Applying the Ass to the Chair: Dorothy Parker’s Writing Philosophy

Thinking up clever quips, no doubt.

I was initially drawn to Dorothy Parker because of a T-shirt.  I bought it in Charleston, SC on either my 18th or 19th birthday, and it was dark orange and said, in circus-poster font: “I’ll try anything once; twice if I like it.”  My friend Brooke, who almost always accompanied me on the road trip from Atlanta to Charleston, told me she thought that it was from a Dorothy Parker poem, and I immediately resolved to find out more about this woman.  It probably stands as a testament to my lack of motivation that I, to this day, can neither confirm nor deny that Parker ever did write that pithy T-shirt-destined line, but I have, indeed, read more by and about ole Dot, and I find her work a delight to read.

I think that my attraction to Parker stems from her tendency toward both melancholy and sarcasm — sometimes at the same time!! I don’t think that I can ever stress enough how much I love a smartass; someone who is funny and irreverent and observant, and I say in the most respectful way possible that Dorothy Parker was one of the greatest smartasses of all time.  I give you some small examples, so that you can understand my love:

“Three be the things I shall never attain:

Envy, content, and sufficient champagne.”

“She was a great, hulking, stupidly dressed woman, with flapping cheeks and bee-stung eyes.”

“But now I know the things I know,

And do the things I do;

And if you do not like me so,

To hell, my love, with you!”

Like I said, I love her.  I could go on like this for pages and pages, but then y’all wouldn’t go out and read her for yourselves and find your own little gems of acridness to fall in love with, and what’s the fun in that?  There are a million things I could say about her — she was a founder of the Algonquin Round Table (a bunch of writers who sat around in the Algonquin Hotel and got drunk and talked about politics and books and gossiped about writers and politicians they didn’t like); wrote several collections of shorts stories and poetry and was a very early contributor to the New Yorker; lived in France for a time (like all great American writers did); was blacklisted in Hollywood during the McCarthy era; was famously a champion of progressive causes, not the least of which was the Civil Rights movement (she even bequeathed her estate to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. — the estate was transferred to the NAACP upon his assassination and, in a long, twisted, and ironic chain of events, her ashes also ended up at the NAACP’s headquarters).  Again, Dorothy Parker was a fascinating human being.  I can say, in all honesty, that I really, really, really wish I could have known her.

But what is most pertinent to me now (and to this blog, I suppose) is her philosophy on writing, which was all about hard work and perseverance (grim determination of the soul!).  I picture Parker at a desk, furiously scribbling, sweat pouring down her face, mental muscles rippling as though her brain was John Henry driving steel for the railroads.  Parker had no patience for the whimsical artist, the one who worked only when “inspired,” the one who claimed that one cannot push art.  She once said, “The art of writing is the art of applying the ass to the chair,” and I cannot agree with her more.

“…You writers don’t know what struggle is,” Parker once wrote in a short story.  The character that says it is an actress, old, alcoholic, washed up.  “To write.  To set one  word beautifully beside another word.  The privilege of it.  The blessed, blessed peace of it.”  And those of us out there who are writers can see the joke she’s making, though personally, I can’t quite bring myself to laugh, knowing how the toil that goes into writing sometimes results in very little.  It’s a common misconception that writers are just mediums, channeling ghostly voices of inspiration, words that come pouring like magic out of our  fingers to settle comfortably on paper.  But anyone who’s ever tried to write something, and write it well, knows that this is the worst kind of fairy tale.  And trust me, Dot knew.

Good writing, like good dancing, looks easy.  Words flow from one to the next, each one in its place, creating a cohesive, meaningful, and aesthetically pleasing work of communication and (dare I say it?) art.  And writers, as a species, don’t help with the perception that they are a rollicking, whimsical bunch; at least not the (in)famous ones.  A writer that I went to school with once called our class Alcoholics Synonymous.  But for every night we spent drinking and dancing and cavorting, we spent three alone in our various rooms, toiling over which word to put where.  I have personally spent hours fiddling with the same paragraph, rearranging it, flipping through dictionaries and thesauri (is that a word? am I crazy?) and literally tearing my hair out to get it just right.  And to be honest, if  I look at that same paragraph now, I could probably spend another hour or so tweaking it some more.   Parker said once said in an interview, “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.”

That’s pretty much the gist of it.  It’s not that inspiration doesn’t count, or that it isn’t real.  It does count!  It is real!  My own novel was inspired by a dream, which haunted me for days until I finally threw my hands up, shouted “Enough!” and scribbled down what turned out to be my first chapter.  But never again did I experience that kind of clarity, that kind of passion and certainty — at least not with that project.  Everything that has happened with the novel since then, every blessed word of it, has come from hard (and sometimes forced) labor, and that’s how it should be.  I worked my ass off.  I did it because that’s what I had to do to get it right.  A good writer, as Parker once put it, works “damn hard and all the time.”