con­firmed, the author of such mod­ern clas­sics as Blood Merid­i­an, All the Pret­ty Hors­es, and No Coun­try for Old Men “is alive and well and still doesn’t care about Twit­ter.” The lit­er­ary com­mu­ni­ty is bet­ter off not only for McCarthy’s good health, but for his dis­re­gard of what may be the most fiendish­ly dis­tract­ing social media plat­form of them all. He is still hard at work, on a nov­el called The Pas­sen­ger, ten­ta­tive­ly slat­ed for release this year.

You can hear excerpts of The Pas­sen­ger read in the dim, shaky video below, from an event in 2015 at the San­ta Fe Insti­tute, an inde­pen­dent sci­en­tif­ic think tank where McCarthy keeps an office and where he has plied a sec­ondary trade as a copy-edi­tor for sci­ence-themed books, includ­ing Quan­tum Man, physi­cist Lawrence Krauss’s biog­ra­phy of Richard Feyn­man. (McCarthy’s “knowl­edge of physics and maths,” writes Ali­son Flood at The Guardian, is said to exceed “that of many pro­fes­sion­als in the field.”) McCarthy’s lat­est work seems like a depar­ture for him.

His ear­li­er nov­els mined the rich­ness of South­ern Goth­ic and West­ern tra­di­tions, and “have sub­tly woven in sci­ence,” writes Babak Dowlat­shahi at Newsweek. But The Pas­sen­ger “will place sci­ence in the fore­ground.” San­ta Fe Insti­tute pres­i­dent David Krakauer calls it “full-blown Cor­mac 3.0—a math­e­mat­i­cal [and] ana­lyt­i­cal nov­el.”

So we know Cor­mac McCarthy is a genius, but how is it that he found the time to become a Pulitzer Prize, Nation­al Book Award, and Guggen­heim and MacArthur Fel­low­ship-win­ning nov­el­ist and, on the side, a stu­dent of the­o­ret­i­cal physics and math? His secret involves more than stay­ing off Twit­ter. As McCarthy tells Oprah Win­frey in the video at the top of the post, excerpt­ed from his first tele­vi­sion inter­view ever in 2007, he has made his work the cen­tral focus of his life, to the exclu­sion of every­thing else, includ­ing mon­ey and pub­lic adu­la­tion from fans and admir­ers. For exam­ple, he answers a ques­tion about why he turned down lucra­tive speak­ing engage­ments with, “I was busy. I had oth­er things to do.”

It’s not that I don’t like things, I mean some things are very nice, but they cer­tain­ly take a dis­tant sec­ond place to being able to live your life and being able to do what you want to do. I always knew that I didn’t want to work.

How did he pull off not work­ing? “You have to be ded­i­cat­ed… I thought, ‘you’re just here once, life is brief and to have to spend every day of it doing what some­body else wants you to do is not the way to live it.’” McCarthy doesn’t “have any advice for any­body” about how to avoid the dai­ly grind, except, he says, “if you’re real­ly ded­i­cat­ed, you can prob­a­bly do it.” As Oprah puts it, “you have worked at not work­ing?” To which he replies, “absolute­ly, it’s the num­ber one pri­or­i­ty.”

Lest we imme­di­ate­ly dis­miss McCarthy’s phi­los­o­phy as clue­less­ness or priv­i­lege, we should bear in mind that he will­ing­ly endured extreme and “tru­ly, tru­ly bleak” pover­ty to keep work­ing at not working—or work­ing, rather, on the work he want­ed to do. There’s a bit more to becom­ing a mul­ti­ple award-win­ning nov­el­ist and MacArthur “Genius” than sim­ply avoid­ing the 9‑to‑5. But McCarthy sug­gests that unless artists make their own work their first pri­or­i­ty, and mate­r­i­al com­fort and eco­nom­ic secu­ri­ty a “dis­tant sec­ond,” they may nev­er tru­ly find out what they’re capa­ble of.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Charles Bukows­ki Rails Against 9‑to‑5 Jobs in a Bru­tal­ly Hon­est Let­ter (1986)

The Employ­ment: A Prize-Win­ning Ani­ma­tion About Why We’re So Dis­en­chant­ed with Work Today

Cor­mac McCarthy’s Three Punc­tu­a­tion Rules, and How They All Go Back to James Joyce

Wern­er Her­zog and Cor­mac McCarthy Talk Sci­ence and Cul­ture

Wern­er Her­zog Reads From Cor­mac McCarthy’s All the Pret­ty Hors­es

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (6)
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  • ap says:

    I wish I had the brav­ery to fol­low his advice, but for the time being I will keep at my day job, do my own work at night, and sim­ply dis­re­gard sleep and social life.

  • Kate King says:

    I have respect­ed and admired CMc­C’s work for near­ly thir­ty years. When I first encoun­tered All the Pret­ty Hors­es, almost by mis­take, I realised that here was some­one who was able to
    artic­u­late things I had thought all my life and not been able
    to find accu­rate words for. Even more so in The Cross­ing.
    And I total­ly agree with his premise. That if you allow
    your­self to be sub­sumed by work and arrive home day after
    day deplet­ed and exhaust­ed by the demands of an organ­i­sa­tion
    or oth­er indi­vid­u­als’ require­ments, there’s noth­ing left.
    I’m not yet as old as CMcC, but I’m catch­ing up, and
    though I have the right qual­i­fi­ca­tions and the right
    attrib­ut­es to enable me to work in extreme­ly well-paid
    jobs, I’ve always pre­ferred casu­al work, temp work or,
    as cur­rent­ly, self-employed gar­den­ing and clean­ing. It’s
    hard as I get old­er, but I own my life. The old­er I get,
    the more truth I see in the words of the aunt in All the
    PH, and Ed Tom in No Coun­try for Old Men. But like
    Bil­ly Parham I guess I would say ‘there ain’t but one life,
    and I was born to it’. I look for­ward to where CMcC is
    going with his next book. I’ve been inter­est­ed in his
    pro­gres­sion through the dis­in­te­gra­tion of our ‘cul­ture’.

  • Thomas R Miller says:

    Cor­mac McCarthy is absolute­ly right. Work­ing for some­one else is a waste of life. Work for your­self.

  • Peter Sills says:


  • sheila says:

    I think for the 1st time I tru­ly under­stand my sons love for writ­ing and why it’s the only thing he can imag­ine doing. I just hope I get to see the fruits of his labor before I die.

  • Zach Cole says:

    She­lia, that is a won­der­ful sen­ti­ment. I’m sure your child appre­ci­ates your sup­port.

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