About a year ago, I was invited to give a talk to some graduate students at Queen’s University about what was billed as “work-life balance.” Sure, I said. Why not? That should be easy.
There was only one small problem. For me, “work-life balance” is an unattainable mirage. I am the farthest thing from an expert on the topic.
The truth is, most of my days pass in a blur of immediate “to-dos.” And the hours that I so carefully set aside for creative work often go instead to the unanticipated trip to the doctor, the emergency phone call from the school or the rush-rush project for the paid job.
I used to spend a lot of time feeling resentful, inadequate and guilty about that. Because other people seemed to combine their creative work with the rest of their lives successfully. Other people seemed to have some magical ability that allowed them to flourish in the face of constant interruptions and distractions.
Except, when I questioned them, these paragons of multi-tasking all felt exactly the same as I did: weary, overwhelmed and vaguely at fault for failing to maintain their inner equilibrium in the face of multiple competing demands.
“Other people seemed to have some magical ability that allowed them to flourish in the face of constant interruptions and distractions.”
Those of us who don’t blame ourselves for this state of affairs sometimes blame the pace of contemporary life. After all, we’re all juggling numerous roles, and we’re all subject to the relentless beeps, pings and dings of our various devices. No wonder we feel beleaguered.
But what if the problem is less about us, less about the world and more about our basic expectations? What if the language we use contributes to our sense of failure? What if the problem is the metaphor itself?
What does “work-life balance” even mean?
Imagine a seal, spinning a ball on its nose. Stop that insane momentum and the whole thing comes crashing down over its head.
Is that how we want to construct ourselves – as performing circus animals? Is that how we want to conduct our writing lives?
Consider other images of “balance” – say the scales of justice… or a teeter-totter. Load up one side and the other comes crashing to the ground. The whole apparatus seems so precarious! No wonder we feel so inadequate. No wonder we fear the possibility that something might shift.
Yet shift it must. Change it must. For “balance” implies stasis – and stasis is antithetical to the creative life.
What if, rather than “balance,” we spoke instead in terms of dynamic harmony, or cycles, or an ebb and flow? That way, we might not feel so guilty or inadequate whenever we had to give one role or another precedence in our lives for a period of time. Say the first few years of our son’s life, or the first few months of a new paid job, or the last few months of work on a novel, when nothing and nobody in the world matters so much as those characters, and we can barely pull ourselves away from our created world to face the real one.
Thinking in terms of ebb and flow rather than “balance” has made it a little easier for me to give myself fully to whatever role is demanding most of me that moment – whether that be partner, wage-earner, teacher, parent, friend, writer.
It has also helped me recognize the enormous value of writing retreats. I’ve been privileged to participate in several formal residencies, at places like the Banff Centre for the Arts, the Vermont Studio Center, Wintergreen Studios in Ontario and Sage Hill and Stegner House in Saskatchewan. Each of these provides a different kind of experience, but every one offers uninterrupted time and quiet – two of the most precious and hard-to-source ingredients for the creative stew.
Of course, it’s fun to travel, exciting to stare out at different views and blissful to let somebody else do the shopping and cooking and cleaning for a change. But retreats don’t have to be formal or lengthy or costly to be valuable. In fact, some of my most memorable or useful retreats were short, cheap and close to home. Like the weekend I spent in an absent friend’s house powering through the final edits on an important manuscript. Or the day the rest of my family went to Toronto and left me digging in our back garden. In the process, I uncovered the seed of the next book.
Alas, I never did manage to tell those Queen’s students anything helpful about “work-life balance.” Instead, I read them some poetry that I wrote while crouched on one side of the work-life teeter-totter. And dared to suggest that if we’re lucky, there’s no real dichotomy, and “balance” is beside the point. Work is part of life, not separate from life, and life means growth – and change.
Susan Olding is the author of Pathologies: A Life in Essays, winner of the Creative Nonfiction Collective’s Readers’ Choice Award for 2010, and selected by 49th Shelf and Amazon.ca as one of 100 Canadian books to read in a lifetime. Her writing has won a National Magazine Award, two Edna Awards and many other honours. A graduate of UBC’s MFA program, she lives with her family in Kingston, Ontario. In the spring of 2016, she’ll facilitate a one-day workshop for the QWF called “Telling It Slant,” where she’ll share some strategies for adding depth and originality to your memoirs, personal essays and short fiction. You can find her at www.susanolding.com.
Photo (top): Inside the Cardinal Studio, one of the Leighton Studios at Banff Centre for the Arts.