Dorothy Parker’s Best Bon Mots on Writing

Dorothy Parker was born on August 22 in 1893, so it’s her birthday this weekend! As a critic and famed member of the Algonquin round table, Parker  is remembered for her acid wit, those critical and epigrammatic barbs that were constructed so well as to be almost poetic.

But she was also a clever and often very sad short story and verse writer who worked hard on her craft, even if she claimed not to take it seriously. From the many, many  of Parker quotes out there, here are our favorites on the writing life. Read them, and then pick up a book of Parker’s fiction or criticism to see what lay beneath the surface.

On her own poetry:

Let’s face it, honey, my verse is terribly dated—as anything once fashionable is dreadful now. I gave it up, knowing it wasn’t getting any better, but nobody seemed to notice my magnificent gesture.

On writing about childhood:

All those writers who write about their childhood! Gentle God, if I wrote about mine you wouldn’t sit in the same room with me.

On her revision process:

It takes me six months to do a story. I think it out and then write it sentence by sentence—no first draft. I can’t write five words but that I change seven.

On the trick to writing (attributed):

Writing is the art of applying the ass to the seat.

On writing humor:

Humor to me, Heaven help me, takes in many things. There must be courage; there must be no awe. There must be criticism, for humor, to my mind, is encapsulated in criticism. There must be a disciplined eye and a wild mind. There must be a magnificent disregard of your reader, for if he cannot follow you, there is nothing you can do about it. There must be some lagniappe in the fact that the humorist has read something written before 1918.

On talking to oneself:

Of course I talk to myself. I like a good speaker, and I appreciate an intelligent audience.

On “writing down:” 

If you’re going to write, don’t pretend to write down. It’s going to be the best you can do, and it’s the fact that it’s the best you can do that kills you.

On authorial courage:

I know that an author must be brave enough to chop away clinging tentacles of good taste for the sake of a great work. But this is no great work, you see.

On wisdom, for life beyond writing:

Inventory:

“Four be the things I am wiser to know:
Idleness, sorrow, a friend, and a foe.
Four be the things I’d been better without:
Love, curiosity, freckles, and doubt.
Three be the things I shall never attain:
Envy, content, and sufficient champagne.
Three be the things I shall have till I die:
Laughter and hope and a sock in the eye.”
Dorothy Parker, The Complete Poems of Dorothy Parker