Williams was seven years old in 1918 when his father was promoted to a job at the home office of the International Shoe Company in St. Louis. His mother's continual search for what she considered to be an appropriate address, as well as his father's heavy drinking and loudly violent behavior, caused them to move numerous times around the city. He attended Soldan High School, a setting referred to in his work The Glass Menagerie. Later he studied at University City High School. In 1927, at age 16, Williams won third prize (five dollars) for an essay published in Smart Set entitled, "Can a Good Wife Be a Good Sport?" A year later, his short story "The Vengeance of Nitocris" was published in the magazine Weird Tales.
He attended the University of Missouri, in Columbia, from 1929 to 1931, where he enrolled in journalism classes. While the university's School of Journalism was regarded one of the world's best, Williams found his classes boring. He was soon entering his poetry, essays, stories, and plays in writing contests, hoping to earn extra income. His first submitted play was Beauty is the Word (1930), followed by Hot Milk at Three in the Morning (1932). As recognition for Beauty, a play about rebellion against religious upbringing, he became the first freshman to receive honorable mention in a contest.:15
At U of M, Williams joined the Alpha Tau Omega fraternity, but he does not seem to have fit in well with his fraternity brothers. According to Hale, the "brothers found him shy and socially backward, a loner who spent most of his time at the typewriter." After he failed military training in his junior year, his father pulled him out of school and put him to work at the International Shoe factory . Although Williams, then 21, hated the monotony of the blue-collar world, the job "forced him out of the pretentious gentility" of his upbringing, which had, according to Hale, "tinged him with [his mother's] snobbery and detachment from reality.":15 His dislike of the nine-to-five work routine drove him to write even more than before, and he gave himself a goal of writing one story a week, working on Saturday and Sunday, into the night. His mother recalled his intensity:
"Tom would go to his room with black coffee and cigarettes and I would hear the typewriter clicking away at night in the silent house. Some mornings when I walked in to wake him for work, I would find him sprawled fully dressed across the bed, too tired to remove his clothes.":xi
Overworked, unhappy and lacking any further success with his writing, by his twenty-fourth birthday he had suffered a nervous breakdown and left his job. Memories of this period, and a particular factory co-worker, became part of the character Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire.:15 By the mid-1930s his father's increasing alcoholism and abusive temper (he had part of his ear bitten off in a poker game fight) finally led Edwina to separate from him although they never divorced.
In 1936 Williams enrolled at Washington University in St. Louis where he wrote the play Me Vashya (1937). In 1938 he earned a degree from the University of Iowa, where he wrote Spring Storm. He later studied at the Dramatic Workshop of The New School in New York City. Speaking of his early days as a playwright and referring to an early collaborative play called Cairo, Shanghai, Bombay!, produced while he was a part of an amateur summer theater group in Memphis, Tennessee, Williams wrote, "The laughter ... enchanted me. Then and there the theatre and I found each other for better and for worse. I know it's the only thing that saved my life." Around 1939, he adopted "Tennessee Williams" as his professional name. Whether it was from as he once wrote "a desire to climb the family tree," or because it was what his fraternity brothers nicknamed him as a result of his thick southern drawl, no one seems to know.