• Candace Coakley

Dunder Mifflin is Real

QUESTION: What did you write about in your college essay? (Asked by sassy high school student).

Decades later, I have no recollection of what I said in my college essay. But I do know every line from The Office thanks to my binge-watching kids. In solidarity with frustrated high school students everywhere as they sit down to write (or procrastinate writing) their college essays, I drafted my own version of the “Common App” essay. Here it is:

PROMPT: Describe a problem you’ve solved or like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, or an ethical dilemma – anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took to identify the solution. 650 words

Dunder Mifflin taught me how to find a creative solution to any problem. No, not the dysfunctional paper company from the hit show The Office. I cringe when I hear Michael Scott’s patented sarcasm coming out of my kids’ mouths. As a writer and mother (roles in eternal competition for undivided attention), I couldn't focus on my work. I resolved my office space dilemma in a nontraditional way.

With three high-maintenance children, plus a child-like husband, headstrong rescue dog, two guinea pigs, two beta fish, and two crested geckos, it was impossible for me to write from home. I felt a constant vigilance to get things done before I could tackle my own projects.

Moms live at the epicenter of an uncivilized and unstructured existence; chaos is our norm. Heaps of lonely socks beg to be paired. Dog hair tumbleweeds across the floor. But there was another, more insidious level of distraction. Who decides to bake a cake in the middle of the day? Who sets an extravagant table and invites friends to lunch? These random activities were equally unproductive. Procrastination was ever-present. If I wanted to accomplish anything, I needed a solution, and fast!

I researched office rentals and shared conference rooms but couldn’t afford any of them. I experimented with getting out of the house to write. I tried libraries and cafés, but the library was too quiet, and the café was too expensive. Like Goldilocks with a bad case of writer’s block, I couldn’t find any place that was just right.

My Aha moment came in the shower one morning, where all of my best ideas (and children) are born. My cousins, four brothers I walked to school with every day for eight years, owned a management company in the town next door. When I called, they didn’t ask what I was writing about or how long I needed the space. They offered a conference room in one of their residential buildings. It had a bathroom and a coffee maker, all for free. I’d won the office lottery.

I invited my writing partners in on the (did I mention free?) deal for accountability and camaraderie. My cousins gave us each our own set of keys. For the next year, we were faithful to our commitment to write during the day. We each wrote different genres but were in the same frustrated suburban mother/writer predicament. We affectionately named our space Dunder Mifflin in honor of The Office. Code name: DM became our refuge and secret haven.

One of our favorite office rituals was to mark each other’s birthdays with a candle in a juicy burrito. Moms and writers love guacamole! Celebrating our successes Tex-Mex style was a profoundly simple way to congratulate each other on sticking to our plan. With satisfied bellies we wrote the best content.

I adore my writing partners (I’d run away with them), but sometimes success is a solo endeavor. Determined to finish my manuscript, I started going into the office alone at night, leaving my kids and hubby to fend for themselves after dinner. I convinced myself I was getting out of clean-up, well aware the dirty dishes would await my return.

Instead of worrying about the mountains of household chores I’d never surmount, I focused on what I could control. I hunkered down and channeled my raw emotions onto the page. My fingers attacked the keyboard. After a few minutes I’d be in the zone.

Fictitious Dunder Mifflin may not be a productive workplace, but in my made-up office I produced a 76,000-word manuscript and garnered interest from multiple publishers. Finding office space and mastering the grueling experience of writing a book proves I can find a creative solution to any problem.