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.

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


  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)

Sports Do Not Build Character; They Reveal It

John Wooden? Heywood Hale Broun? James Michener? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Participation in sports is enjoyable and salubrious for a great many people. One often hears that sports can also build character, but a shrewd remark spins this traditional assertion:

Sports don’t build character; they reveal it.

These words have been attributed to renowned basketball coach John Wooden and influential sportswriter Heywood Hale Broun. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: The earliest strong match located by QI was published in January 1974 in the “Ames Daily Tribune” of Ames, Iowa. Heywood Hale Broun who was described as an “off-beat sports commentator for CBS television” had recently visited the city and delivered a speech. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

Some persons say that athletics, and coaches, build character. Broun has a different outlook.

“Anybody who teaches a skill, which coaches do, is admirable. But sport doesn’t build character. Character is built pretty much by the time you’re six or seven. Sports reveals character. Sports heightens your perceptions. Let that be enough.”

Broun expressed this idea more than once, and he employed different phrasings. The popular modern version was a concise and elegant instance.

The evidence linking the adage to John Wooden was weak. It was attributed to him by 2006, but that was many years after it began to circulate. Wooden died in 2010.

Top-notch researcher Barry Popik also explored this topic and located some valuable citations. His webpage is here.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Sports Do Not Build Character; They Reveal It


  1. 1974 January 16, Ames Daily Tribune, Broun: ‘I like to see things done with zest’ by Larry Lockhart (Sports Editor), Quote Page 11, Column 4, Ames, Iowa. (Newspapers_com)

A Master in the Art of Living Makes Little Distinction Between His Work and His Play

James Michener? Zen Buddhist saying? L.P. Jacks?

Dear Quote Investigator: I have been deeply moved by an inspirational passage that I thought was written by a Zen Buddhist master:

The master in the art of living makes little distinction between his work and his play, his labor and his leisure, his mind and his body, his education and his recreation, his love and his religion. He hardly knows which is which. He simply pursues his vision of excellence at whatever he does, leaving others to decide whether he is working or playing. To him he is always doing both.

However, when I recently searched the internet to locate the name of the Zen master I was shocked to find that the words were attributed to the late author James Michener whose fame was based on writing fat tomes that became bestsellers.

Michener did win a Pulitzer Prize and I do not wish to disparage his work but when I think of a spiritual guide I envision someone different. Could you look into this quote and determine who really created it?

Quote Investigator: There is no compelling evidence that this quote was crafted by Michener. Nor is there evidence of a Zen Buddhist origin. The spiritual tradition of the creator of the passage is Unitarian. Lawrence Pearsall Jacks, an educator and Unitarian minister who is pictured in the center image above, crafted the quotation and used it in a book he authored in the 1930s. His name is often abbreviated as L. P. Jacks.

Continue reading A Master in the Art of Living Makes Little Distinction Between His Work and His Play