Meet a Writer
When it comes to writing that makes people laugh, Dave Barry is considered one of the best. He has even been called the funniest man in America. Barry is a humor columnist for the Miami Herald. His column is syndicated, which means it is published weekly in newspapers all over the United States and other countries. He has also written twenty-four books, and in 1988 he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize.
Barry says that when he was young, he never really thought about writing for a living. “I don’t recall ever saying ‘I want to be a writer’ when I was a kid. I didn’t know there was such a job as a writer. Even after I started writing, I figured I’d have to do something else to make a living.”17 When Barry was in high school, he was elected “class clown” and he discovered that the things he wrote could make people laugh. So, he began to write humorous articles for his school newspaper. “I wasn’t really good at sports, but I was good at being a wise guy. I was a pretty good student—but I also had a big mouth. I liked entertaining my fellow classmates. When I saw that my columns made them laugh, that was all it took to encourage me.”18
Throughout his college years at Haverford College, Barry continued writing humorous columns. After graduation, he went to work as a reporter for a small newspaper in West Chester, Pennsylvania. He stayed there for about five years and then left to teach business-writing seminars. In the meantime, he continued to write columns and send them to various newspapers. In 1983 the Miami Herald offered him a regular job as a humor columnist.
Barry writes about every possible topic: the government, pets, giant zucchini squash, his daughter’s ballet class, potty training, beauty tips, bad habits—actually, there are few topics he has not written about. He says that ideas for his columns come from everywhere: “I get ideas from all around me: other people, the newspapers, television, life in general, my readers. Ideas are everywhere if you just look for them. There are an infinite amount of things to write about, and if you can’t find anything, you’re not looking around the world enough. It’s there. It’s all around you.”19 Barry says he most enjoys writing about live events such as the Olympics, political conventions, or the Super Bowl. “If I can write about some specific thing, it’s generally easier than when I have to pull ideas out of the air. However, if I need to pull ideas out of the air, I can do that!”20
About the qualities that make a good writer, Barry says this: “Someone whose style is readable, natural—and that’s a skill that many people don’t have. A writer can’t copy someone else’s style. There are people who are proficient writers, but they’re dull. A good writer is someone who makes you want to keep reading.”21 As for whether the ability to write is natural or a learned skill, Barry says it is probably both. “There’s no question that some people are naturally good writers and there are also some who will never be. Then there are the people who could become better writers if they spent more time reading other people’s work. The more you read, the better you will write.”22
The Daily Routine
Barry writes one newspaper column per week, and his deadline is every Tuesday afternoon. When his column is finished, he moves on to other work such as doing interviews and working on his books. “I always have chapters due and if I don’t keep things moving, I can get backed up. If I had nothing else to do—which is never the case—I could finish a book in a couple of months. The time it actually takes is about a year.”23
When asked how he would describe his job, Barry answers:
To help kids relate to what I do, I tell them this: Imagine that your assignment is to write essays every day. Every day you wake up and walk into the same classroom, and you have to write a new essay. If you don’t come up with something new that people want to read, and that you’ve never written about, and that no one else has written about either, you won’t be able to come to class anymore. That’s what it’s like to do what I do. There’s always pressure to come up with a brand new idea and write things that keep people interested and then do it again, and then again, and then again. People might think it’s all fun, just dreaming up some hilarious idea, writing about it, and then having everyone read it and tell me how great I am. But it’s much more involved than that.
Barry says that there are many times when he does not feel funny, but he still has to come up with humorous things to write about: “I just keep at it and eventually something appears.”25
The Joys and the Pitfalls
Barry says the pressure is really the hardest part of his job.
It can be tough. Feeling like you’re always pressed and you can’t ever say “I’ve got nothing to do for the next few weeks.” It’s not terrible but it can be tough and it makes relaxing more difficult. Plus, I have to say no to things every day. I’m constantly asked to go places and do things and make personal appearances, and I can’t say yes to everything —sometimes I just have to say no. Otherwise I wouldn’t have any time for my family or myself.
In spite of the pressure, Barry says that he enjoys his job very much:
I like that I don’t have to do the same thing day after day, so it is never boring. I can control what I do, pick my topics, pick my assignments. My job has enabled me to travel all over the world to places like Japan, Norway, England, and France, as well as all over the U.S. I’ve been able to meet some famous people. Last week I hung out with Steve Martin and Robin Williams—Steve had asked me to help with the Academy Awards this year so I was backstage during the Oscars and met a lot of actors.
Barry says that another good part of his job is his fans. “I’ve been very lucky to have fans who have bought my books, read my columns—it’s very gratifying.”28
Message for Aspiring Writers
Barry’s advice for young people who wish to make a career out of writing is this: “The most important thing is to take it seriously. If you want to be a writer, study what writers actually do. People aren’t often aware that this career requires a lot of hard work, and it takes a lot of time to get to the point where someone actually wants you to write for them.”29 Although Barry has a college degree in English, he emphasizes the importance of hands-on experience. “Almost all my journalism education came from actually doing it. While there are no ‘standard requirements’ for becoming a writer, the very best training is real-world experience. It is so valuable—even more valuable than academic courses.”30
As for how he feels about his career, Barry says he cannot imagine doing anything else. “It has worked out really well for me. The only advice I ever give to someone who’s young and clueless like I was is this: Concentrate on doing what you like to do. If you work hard enough at it, you’ll probably learn to do it well. And hopefully you’ll be able to find a job somewhere where someone will pay you for doing what you enjoy.”31
17 All quotes in “Meet a Writer”: Dave Barry, interview by Peggy J. Parks, May 7, 2003.