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.