THE BALANCE PROJECT | No. 80: Marisa de los Santos, Novelist

Welcome to THE BALANCE PROJECT: a series of relevant and refreshingly candid interviews featuring inspiring and accomplished women talking about balance. I’ve always been curious—and maybe a little obsessed—about how women I admire manage the tragically glorified “doing it all” craze. So I asked them. As I suspected, no one really does “it all.” Everyone’s making sacrifices somewhere. And that should make us all feel a little better. I hope the conversation will be steered toward that reality rather than toward the flawed and dangerous assumption that we should try—or even want to try—to perfectly do “it all.”


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No. 80: Marisa de los Santos, Novelist

Age: 48
Where I live:
 Wilmington, Delaware
Job: Novelist
a daughter, Annabel (13), and a son, Charles (15)

Photo by Tisa Della-Volpe

Photo by Tisa Della-Volpe

Have you changed jobs or adjusted anything in your career to have more balance?
I used to be an assistant professor of English and Women’s Studies at the University of Delaware, but after I signed the contract for my second novel, I left teaching to write full time. The transition was much easier than I’d expected. While it required a shift in managing my time and, to some extent, my finances—because novelists get paid sporadically and in relatively big chunks as opposed to a paycheck every two weeks—there really wasn’t an identity adjustment because I’d always considered myself as primarily a writer, even when I wasn’t making a living as one.

Do you think having “it all” is realistic or overrated and why?
I think it’s worth thinking hard about what “all” means to you personally. For me, it’s having a thriving, happy marriage and family life, a handful of very close friends, a career I’m passionate about, and enough financial security to not worry about money constantly and to splurge on fun now and then. I also want to give something good to the world. I don’t need to make a huge splash, but I’d like to add to the collective goodness. When I take the time to step back and look at my life, which I don’t do often enough, I think I do have it all, and I’m grateful. I love my job and the people in my life so much.

What part of “balance” can you just not seem to figure out?
I’m a natural worrier, a huge worrier, the kind who wakes up at 3:00 AM in a cold sweat over all manner of things, many of which are entirely out of my control. I worry an awful lot about my children. Even though intellectually I know that my kids are lucky, happy people—healthy, going to good schools, playing sports that they love, living in a safe neighborhood—I am so tuned in to them emotionally, to all the daily, hourly ups and downs, that too often, I fail to keep perspective. They don’t get invited to a party or don’t get the grade they were hoping for or don’t get the time they wanted in the 100 backstroke—all the normal, growing-up disappointments—all of it hits me much harder than I think is helpful to anyone. I try to get some emotional distance, to take it in stride, but it’s a tremendous struggle.

What part of “balance” are you getting better at?
I’m getting more disciplined about my job. I am so grateful to be able to write for a living, and I am most at home in my life, most bone-deep satisfied when I’m fully immersed in a novel. But writing is hard. You have to bring your best, most tuned-in, wide-awake self to it. And it can be frustrating and exhausting. Going to the grocery store, doing laundry, cooking, going to lunch with friends, exercising, even doing volunteer work can be much easier and even more immediately rewarding. So I’ve had to get tougher with myself, to set daily concrete writing goals and put other things aside in order to achieve them. I’m getting better, but I still have to check in with myself pretty often. If, for instance, I catch myself folding the laundry while it’s almost too warm to handle, I know I’m procrastinating!

What was the best advice you ever heard on balance?
From a mentor/co-worker? “Don’t read reviews. And if you can’t help but read them, don’t take them too much to heart, even the good ones, maybe especially the good ones. Because your only hope of pleasing your readers is to not make pleasing them the priority, to listen only to your characters and your plot and to stay true to your book.”
From your mother? “Don’t change things about yourself that you value in order to get people to like you.” This was true in middle school, and it’s true now. Also, “When you’re down, put on a little lipstick.”
From your spouse? “Don’t worry so much because worrying usually doesn’t help and it makes you miserable and most crises turn out to be far less dire than you think they’ll be.” I wish I could say I follow this advice consistently.
From your kids? “Don’t yell all the time because when you yell all the time, we stop hearing you. Be like Dad and just yell once in awhile—but very loudly.” I wish I could say I follow this advice consistently (or at all).

If you had one extra hour in each day and you couldn’t work or be with your family, how would you spend that hour?
I would probably exercise, preferably outdoors, because I know that’s what I should do, but secretly, I’d rather spend the hour sitting on the sofa with my dogs watching a Law and Order or Foyle’s War rerun.

What do you wish you’d known when you were 20?
Only spend your time and heart on people who add richness to your life and make you better.

What do you hope to know by the time you’re 60?
To worry less, plunge myself heedlessly into joy more.

What one part of your home life do you wish you could outsource?
Cooking. When I have time, I actually enjoy cooking, but most of the time, I’m in a rush, and there’s just nothing fun about it.

Whose job do you wish you had?
I wouldn’t trade with anyone permanently, but I’d definitely be the ballerina Misty Copeland for a year. I’d love to put the kind of faith in my physicality that she does, to be so fully embodied, so steely and graceful and hard-working, and I’d love to wear tutus for a living.

Whose job are you glad you don’t have?
I’d hate any job that involves doing math on a regular basis.

Favorite books?
Everything by Ann Patchett, Barbara Kingsolver, E.M. Forster, Kent Haruf, and the books that meant the world to me when I was a kid: Elizabeth Enright’s Melendy Quartet and L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables series.

What are you reading right now?
Funny Girl by Nick Hornby.

Biggest vices…
I slow down when someone is tailgating me, just to annoy the other driver.
Food? Really good French fries. Never leave me alone with your fries.
Website? Zappos. Insomnia and Zappos are a dangerous combination.

How many hours do you generally sleep at night during the week?
Six and a half, with a couple of three to four hour nights thrown in every week.

What do you read every morning?
The New York Times, paper edition. The Tuesday Science section is my favorite.

Complete the following sentences:
I think I: should watch more movies.
I wish I: liked olives and had long eyelashes.
My kids: make me laugh every single day.

Do you have a personal motto or favorite saying?
“Only connect!” (I did not make this up).

PastedGraphic-2PastedGraphic-2UnknownAbout Marisa:
Marisa de los Santos is the New York Times bestselling author of four novels for adults, most recently, The Precious One, and the middle grade novel Saving Lucas Biggs, which she co-wrote with her husband David Teague. She and David live in Wilmington, Delaware with their children, Charles and Annabel, and their two Yorkies.

Find out more about Marisa here:
Twitter: @marisadlsantos
Facebook: marisa.delossantos.writer
Instagram: marisadls



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