The Office Set Me FreeBy Matt Stewart
December 01, 2010
I could have finished National Novel Writing Month. Seriously. I pounded out 43,492 words with four days left, leaving me a mere 6,508 words to go to hit the “winner” level of 50,000 words by midnight last night. That’s a spittle-soaked couple’s squabble, or a wild weekend road trip, or a dimly lit barstool meditation on the meaning of civilization.
Problem was, I was writing too many of those scenes. My novel was about twenty-somethings finding themselves in San Francisco, navigating the pitfalls of entry-level day jobs to pursue Art and Ideas through a fog of Confusion, while making lots of Tricky Love along the way. It came out just as aimless as it sounds.
While wallowing through this literary mire, I received a pep talk email from NaNoWriMo which encouraged me to take drastic action, make my characters do something wild, “crash the spaceship.” Desperate for something interesting to happen, I sent one of my characters on a nonsensical, motiveless robbery which quickly degraded into a nonsensical, motiveless murder, which quickly degraded into an elaborate, nonsensical cover-up so my hero would get off, as I needed him at liberty for the rest of the book to stand half a chance of making for a coherent read.
I was painted into that bad-writing corner that smells of stale piss and sadness, and, with 11 days to go, I took a break from NaNoWriMo. For some mental refreshment, I started streaming The Office on my iPhone via Netflix. NaNoWriMo quickly degenerated into NaOfWaMo (National Office Watching Month), as I wound up watching the entire Season Five—28 episodes—over the weekend.
It was wonderful. I laughed my ass off. I cared. I understood why good characters did bad things, from Michael pretending to be the father of Jan’s child to Dwight having an affair with Angela, his engaged coworker. I got a little misty at the end, when Jim and Pam found out Pam was pregnant. And I had to see what happened next. I couldn’t stop tapping the next damn episode.
For a day The Office ran through my head. I rooted for these guys. I loved them. I wanted them to win. The doofus boss; the young, smart salesman; the creatively evil rival; the alcoholic; the pervert; the religious cat lover. Those simple descriptions would make for an interesting show by themselves—but what made The Office so instructive is that these characters were more than that. The doofus boss is also an unparalleled salesman and has a knack for identifying management problems, even if his solutions are riduculous; the young, smart salesman has a plodding, indecisive streak that threatens to undermine him; the creatively evil rival is relentlessly loyal. OK, some of the rest of the gang is basically caricatures—but they’ve generally succeeded in making an ensemble cast three-dimensional. Tell that to Cheers.
Dizzy-eyed with television-infused hope, I re-opened my abandoned NaNoWriMo novel. The writing was pretty good, I realized; maybe I could backtrack to before my killing spree and focus on creating compelling, honest characters who you could get behind as they committed office arson and fraud, who you could cheer on through adventures in adultery and mule-deer skinning, who made for lovable insult-slingers and time-wasters as they trudged small-mindedly through professional cul-de-sacs. I hacked away for another week, but not enough changed. I heard too much hemming and hawing, didn’t detect much purpose, didn’t feel nearly enough love. All I could think about was how much more I’d rather watch a guaranteed-entertaining episode of The Office than charge ahead on this literary death march.
There was a time when I would have powered through those last 6,508 words just to say I did it. I’m pleased to report that I’ve matured to where I have no qualms about giving up. Instead, I spent the rest of the month watching The Office: Season 6, which made me delirious in a way only belly laughs, White Russians and lying in bed mostly naked can provide.
Call it a win-win. I’m pretty sure this book would have sucked with all the time in the world, and NaNoWriMo helped me figure out I had a stinker fast. And my God, there’s nothing funnier than Michael Scott attempting to salvage a wedding by explaining the differences in male sensation between protected and unprotected sex. I may just use that in my next novel.
I’ve been telling anyone who’d listen that if it takes until December or January to finish a novel, there’s no shame in that. And it’s so, so important to take breaks. Although my fierce loyalty to the British version gets in the way of my ability to watch the American one, although I am quite sure it is excellent.
I was a British Office snob for years. Skip Season 1 of the American Office – it gets much much better in Season 2 – they made the characters much more likeable. Rainy weekends well spent!
I quit watching about halfway through season 6, right after the whole corporate buy-out storyline was getting off the ground. I found that I just didn’t care anymore, that I wasn’t laughing at the characters, and — funny enough — realized that the time I was spending watching it was time I could put to better use through writing.
Sadly, if the current episodes are any indication, I seem to be heading towards the same relationship with 30 Rock.
I think the current one will be the last of The Office for me – I’ve recently been much harsher than ever in my pruning of TV shows that aren’t cutting it any more, but this is a series that built up enough goodwill that I’ll see it through to the end of Steve Carell’s run. Unlike Always Sunny, which jumped the shark seasons ago.
I found it to be a great show once it got its feet under it and dropped the carbon copying of the UK version; I was the one who insisted my friends keep watching it, to give it a chance, and after grumbling, they followed my lead, and haven’t looked back.
I know what you mean – re-watching the first four seasons got me through a horrible romantic patch.
Damn it, Matt! Season five is where I quit watching The Office – I didn’t know about Pam! And who’s the alcoholic!? Ack!
That said, good for you for quitting. Sincerely. You’ve got nothing to prove to anyone else.