Welcome to THE BALANCE PROJECT: a series of relevant and refreshingly candid interviews featuring inspiring and accomplished women talking about work-life balance. I’ve always been curious 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.”
By the way, looking for THE BALANCE PROJECT novel that was inspired by these interviews? It’s here.
No. 168: Sally Koslow, Novelist
Age: My emotional clock stopped at 37, but I’m in my 60s. How did that happen?
Where I live: Manhattan with weekends in the north woods
Job: Novelist, essayist, writing coach, and Wednesday caretaker for a feisty 2-year-old
Kids: Two sons in their 30s
Have you changed jobs or adjusted anything in your career to have more balance?
Act 1 of my work life was as a magazine editor, culminating in the 24/7 job of editor-in-chief at McCall’s, Lifetime (a magazine I launched for Hearst and Disney,) and a handful of start-ups for The New York Times Company, when they owned women’s magazines. Doing this work always felt important to me and I was grateful for it. I tried not to let it compromise family time. Since during most of these years our sons were still at home, my husband and I elected to stay in a city apartment rather than move to the ‘burbs, which would have required a longer commute. Every weeknight we had a simple family dinner around 6:30, after which we’d race to our desks for homework. For me, that meant reading mountains of manuscripts. My husband and I never took a vacation without our boys for 17 years, which was no huge sacrifice: parenthood is a noisy freight train dissecting your life, but faster than you’d ever imagine, you see the caboose. (Except when you don’t, which is why I wrote Slouching Through Adulthood, about people in their 20s and 30s who take their sweet time to get their act together.)
Work-life balance gets easier when your kids take off, and it evolves into addressing how you incorporate grandchildren into your life and when you should slow down to play and travel more. For me: not yet. I’m not finished with work, though I appreciate having greater time flexibility than when I was a magazine editor running a large staff. I absolutely treat my writing as “work” and impose discipline.
Do you think having “it all” is realistic or impossible and why?
You need to keep redefining “all.” I feel lucky to have known happiness in both my work- and home life, but it’s come with a price. I missed out on some of the schmooze time other mothers enjoyed with each other. The consolation prize was making lifelong friends of some of the other crazy-busy working moms—people in all sort of businesses and professions whom I otherwise wouldn’t have met—as well as the camaraderie of being on magazine staffs populated by smart, lively people. Also, every Wednesday for the last five years, I’ve taken care of one of my two grandchildren who live nearby. (Two, alas, are in California.) It’s by no means the same as being a mommy, but I’m glad I get to have this special time with grandchildren, since I barely knew my own grandparents. Grandparenting is part of the bigger picture of “having it all”—one I never thought about for two seconds until it actually happened to me.
Recently, I wrote an op-ed for the “Sunday Review” of The New York Times that explores how nuts it is that women are expected to squash all the big stuff—finding both a partner and satisfying work, rising in the ranks, and having kids—into, say, 25 years, when people now stay youthful far beyond the time anyone wants to employ them. It’s a thing.
Do you prefer the phrase “work-life balance” or “work-life integration”? Or do you think they’re both terrible?
Can’t we just use the word “life?” I can’t imagine a life that didn’t include work.
What part of “balance” can you just not seem to figure out?
Why everything takes three times longer than you think it should.
What part of “balance” are you getting better at?
Procrastinating less. I tell myself “Sally of tomorrow will thank you for doing this today.”
Do you have a favorite time management tool, hack, or other strategy you use that helps you achieve balance that you would recommend to others?
Because I think most clearly in the morning, I try to protect that time and keep it free for the hard stuff, like composing new writing. (Imagine sticking a screwdriver in your brain. You got it.) By “morning” I mean starting by 8 a.m. By, say, 12:30, I get out of the house to meet a friend for lunch or coffee, take a barre class, or at least run errands, because hermits aren’t known for their creativity or stable mental health. Mid-afternoon, back at my desk, is for tasks that require B+ or less concentration, like editing, returning email, checking social media and cooking. By 5:30 I’m a wet noodle, so I read a chapter or two of a book, which I also do for about 30 minutes each night. I try to read a book about every five days, either for one of two book clubs or to keep up on what’s out there, which I consider part of my job as a writer. All the great TV dramas, however, are eating into my reading time. Damn you, Un Village Français.
What’s the best advice you ever heard on balance?
When I complained to a smart Texas girlfriend—no neurotic New Yorker, she—that I’d stalled on starting a writing project, she said, “Just sit down and begin.” She was right. Once you kick off a project, it takes on its own momentum. Similarly, at some point you need to say, “Done.” I can edit my work 20 times.
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?
What do you wish you’d known when you were 20?
That writing screenplays or working in a TV writers’ room was something I might have done well and enjoyed.
What do you hope to know by the time you’re 60?
Can we make that 70 or even 80? I’m proof that you can be past 60 and feel you haven’t yet reached your potential. I hope I have time for all the things I want to try and do, and will eventually learn how to do them. I was recently inspired by the artist David Hockney, who at 80 is designing the most magnificent work on an iPad.
What one part of your home life do you wish you could outsource?
Whose job do you wish you had?
Showrunner for the next hot TV sitcom.
Whose job are you glad you don’t have?
Time and Again by Jack Finney, because after I moved to Manhattan to take a job with Mademoiselle magazine, this sci-fi novel made me see New York City through a lens of history. I’m also a huge fan of Amor Towles, both Rules of Civility and A Gentleman In Moscow. I could go on and on with other books I’ve loved, but I want to give a particular shout out to Elinor Lipman for her wit, and to Loving Frank by Nancy Horan and The Paris Wife by Paula McLain. The latter two inspired me to write my own historical biopic novel, Another Side of Paradise, about F. Scott Fitzgerald and Sheilah Graham, who fell in love in Hollywood during the 1930s. Harper will publish it in May 2018.
What are you reading right now?
In the Darkroom, a memoir by Susan Faludi, Stay with Me by Ayobami Adebayo, and a pile of research-related boks.
Activity? Juggling so many balls I forget to do something important like pay my credit card bill.
Food? Ice cream.
Website? I’m an Amazon Vine reviewer and spend entirely too much time perusing items for critique.
How many hours do you generally sleep at night during the week?
What do you read every morning?
The New York Times digital, email, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram.
Complete the following sentences:
I think I: am lucky to have a loving marriage, children, grandchildren, many friends and a big extended family; to have good health after cancer; to have work that interests me; and to have been raised in Fargo, North Dakota, which made me naïve enough to get a job at Condé Nast after college. If I’d been a city girl, I’d have been too intimidated to apply. Being from Fargo also helped me understand the reader of mass-market magazines, where I worked for many years.
I wish I: could write faster, learn foreign languages, not be intimidated by driving, and have a better sense of direction.
My sons: have become awesome fathers.
Do you have a personal motto or favorite saying?
Trust your gut. Don’t try to talk yourself into mediocre ideas.
Sally Koslow is a wife, mother, grandmother (a.k.a. Mimi,) essayist, editor, and writer. Her novel, Another Side of Paradise, about the complicated love affair between F. Scott Fitzgerald and Sheilah Graham, will be published by Harper on May 29. 2018. She is the author of four previous novels, including The Late, Lamented Molly Marx, an international bestseller. Sally had a long run as a magazine editor, culminating in being the editor-in-chief of both McCall’s and Lifetime, which she launched for Hearst and Disney. Throughout her work life, she has written many essays and articles, some of which you can find on her website, sallykoslow.com.
She works with private students as a coach and leads writing workshops in the New York City area. Recently, she started taking painting classes, and while she’s no Mary Cassatt, she loves it.
Find out more about Sally:
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