How to Procrastinate Like Dorothy Parker
Have you ever missed a deadline by 37 years? No? Then it’s time to up your procrastination game.
Nobody hated writing more than Dorothy Parker, the wisecracking Jazz Age satirist.
“The longer she sat at her typewriter, the more paralyzed she became,” writes Marion Meade in her definitive biography, Dorothy Parker: What Fresh Hell Is This?
We’ve all been there, banging our heads against the wall when the words just won’t come.
But it’s time to up the ante!
Here’s how to procrastinate bigger and better than ever before, with some procra-spiration from the queen of not-writing herself.
“I hate writing, I love having written.”
This quotation is often attributed to Dorothy Parker, although there’s no solid proof she ever said it. Nevertheless, she would have agreed with the sentiment. She was famous for her dislike of the writing process, and infamous for missing deadlines.
Some say one of Dorothy’s challenges was lack of a consistent writing routine, but she actually held to a very strict schedule while she was writing for The New Yorker:
Monday through Thursday, she wouldn’t write.
Friday, she ignored her deadline.
Sunday, editors would call throughout the day demanding her column. Only then would she finally put pen to paper.
Embrace your inner Dorothy and don’t write a single word until your editor has emailed several times and you’re filled with sufficient self-loathing. Remember, a deadline is just a suggestion.
“Somebody was using the pencil.”
This was one of Dorothy’s many excuses for not handing in her column on time. In truth, the pencil wasn’t to blame, but Dorothy’s perfectionism.
Marion Meade notes that she was “obsessively careful” in her writing, and that she “thought out each paragraph beforehand and then laboriously wrote it down in longhand sentence by sentence.”
Afterwards, she would bring her story to the typewriter, “a tool that frustrated and mystified her.”
One time, she was having trouble changing the ribbon (for you young ones out there, the ribbon is a strip of fabric that contains ink). She couldn’t figure it out, so she bought a whole new typewriter instead.
Whatever’s getting in your way — perfectionism, anxiety, fear of failure — be like Dorothy! Blame it on your laptop and call it a day.
“Too f*cking busy and vice versa.”
This is said to be Dorothy’s response to an editor inquiring about her late copy, but like so many quips attributed to her, actual evidence of her authorship is questionable.
But in general, Dorothy was often “f*cking busy.” She loved drinking, partying, attending the theater, traveling Europe and hanging out with her dogs, whom she never bothered to housetrain but loved dearly.
She also spent hour after hour swapping bon mots with her friends at the Algonquin Round Table, a pastime she came to regret later in life when she realized she could have been writing instead.
And she was occasionally “busy f*cking” — she had two marriages and many flings throughout her lifetime.
When faced with the terror of the blank page, follow Dorothy’s lead and find something (or someone!) to keep you entertained and dull the pain. Distraction is the soul of procrastination.
“Everything that isn’t writing is fun.”
Think you’re falling behind in your writing? You’ve got nothing on Mrs. Parker, who let a deadline sit for 37 years. That’s right, 37 YEARS.
She signed a contract to deliver a novel to Viking Press in 1930, but never completed it before her death in 1967. “In the 1970s, Viking reported that their agreement with Dorothy Parker was the longest unfulfilled contract in the company’s history,” Eileen Meister notes in Writers Digest.
Dorothy called herself a “short-distance writer,” finding it easier to write poetry, plays and stories than full-length fiction. But she believed that a novel was her literary destiny.
Putting such intense pressure on herself almost guaranteed that she would never finish her book: “Write novels, write novels, write novels — that’s all they can say,” she was quoted. “Oh, I do get sick and tired sometimes.”
Go ahead and put some extra pressure on yourself, just like Dorothy did. Sometimes, all you need to stay in your writing chair is the weight of the whole world crushing down on you!
“I can’t write five words but that I change seven.”
Dorothy’s mental health was a major roadblock in her writing.
Grappling with her novel’s painful autobiographical details and realizing how slowly she was progressing, Dorothy “panicked and drank a bottle of shoe polish,” Marion Meade recounts. “While it failed to kill her, the shoe polish made her quite ill, and she was hospitalized.”
In all seriousness, you absolutely should NOT drink a bottle of shoe polish to avoid writing.
When your writer’s block starts to slide down the hill towards depression, talk to a good friend. Text your therapist. Get help. Writing does not have to mean suffering. Your mental health is more important than any project. Go easy on yourself.
“Don’t know why it is so terribly difficult.”
In 1945, Dorothy sent this now-famous telegram to her editor at Viking, explaining why she hadn’t sent her manuscript:
“This is instead of telephoning because I can’t look you in the voice. I simply cannot get that thing done yet never have done such hard night and day work never have so wanted anything to be good and all I have is a pile of paper covered with wrong words. Can only keep at it and hope to heaven to get it done. Don’t know why it is so terribly difficult or I so terribly incompetant [sic]. Dorothy.”
In a stroke of genius, Dorothy has hit on one of the best ways to avoid writing — write something else.
An apologetic telegram to your editor.
A long, overwrought email to your ex.
A love poem to your pizza delivery guy.
Anything to keep you from the project at hand.
“I do not give a damn.”
If all this wasn’t enough inspiration to keep you from writing ever again, here’s one final thought from Dorothy via her 1925 poem, Observation:
If I don’t drive around the park,
I’m pretty sure to make my mark.
If I’m in bed each night by ten,
I may get back my looks again,
If I abstain from fun and such,
I’ll probably amount to much,
But I shall stay the way I am,
Because I do not give a damn.
Let’s all stop giving a damn!
When you’re ready to write, you’ll write.
Until then, embrace your dawdling, dallying tendencies with pride, knowing that you’re following in the footsteps of one of the most gifted procrastinators of all time: the legendary Mrs. Dorothy Parker.