AS A PROFESSIONAL newspaper columnist with both medical and dental benefits, I receive many letters from people who would like to get into my line of work. "Dear Dave," they write. "I'm sick of my boring dead-end job as a (lawyer, teacher, office worker, Tipper Gore). How do I develop the skills I need to obtain a job like yours, where you have an opportunity to make a difference, even though you never actually do?" OK, then: Today I'm going to take you behind the scenes here at Dave Barry Inc., and reveal, step-by-step, exactly how I write a column:
Step 1 is to come up with a topic. I am always thinking about possible topics, from the moment my alarm goes off at 6 a.m., through the moment I actually get out of the bed, at around 10: 15. During that period I take a series of decompression naps while monitoring the morning TV news shows to find out what the news is. Unfortunately, the morning news shows no longer show the news: They're too busy showing the crowd of people who stand around outside the TV studio for hours on end waving at the camera and holding signs that say: "Hi!"
Evidently these people are too stupid to operate telephones, and this is the only way they have to communicate with their families or ward attendants back home. Sometimes the TV personalities go outside; I always hope that they'll point firearms at the sign-holders and yell, "Go home," but instead they ask the sign-holders where they're from. The fascinating answers never fail to amaze and delight everybody. ("Ohio?? Great!!")
So I have no column topic when I emerge from the bedroom to fix myself a hearty breakfast of coffee with extra coffee. My next step is to look through the daily newspaper, which I have found to be an invaluable and amazingly rich source of advertisements for women's underwear. Every other page has an ad featuring female models in lingerie; you get the impression, from newspapers, that at least 80 percent of the Gross National Product is brassieres. Why? Do women really need to be sold on the concept of underwear? Do they smack their foreheads and go, "That's what I need! Something under my clothing!"?
But you can't write a professional column about women's underwear. You need a topic with some meat to it, such as the U.S. Trade Deficit, which is an important issue that the newspaper often puts next to the brassiere ads. So, with this topic in mind, I head for my home office, which is an area that I would estimate, for tax purposes, covers 94 percent of the total square footage of my home.
I work at home because, as a professional writer, I find that a solitary environment enables me, whenever the muse strikes, to clip my toenails. This particular muse strikes more often than a French labor union. I'll be pondering the Trade Deficit, and I'll glance at my toenails and think, "Hey! Those babies have grown at least three thousandths of an inch since I last clipped them!" So I grab the clippers, which I always keep handy, and soon I'm hard at work. All your top writers do this. If you don't believe me, go up to, say, Norman Mailer, and have some friends hold him down while you remove his shoes and socks. If his toenails aren't trimmed to the base, I'll pay you $10. I'll need color photographs.
Another reason why creative individuals prefer to work at home, as opposed to an office, is that when you need to scratch yourself, you don't have to sneak behind the copying machine and settle for a hasty grope. At home, you can rear back and assault the affected region with both hands, or, if you want, gardening implements.
But you cannot scratch yourself forever. You are not a professional baseball player; you are a newspaper columnist, and sooner or later you have to knuckle down and get to work on the task at hand, which is: lunch.
After lunch it's time to get back to thinking about the Trade Deficit. The key, with a complex issue like this, is: research. A professional newspaper column has to be 800 words long, which is why I cannot say it enough: research, research, research. Among the questions that need to be answered are: What, exactly, is the Trade Deficit? For this kind of technical detail, I get on the telephone to my research assistant, Judi Smith, who is a wealth of information. "Judi," I say, "How come there are so many newspaper ads for women's underwear?" "I think because men like to look at women in brassieres," she replies.
My wife, who also works at home and is listening to this discussion, notes: "All those ads look the same."
Both my wife and Judi agree that nobody ever buys a bra from an ad. It frankly makes me wonder if this could be a contributing factor to the Trade Deficit. Somebody should think about this. I'd do it, but these toenails are not getting any shorter.