Throwback Thursday: An Evening with BJ Novak

I’ve never been great at being read to. One of my most vivid early memories is of me in kindergarten, getting up to walk around during storytime. Thankfully I had a teacher who pulled 4 year old me aside and asked why I wasn’t sitting. Being an early reader, I told her I have an easier time reading to myself, and then made the big ask and requested to take the book home (note to self: make the big ask more often as a grownup!). She said yes, and that is the story of how I finished my first chapter book, Judy Blume’s Tales of a Fourth-Grade Nothing, at age 4.

BJ Novak at the Brattle Theater. This is the face of a man who lobbied to get a burger named after him earlier in the day.

But I digress. The point I was headed towards, is that it makes little sense to me that I enjoy going to book readings as much as I do, given how hard I fought storytime as a youngster. But nevertheless, I spent an evening in Cambridge with comedian and writer BJ Novak (‘The Office’), and had a great time listening to excerpts from his new book of essays, One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories. He’s a smart and hilarious writer, and was great about answering questions for the audience, comprised in part of aspiring writers and other students from that school in Harvard Square from which he graduated. Not only that, he gives some pretty great advice (whether he’s trying or not). Some highlights from the evening:

Push limits. (Diversity Day)

One of BJ’s most notable roles was that of staff writer for The Office. He was in the writer’s room from day one, and his acting was largely an afterthought until the character of Ryan took off as it did. He was asked what his favorite episode of the show was, from a writing perspective. He responded with “Diversity Day,” the episode that launched a thousand attempts at hilarity in student affairs diversity training (including a few that I designed, if we’re being honest). As one of the first episodes that had no roots in the British version of the same name, showrunner Greg Daniels encouraged his staff to push limits. The episode that runs in syndication today would not have happened if BJ and the rest of the writers hadn’t tested the limits to see how far they could go. As an example, there is a line where Michael asked accountant Oscar, “Is there a term other than Mexican that you’d prefer to be called? Something less offensive?”

OSCAR: Mexican isn’t offensive.
MICHAEL: Well…it has certain connotations.

Is that line a little uncomfortable? Well, sure. But network censors, other writers, editors, and Greg himself looked at the content en masse and pared down the episode to the 22-minute veritable masterpiece that stands as one of my favorite episodes of the show to this day. And without the push to just “go there,” we wouldn’t have it to watch.

At the end of a later episode, Jim leaves the office and passes by a different form of diversity training from the one that takes place in the episode BJ cited. While it covers the information needed, it’s dry and uninspired. Don’t let prescribed guidelines and required information prevent you from being creative in its presentation. If you have the ability to add something special or engaging or enjoyable to content, without sacrificing the level of professionalism or gravity that it deserves, go for it. Switch it up. Find ways to make it memorable. Fight boredom at all costs. That’s how some of the best TV episodes, and moments in our lives, get started.

Where, in your own work or personal pursuits, can you push limits?

Let individual voices shine.

This one is actually a credit to Daniels and the rest of the showrunner staff. Because Novak wrote in an ensemble for so long, I truly wasn’t aware of how funny he was. Similarly, when a team does great work, it isn’t always clear and doesn’t always matter who does what, as long as the job gets done well. But in hearing BJ speak and reading his book, it’s easier now to see just where his voice was permitted to shine through. If I had to guess, I suspect that the scene in “Grief Counseling,” where Michael asks staff members to share stories of grief and they start pulling plotlines from Disney cartoons, is BJ’s. Similarly, many of the more farfetched stories that BJ’s own character Ryan Howard tells sound like him now that I have a better idea of his voice.

In the best case, everyone within an assembled group has specific talents that led them to be there. Don’t homogenize or tame work with designs on cohesion or consensus. And for heaven’s sake, if you see that happening and are in the power to stop it, pull a Liz Lemon or an Olivia Pope and SHUT. IT. DOWN! Let those in the group for specific reasons, share those talents. Otherwise, the end result will be inauthentic and boring.

What opportunities at the office or in other walks of life exist for your voice to shine?

Split projects into ideas and execution.

One of the questions asked from the audience spoke specifically about the process of writing. “Do you ever get writer’s block? If so, what do you do?”

BJ paused to think about it, and then said that he rarely gets writer’s block (Author’s note: the lucky duck!). He talked about evading writer’s block by splitting writing into two sections: the idea period and the execution period. In the former, you can brainstorm, outline, sketch…but not execute. That’s for the second part. He moves back and forth between the two processes. His trick: if you get stuck on an idea, move away from it and execute an idea you already had. The time away from the task you were working on could be just the thing you need to figure out why you were stuck. He’s stayed consistently productive this way; as his book features over sixty disparate but very good short stories, he’s found a way to make that strategy work for him.

What projects or initiatives in your life, professional or otherwise, could benefit from being split into these two stages?

Write for the person next to you.

In the acknowledgements for One More Thing, BJ thanks two friends who sat next to him in middle school. He doesn’t consider himself to be too close to them now, although one did show up at the reading and BJ did acknowledge him as he talked. His reason? When they were young, they always knew if something was good by how the other two responded. Above worrying about writing for convention, writing for appropriateness, or writing to “get big,” they wrote to appeal to the people who would most appreciate it.

Sometimes when we’re writing, or working, or interacting with others, we’re tempted to do the impressive thing. Do the thing that’s expected of us. Do the thing that, while notable, might not always come naturally. But that strategy reveals cracks. BJ Novak is proof that doing things the way that feels right, is the right way to go. Or as I told a class of students yesterday, “Do what you like to do, do what you’re good at, but don’t do things you ‘should’ do.” Let your actions and your approach to life come naturally. The place where those natural tendencies fits will generally come.

Where in your life is a reminder to live “for the person next to you” needed?

I left BJ’s reading far more inspired than I expected. After all, I think we learned from season four of The Office that Ryan Howard is not the most inspiring force. But it was the most I’ve enjoyed being read to in quite some time, that much is true! Thanks for the inspiration BJ, I learned a lot and I hope this post has helped you learn a lot too!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s