Dorothy Parker was a triple threat: poet, critic, and short story author. And a celebrated wit. And a respected journalist. Oh, and also an Academy Award-nominated screenplay writer for the original production of A Star is Born. Just your average American writer.
Whether you’re a poet, essayist, critic, or fiction writer, learning to write like Dorothy Parker can seriously up your compositional game.
Who is Dorothy Parker?
Dorothy Parker was born on Aug. 22, 1893, in West End, New Jersey, while her family was on vacation, but she was adamant about her status as a native New Yorker. Though of Jewish heritage, she went to Catholic school as a child and attended a finishing school instead of high school. In lieu of entering the social whirl of well-to-do young ladies, she opted for a career as a writer.
She began writing and submitting poetry for publication in her late teens. In 1916, at age 22, she was hired by Vogue magazine, where she wrote witty captions for fashion spreads. In 1917, she moved over to Vanity Fair, where she served as the theater critic for the magazine and met her BFF, writer Robert Benchley. She also got married, joking that she chose her husband specifically so she could trade her millionaire-associated surname “Rothschild” for the WASPy nom de plume “Parker.”
During the Roaring 20s, Parker gained a reputation as an acerbic wit, incisive poet, perceptive short story writer, and unrepentant alcoholic. She spent the majority of her money in the mid-1920s, according to biographer Marion Meade, on “clothing, perfume, Johnny Walker cigarettes, and liquor.” At this time, Parker, Benchley, and a cadre of writers based in New York City created an informal writers’ social club/networking group known as the Algonquin Round Table (named for the Algonquin Hotel, where they ate lunch every day, and the shape of the large table they gathered at).
In 1926, she published her first collection of poetry, Enough Rope, and began writing for a newly-formed magazine, The New Yorker. The next year, she became a socialist, and the year after that, she divorced her stockbroker husband.
Following her divorce, she remarried in 1933 and left New York City to become a Hollywood script writer. Despite several suicide attempts spurred by depression and worsening alcoholism, and contrary to her own predictions, Parker survived to the ripe old age of 73.
She bequeathed her estate — including the copyrights to her work — to Martin Luther King Jr., with the stipulation that the inheritance would be transferred to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People upon his death. Dorothy Parker died June 7, 1967. She was cremated and suggested the following epitaph for her grave: “Excuse my dust.” The N.A.A.C.P. obliged.
Parker is a writer whose style was shaped both by her relentless personal voice and the influence of other literary figures that she admired; namely, Vanity Fair Editor Frank Crowninshield, poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, and author Ernest Hemingway.
In order to learn to write like Parker, first let’s consider how her three biggest influences shaped her style, then find out how to inject a little of Parker’s unique spirit into your prose or poetry.
1. Say it in evening clothes
When Parker joined the editorial staff of Vanity Fair in 1917, Frank Crowninshield was the reigning voice of the magazine, setting the tone for the entire publication and everyone who wrote for it. Parker spent her time there “training to write the Frank Crowninshield genre. This called for, above all, a good sense of what was clever and entertaining,” explains biographer Marion Meade in Dorothy Parker: What Fresh Hell Is This? “You could write about practically any subject you wished, no matter how outrageous, so long as you said it in evening clothes.”
“Saying it in evening clothes” entailed taking a controversial or distasteful topic, such as a political scandal, war, or national disaster, and ornamenting the central subject matter with literary allusions only an Ivy Leaguer would understand, innuendo about sumptuous upper-crust amusements, and witty bon mots deployed in exactly the right spots. When done poorly, the result is frivolous, giddy, and vapid. But when done well, the juxtaposition of a serious theme with layers of playful prose creates a knife-like irony that strikes out of nowhere, only to be twisted in the wound again and again by the author. Christopher Hitchens, in particular, has stated that he aspired to write in this style.
A representative example can be seen in Parker’s 1919 review of Tiger! Tiger! Parker doesn’t simply write, “The play is bad.” Instead, she discourses delicately on the hectic pace of the modern world and the toll it takes upon theater-lovers in general and herself in particular for four and a half paragraphs, before going in for the kill with dry brutality: “Somehow, I cannot feel that the dizzy whirl of modern life had anything to do with my intense suffering during the performance — I hold the play itself directly responsible.”
Meade notes, “it took Dorothy only a few months to get the hang of [Crowninshield’s] style. Then she spent the next decade trying to unlearn it.”
Parker never really succeeded in shedding her evening clothes when she wrote, however. But her prose and poetry were the better for it.
2. Go light
Parker’s poetry output was dominated by light verse. This type of poetry is characterized by whimsicality, humor, word play, and a sense of flippancy. It’s accessible, easy to read, and notoriously difficult to write well.
The constraints of light verse were ideally suited to Parker’s temperament and style. At the time, the greatest practicing exemplar of the form was poet Edna St Vincent Millay. Millay’s take on light verse was subversive. She addressed political and social issues in her poems, and introduced dark themes such as suffering, victimization, and resignation.
About Millay, who came to New York the same year Parker joined Vanity Fair, she wrote, “Like everybody else was then, I was following in the footsteps of Edna St Vincent Millay. … She made poetry seem so easy that we could all do it. But, of course, we couldn’t.”
For Parker, a vicious, ironic, or humorous twist at the end of her poems was essential. To write a poem like Parker, you should lead your reader in one direction, reinforce that’s where you’re going, then abruptly swerve in the final verse.
3. Now go dark — very, very dark
Parker had what was arguably a detrimental admiration for the style of Ernest Hemingway, about whom she once gushed, “Ernest Hemingway is, to me, the greatest living American writer of short stories.”
Hemingway’s simple language and laconic style were at odds with the erudite embellishments and clever word play Parker favored. But the fatalism inherent in many of his best stories was a perfect match for her natural pessimism.
Parker used her suicidal tendencies, failed relationships, heavy drinking, and personal humiliations as fodder for her fiction. And, as a rule, these unpleasant memories were usually played off as black comedy. To recreate Parker’s narrative style, use elements of Hemingway’s distinctive take on story structure and diction as a counterbalance to the discursive wordiness of Crowninshield’s approach to writing. Then add dark humor. Lots and lots of dark humor.
4. Master the fine art of self-deprecation
Dorothy Parker’s default verbal and written mode was all about the production of witty one-liners, brilliant double-entendres, and cutting epigrams. Some of Parker’s most acidic prose and barbed bon mots were directed at herself. As she wrote in “Our Office: A Hate Song” during her tenure at Vanity Fair:
Then there is the Editorial Department; The Literary Lights. They are just a little holier than other people Because they can write classics about
‘Brevity is the soul of lingerie’
About her own near-sightedness, she observed:
“Men seldom make passes
At girls who wear glasses.”
And about her alcoholism, she admitted:
I like to have a martini,
Two at the very most.
After three I’m under the table,
After four I’m under my host.
It’s not enough to be funny. You also have to be self-aware enough to mock yourself from time to time.
Got all that? Check out this blog post written in the style of Dorothy Parker, “Dorothy Parker reviews a candy bar,” have a cocktail or four, and give it a try yourself.
Katherine Luck is the author of the novels The Cure for Summer Boredom and In Retrospect. Her latest book, False Memoir, combines the high stakes of a gritty psychological thriller with the guilty pleasure of a sensational true crime tell-all. You can read more of her work, including the “Dead Writers and Candy” series, at the-delve.com.
Originally published at howtowritelike.com on March 14, 2019.