What Are You Doing Here? Why the Devil Aren’t You Home Writing?

Sinclair Lewis? Bennett Cerf? Storm Jameson? Leon Uris? Abraham Cady? Truman Capote? James Michener? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Classes which attempt to teach writing have proliferated in recent decades. Yet, an undercurrent of skepticism regarding the value of this pedagogical endeavor persists.

According to a sardonic anecdote a successful author was once badgered into conducting a guest lecture at a prestigious university. The classroom was packed, and the author was given a lengthy and glowing introduction by the beaming professor who coordinated the class.

The author began by asking the audience members whether they genuinely wanted to become writers. Every student in the room raised a hand signaling enthusiastic commitment. The intensity of emotion caused the writer to step back, pause, and lay down a set of notes. “In that case,” the exasperated speaker said, “why are you wasting your time here? Go home and write!” The author then walked away from the podium.

Would you please explore the provenance of this tale? Who was the author, and what was the name of the university?

Quote Investigator: The earliest match located by QI appeared in “The Daily Oklahoman” of Oklahoma City in July 1945. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

Shortly before Sinclair Lewis went home to his native Minnesota where he believes he can do his best work, he addressed a class of would-be novelists at the Columbia School of Journalism. He began with “I understand you all want to be writers. Well, what are you doing here? Why the devil aren’t you home writing?”

U.S. novelist and playwright Sinclair Lewis received the Nobel Prize in Literature for 1930. He is the leading candidate for deliverer of this truncated lecture although QI has not yet found any evidence that Lewis told the anecdote himself.

This tale appeared in a variety of newspapers during the ensuing months and years. In August 1945 “The Evening Republican” of Columbus, Indiana pointed to publisher Bennett Cerf as a crucial popularizer of the story: 2

Shortly before Sinclair Lewis left for his native Minnesota, he addressed a class of would-be novelists at the Columbia School of Journalism, reports Bennett Cerf of Random House___Lewis glanced over the eager assemblage with an appraising eye____and began his address, “I understand you all want to be writers___Well, what are you doing here?___Why the devil aren’t you home writing?”

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Also, in August 1945 columnist Clip Boutell of the “St. Louis Star-Times” of Missouri referred to the anecdote: 3

It may be trite to say the way to learn to write is by writing, but it is inescapable. As Sinclair Lewis said recently to a class of would-be novelists at the Columbia School of Journalism: “I understand you all want to be writers. Well, what are you doing here? Why the devil aren’t you home writing?”

In 1946 “The Wisconsin State Journal” of Madison, Wisconsin published a somewhat different version. A vivid detail about raised hands was included, and the ending line did not mention the devil: 4

A. C. Spectorsky, according to “Counter Points,” tells about the time Sinclair Lewis was a guest lecturer at a Columbia summer school writing course. Looking over the rows of eager faces, Lewis asked:

“How many people here want to be writers?”

All the hands went up. Lewis sardonically asked:

“What are you doing here then? Why don’t you go home and write?”

In February 1948 columnist E. E. Edgar shared another version of the tale. The phrasing of the punchline continued to evolve: 5

One day, at an Eastern university, Sinclair Lewis was to give a lecture on writing to a group of undergraduates who had literary ambitions. Lewis opened his lecture by asking:

“How many of you really want to be writers?”

Everyone in the room raised his hand.

“In that case,” said Lewis, stuffing his notes into his pocket, “there’s no point in wasting your time here. Go home and write!”

In August 1948 E. E. Edgar’s version of the anecdote achieved wide distribution when it was reprinted with acknowledgement in “The Reader’s Digest”. 6

In 1949 prominent English novelist and critic Storm Jameson referred to the advice delivered by Lewis: 7

“The best advice I’ve ever heard given to young writers was delivered by Sinclair Lewis,” she reminisces. “He was lecturing to a conference of young people and asked those who wanted to become writers to raise their hands. The show of hands, of course, was ICO per cent. Whereupon Lewis concluded his lecture by telling the audience, “Go home and write.”

In 1964 the book “Counterpoint” included an interview with author and critic Maxwell Geismar who retold the anecdote while replacing Columbia University with Yale: 8

Thus I would advise today’s young writers not to go to college. I think they may be better off without this particular discipline until things change in our universities. Maybe the anecdote regarding Sinclair Lewis at Yale is not far off. When he came in to face a creative writing class there, he said, “I understand that all of you want to write.” The class said, “Yes,” and Lewis said, “Well, go home and write.”

In 1970 best-selling novelist Leon Uris published “QB VII”. The protagonist was an author named Abraham Cady, and Uris reassigned the emphatic words of Lewis to this fictional hero: 9

IT CAME MY TIME TO SPEAK AT THE BANQUET. I STUDIED THE TENSE, EAGER FACES AS I APPROACHED THE ROSTRUM. “WHO HERE WANTS TO BE A WRITER?” I ASKED. EVERYONE IN THE ROOM RAISED HIS HAND. “WHY THE HELL AREN’T YOU HOME WRITING?” I SAID, AND LEFT THE STAGE. THAT ENDED MY CAREER IN WRITERS’ SEMINARS.

In 1985 “The Writer’s Handbook” included a chapter from Sidney Sheldon who had achieved great fame scribbling for Broadway, film, and television. He presently a stylish version of the episode: 10

The best advice I ever heard of came from Sinclair Lewis. After his Pulitzer Prize for Main Street, he was besieged by requests to speak to writing classes at various universities. He turned them all down until one day, after frantic importuning from an Ivy League college, he consented to speak. At the appointed time the auditorium was packed with eager would-be writers, waiting to hear words of wisdom from the master. Sinclair Lewis strode out on the stage and gazed upon his audience. He stood there for sixty seconds of absolute silence, and then said, “Why aren’t you home writing?” And he turned and walked off the stage.

In 1988 best-selling author by James Michener wrote the foreword to a book focused on another popular novelist, Truman Capote. Michener described the drunken antics of his fellow wordsmith. Capote colorfully reenacted the anecdote either knowingly or unknowingly: 11

. . . Truman Capote came into our area to speak at a college, but when he lurched onto the stage at eight that evening he was potted and began by abusing the students in rather colorful language. “Why,” he wanted to know, “if you want to be writers, aren’t you home writing instead of crowding into this hall to listen to an old crock like me?” At that he staggered about, collapsing at the foot of the podium, from where the harassed head of the English department with two helpers lugged his inert body from the stage. End of lecture.

In conclusion, current evidence indicates that Sinclair Lewis delivered a brief and sharp address to aspiring writers containing the admonition “Why the devil aren’t you home writing?” The earliest citation appeared in July 1945. The anecdote has been frequently retold, and the words attributed to Lewis have varied over time. Publisher Bennet Cerf seems to have been the original tale spinner.

Image Notes: Public domain illustration of a hand writing from “The Book of Knowledge: The Children’s Encyclopaedia”, Volume 1, (1912) edited by Arthur Mee and Holland Thompson.

(Great thanks to Cere Muscarella whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Muscarella suggested that Somerset Maugham may have told an audience, “You are writers, go home and write…” QI was unable to find support for that episode, but it remains a possibility.)

Notes:

  1. 1945 July 1, The Daily Oklahoman, If You Want to Try And Write, Go Ahead, Quote Page 11C, Column 8, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. (Newspapers_com)
  2. 1945 August 1, The Evening Republican, No News Is Good News, Quote Page 4, Column 2, Columbus, Indiana. (Newspapers_com)
  3. 1945 August 11, St. Louis Star-Times, Authors Are Like People by Clip Boutell, Quote Page 11, Column 1,St. Louis, Missouri. (Newspapers_com)
  4. 1946 November 28, The Wisconsin State Journal, Notes for You, Quote Page 23, Column 6, Madison, Wisconsin. (Newspapers_com)
  5. 1948 February 22, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Section: The Everyday Magazine, Fables of the Famous: Easy Lesson on How to Become a Writer by E. E. Edgar, Quote Page 2H, Column 2, St. Louis, Missouri. (Newspapers_com)
  6. 1948 August, The Reader’s Digest, Volume 53, In Two Easy Lessons, Quote Page 81, The Reader’s Digest Association, Pleasantville, New York. (Verified on paper)
  7. 1949 January 16, The Pittsburgh Press, British Novelist Storm Jameson Advises Writing Contest Entrants, Quote Page 25, Column 2, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com)
  8. 1964, Counterpoint by Roy Newquist, Interviewee: Maxwell Geismar, (Interviewed in New York in October, 1963), Start Page 247, Quote Page 258, Rand McNally & Company, Chicago, Illinois. (Verified with scans)
  9. 1970, QB VII by Leon Uris, Chapter 18, Quote Page 194 and 195, Doubleday & Company, Garden City, New York. (Verified with scans)
  10. 1985 Copyright, The Writer’s Handbook, Edited by Sylvia K. Burack (Editor of The Writer), Chapter 19: The Magical World of the Novelist by Sidney Sheldon, Start Page 93, Quote Page 93, The Writer Inc., Boston, Massachusetts. (Verified with scans)
  11. 1988 (Copyright 1985), Conversations with Capote (Truman Capote), Edited by Lawrence Grobel, Section: Foreword by James A. Michener (Foreword Copyright 1985), Quote Page 2 and 3, A Signet Book: New American Library, New York. (Verified with scans)