Supporting roles

Serving in Dunkin' Donuts, working at a post office, selling dodgy cars, stuffing chickens or eating

Everyone knows how you get to be a captain of industry - you either work your way up by your bootstraps or you have a very rich dad, sit tight until you have a paunch and a worldly air (otherwise there's a risk you might alienate your underlings) and then put him in the garden and take his job.

How to become a giant of the arts is an altogether different matter. For one thing, you can't use your dad. Ideally your dad will be dead set against all artistic endeavour and say things like "Accountancy - now there's a good career for a young man", otherwise what are you going to talk about on Desert Island Discs? (Sue Lawley, incidentally, started out on Desert Island Discs when she was born. Because she's been doing it for ever.)

One person in a generation can get away with being part of a nepotistic web - then you will be called a "dynasty" and get to be given jobs as director, producer and all the sisters in The Three Sisters. But generally you need to forge your way alone, in the hyper-individualistic manner of the artist. And none of those modern apprenticeships - the arts degree and, er, that's it - will help you, either. A hell of a lot of people have one of those, and the more of them you get, the less suited you become for anything except wishing you were Terry Eagleton and wondering why only he gets to be Terry Eagleton.

But just because there isn't an obvious route to artistic greatness doesn't mean there's no route at all. In fact, there are many, and they're all pretty weird.

The service industry has proved a fine training ground for cultural icons. To choose some examples at random, Madonna worked in a Dunkin' Donuts, Barbara Windsor worked in a shoe shop and Kate Winslet worked in a north London deli. It would be disingenuous not to point out here that all these people were, in their service years, outrageously charismatic and pretty. They probably got funny looks all the time, in the manner of "What's going on? You are way too pretty to be giving me hummus". So even though their beginnings looked unpromising, they must have had an inkling that bigger and better things were in store. The same goes for Anthony Hopkins and Jack Nicholson - even in the former's darkest days as a clerk in a steel foundry and the latter's as a post boy, they must have known that the god of ridiculous animal magnetism hadn't smiled on them for nothing. The same could not be said for Paul Merton, Elvis Costello and Hanif Kureishi: they must have been crucified with hopelessness during their short tenures as a civil servant, a computer programmer and a typist. This is a good thing. When they eventually got around to being hilarious, singing beautifully and stitching up their wife in a novel (respectively), they probably gained a lot of resonance and soul from that early despair.

Generally speaking, it's best not to get involved with open, grubby commerce if your long game is, through your creative endeavours, to deliver society from the lies of its own capitalistic devising. Mick Jagger did business studies at the London School of Economics, and I never liked him in the first place. D B C Pierre imported cars from Texas to Mexico, although it might have been the other way around . . . I believe he got away with this by being so unsuccessful. He certainly wound up bankrupt, which is a fine way for an artist to proceed. Paul Auster invented a card game and marketed it. (Does anyone seriously rate Paul Auster?)

Journalism, on the other hand, is a well-worn and very effective path to artistic success, unless you get into it, like it too much and spend the next 40 years wasting your life on sheer enjoyment and no art at all, like I'm doing. Tom Stoppard was a hack, and so was Nigella - although Nigella still is a hack, she's just a hack with snacks. Annie Proulx was both hack and "How to . . ." author, whose repertoire included "How to plan and make your own fences and gates", the simplicity and latent wit of which could easily have come from a character in one of her own books. Greg Dyke was a journalist, too, but look what happened to him.

Teaching was a popular starter career for all sorts of arts greats, though I feel slightly silly calling Sting one of those. Paul Theroux taught English as a foreign language, which probably doesn't mean teaching at all, just bartering vocabulary for bus rides. Milan Kundera taught film studies in Soviet Czechoslovakia, whence derives my favourite ever story involving a polo-neck. (A girl who had trained on his course later went to NYC with my cousin . . . apparently, Kundera used to ask every female student out on a date, and because of communism and all that, none of them had anything pretty to wear, apart from this cousin's friend, who owned a smart and very western black polo-neck. So each time a girl was asked out, she'd ask to borrow this garment, and the renowned author never once realised it was the same one. He just thought it was some kind of pretty-student standard issue.)

The coolest person to have a job before his proper job is Bob Hoskins, who was a circus fire-eater. He's actually joint coolest with Ian Rankin, who worked in a chicken factory, as a swineherd, a grape-picker and a tax collector, and performed as the frontman of the rubbish punk band The Dancing Pigs. But the best job to have before universal acclaim is no job at all - live in squalor, preferably on the Isle of Thanet (it worked for Van Gogh and Tracey Emin), eat tinned goods and curse the world. And if you really don't fancy that, train as a lawyer. Weirdly, it doesn't seem to stifle your creativity one bit (ask Bob Mortimer or Dido), plus your mummy will be pleased.

Zoe Williams is a columnist for the Guardian. Her previous jobs include working in a library, in an industrial launderette, as a secretary and as a barmaid

Helen Mirren was a "blagger" at an amusement park in Southend, attracting punters to the rides

Jonathan Coe wrote jazz and cabaret music

Damien Hirst spent his teens working as a builder and got an "E" in art A-level

Danny de Vito worked as a hairdresser

Jeanette Winterson did make-up in a morgue

Lucian Freud served in the merchant navy

Stephen King was a caretaker

J K Rowling was a researcher and secretary at Amnesty International

Anthony Minghella worked in his father's ice cream enterprise on the Isle of Wight