Issue 78: Chemistry over balance
5 min read

Issue 78: Chemistry over balance

Some exciting news: I was selected to be a 2023-2024 Center for Fiction / Susan Kamil Emerging Writer Fellow! I’m so appreciative of this opportunity and am excited to be joining this incredible cohort.

At the end of September, I went to Florida for the Poynter Leadership Academy for Women in Media. It was an affirming and enlightening week that focused on different aspects of people management and leadership (aka my day job as an engineering manager), with a deep focus on making connections across our wide range of experiences in media. One of my favorite sessions was taught by Kristen Hare, which gave me a new way of thinking about work/life balance.

In fact, the talk first and foremost pushed back against the word “balance.” Kristen said that balance is the wrong way to think about our lives. We don’t need balance—we need to understand what drives us and what we can do to protect those things. We can’t hold work and life in separate hands, and doing so often casts our choices in very binary terms. Instead, we should think about work/life chemistry.

We went through a series of brainstorming exercises that asked us to reflect on the following questions:

  • What matters to me?
  • What have I said yes to? What have I said no to?
  • What’s working? What isn’t?
  • What themes do I see?

To continue with the chemistry metaphor, we began outlining a personal “formula” to capture the two things that mattered most to us. My initial list included: creativity, rest, location, commitment, and community. I whittled that down to creativity + environment.

The final element (ba dum tss) was to think about something that we needed in our lives that we didn’t currently have.

  • What aspirational element can you add to your formula?

My final formula (for now): Creativity + Environment + Transformation

Kristen reminded us that this formula is ever changing. It captures more nuance than a blanket goal of work/life balance, as it takes into account what you need at this point in time to both feel rooted and healthily challenged. These could also be interpreted as foundations and habits to return to, which I discussed in my previous newsletter.

Recognizing what motivates and fulfills us is one thing. Using that to lead a sustainable—and joyful!—life is another. Kristen noted the importance of understanding the difference between burnout vs. demoralization vs. secondary traumatic stress. The formula is designed to help us notice when we’ve depleted our surge capacity, or to notice difficult changes in how we work or how we’re managed. (There was no continued metaphor around balancing chemical equations, but I feel that could be incorporated here.)

I appreciated chatting with different folks about their work/life chemistry formulas because they were all so deeply specific, yet similar patterns emerged. We care about our relationships with family and friends. We care about our communities. We care about possibility. We care about stability. We care about adventure. After several days of focusing solely on management and our jobs, it honestly felt radical to voice our holistic priorities that tried to capture our whole selves.

The last step was to think about how the formula could translate into specific, manageable goals that we could hold ourselves and each other accountable for. Before leaving the conference, we all shared quick three minute presentations on our “personal development plans” (PDP)—the concrete steps we’d take once we all went back to our lives.

Most people invoked their work/life chemistry formulas in their PDPs. They would gain more control by delegating tasks to teammates who were ready for the challenge. They would gain more autonomy by creating a new position for themselves and writing that job description. They would rest more by taking trips with friends and exploring creative pursuits.

Although we’re now no longer together in person, we’re still texting each other the same refrain from the session: “Dream life, not dream job.”

What does work/life chemistry look like for you? What’s your formula?

A meme that says "I only worry about three things: everything that happened, everything that is happening, and everything that will happen." Three pensive frogs consider these worries.

Creative resources

  • Meaghan O'Connell on revising your writing: “Revision requires you to have faith in your own ability to improve your work. To muster this faith in yourself and then summon the creativity to proceed while you’re filled with self-loathing is next to impossible.”
  • Check out BOMB Magazine’s quarterly roundup of fellowships, residences, and prizes for Fall 2023
  • Applications are open until October 16 for Rooted and Written, a fully-funded writers conference by and for writers of color. The conference will take place in San Francisco from November 4-12.
  • “The Rise of Literary Friendships” by Isle McElroy
  • I loved Brandon Taylor’s essay on what are considered “necessary scenes” in media, and the difference between moral argument and bad taste. Taylor insists that “the unnecessary is what makes art enjoyable” and viewing art through this dichotomy is a “very constraining and diluting way to conceive of narrative and to conceive of art itself.”

Recent reads & other media

In romance novels, I read The Happy Ever Playlist by Abby Jimenez and just started The Neighbor Favor by Kristina Forest. Jamil Jan Kochai’s short story collection, The Haunting of Hajji Hotak and Other Stories, is a profound depiction of the “dark absurdity of American violence," often using fantastic and surreal elements. I enjoyed Kochai’s interview with Electric Literature that dives into the responsibility attached to writing Muslim characters and how his fiction examines privilege and generational differences in the Afghan diaspora.

We’ve now entered spooky season!! E and I watched Alien and Coraline, both movies I somehow hadn’t yet seen and they did not disappoint. I also made E watch one of my favorite childhood movies, Scooby-Doo and the Witch’s Ghost, which features an iconic Tim Curry as the villain.

Recently read short stories: “Magic, or Something Less Assuring” by Mengyin Lin, “Free To Be” by Rosa Boshier-González, “My Last White Boyfriend” by Lisa Chen, “An anecdote” by Meredith Talusan

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~ meme myself and i ~

A+ Tom and Jerry scream. The clock strikes sweet treat o’clock. Something very academic is growing inside me. A day in the life as the entity haunting your house. Trying to search for scholarly information. I’m obsessed with Lewis (plus the Barbie remix).

A screenshot of Netherfield Park from the 2006 film adaptation of Pride and Prejudice with the caption "Netherfield Park is let at last!" A Spirit Halloween banner has been Photoshopped onto the manor's exterior.
via @bookhoarding