Prompt 193. Riding Shotgun
& a prompt by Holly Huitt on memory and cars
For the last few weeks, my mom has been living with me, preparing meals, accompanying me to doctor’s appointments, sitting at my hospital bedside. Now that we’re back in Brooklyn, driver has been added to her list of responsibilities. Since I’m not allowed to operate any heavy machinery (I’m on a mother lode of meds), she’s been shuttling me to the bone marrow transplant clinic in Manhattan.
I haven’t spent this much time as a passenger in a car since I was a child, riding to and from school and play dates and double bass lessons in our family ride: a second-hand gray Nissan Quest minivan. It was, to put it bluntly, a rusty disaster—always breaking down or otherwise falling apart. My brother and I were both embarrassed by the van, and we complained about it constantly.
My parents took this as evidence we were spoiled—that we didn’t understand the value of fixing things. To teach us that lesson, they kept the van for more than two decades, long past the point of logic, pouring more into repairs and refurbishments than it had ever been worth. When it finally went down in a heap of fumes in the middle of the highway and was deemed unsalvageable, we joked that instead of junking it, we should have it deposited on our front lawn as an art installation.
My parents have never put much stock in cars. They didn’t grow up with them, my dad because a car was beyond his family’s means, my mom because her father was a hardcore environmentalist and worried about carbon emissions long before they were a common concern. To this day, my dad prefers to walk everywhere, my mom to ride a bike, and to them, our family car was a matter of function and utility, not a status symbol or some metaphor for life.
But for me, the idea of a car was intertwined with the American Dream. In middle school, I wrote in my journal about how I hoped to lose my virginity at the age of sixteen in the back of a pickup truck on the Fourth of July—at the county fair no less! Who knows what Sweet Home Alabama-esque movie had inspired that absurd fantasy (which in case you’re wondering, never came to pass), or how many car commercials I’d seen that led me to believe I’d come out of the house on my sixteenth birthday and see a brand new car adorned with a giant red bow. But I absolutely did—only to have my parents say, “You can ride your bike.”
There’s so much wrapped up in cars. The ills of car culture aside—the toll of fossil fuels, the endless asphalt and urban sprawl—cars are somehow emblematic, still sites of nostalgia, still symbols of independence and coming-of-age and possibility.
This is something today’s prompt contributor, the writer and my beloved pal Holly Huitt, distills in a gorgeous essay and prompt. I’m excited to share her words, and also to announce that she’s the newest addition to our Isolation Journals team, to help us—sorry, not sorry for the pun—keep things rolling right along.
Pedal to the metal,
P.S. Earlier this week, I published a post for paid subscribers: a confession and some thoughts on the trap of the all-or-nothing thinking that often infiltrates my creative practice. I also included a recommitment pledge—a powerful exercise I turn to when I’ve lapsed on a goal. You can find it here.
P.P.S. During our last meeting of the Hatch, our monthly virtual gathering, we had a Zoom snafu, where despite having our account set up for large meetings, they capped us at 100. Even I was locked out! We’re very sorry for the inconvenience, and we’re working with Zoom to ensure it doesn’t happen again. The good news is that Carmen’s reflection on going with the flow and her prompt inspired by Virginia Woolf’s The Waves was recorded. Watch it here.
The Isolation Journals is my newsletter for people seeking to transform life's interruptions into creative grist. Both free and paid subscriptions are available. The best way to support my work is with a paid subscription, where you get added benefits like access to my advice column Dear Susu, an archive of interviews with amazing artists, behind-the-scenes tidbits from me, our virtual writing hour the Hatch, and other opportunities for creative community.
Prompt 193. Riding in Cars by Hollynn Huitt
The car was a 1976 Oldsmobile Delta. It was not pretty or sleek or cool. The air conditioning was broken, the radio didn’t work, and it inhaled gas. The paint job was a weather-dulled, blue-gray—the exact color I imagined a humpback whale would be, if I ever had the good fortune of seeing one up close. The car was almost impossibly wide, and the plush bench seats, which stretched uninterrupted the entire width of the interior, bounced beneath you comfortingly. To ride in it was to feel like you were in a heavy but buoyant boat, loose steering and all. My older brother and I were the Oldsmobile’s primary occupants, drifting to and from high school, where we were teased for driving an old jalopy. We didn’t care. We loved that car.
We had spent a lot of time in cars—in fact, when I think back, I automatically categorize my memories by whatever car we were driving at the time. My father was a mechanic, so, unlike my friends, whose families kept vehicles for years on end, our cars—the ‘80 Cadillac Eldorado with the bad transmission, the ‘95 Toyota Tacoma with the bent front axle—were never with us for longer than a few months.
All of our free time was spent either waiting in these cars—for my mother to finish grocery shopping, for my father to finish work—or riding in them. While waiting, the car was our playground or prison, depending on the day. We scrambled and climbed, we wrestled and listened to whatever came on the radio. We longed for snacks but didn’t get them; we laid down and napped. There were no phones, no CD players. There were books—thank god—but it seemed like they were always finishing right when I needed them most. While riding, there were arguments between my parents in the front seat, surreptitious hand-holding with middle-school boyfriends in the back, whole-car sing-a-longs to Pinball Wizard. It seemed like everything that mattered happened in cars.
My car today is a newer model, not particularly interesting: a reliable silver SUV with a black leather interior, big enough for kids and dogs and luggage. Yet often, when the day is stretching long before us, my young children and I climb into the parked car, and for an hour at least, they crawl over seats, lock and unlock doors, and surf static-softened radio stations. When it’s time to go somewhere, I strap them in, and we take off. We notice bald eagles and cement mixers, school buses and storm clouds. Maybe they are too young yet to remember, but I won’t forget how they look, safe in their car seats, eyes turned to the window, taking it all in.
Your prompt for the week:
Think of a car from your past, and a memory associated with it. Describe the car, not as an object, but as a setting: the smells, the sounds, the water bottles rolling around on the floor. Write about what happened there—while waiting or while hurtling along.
Hollynn Huitt is a writer and professor who lives in an old farmhouse in central New York with her family and many animals. She holds a BFA in Writing from the Savannah College of Art and Design and an MFA in Fiction from Bennington College. She has stories published and forthcoming in Stone Canoe, Hobart, PANK, and X-R-A-Y.
Featured Community Member of the Week
Alexa Wilding is a Hudson, NY-based writer, singer-songwriter and mama to eight-year-old twin boys, West and Lou. After Lou was diagnosed with brain cancer at age one, her music career came to a halt, and she began writing, earning an MFA and starting a memoir. She and Lou were early contributors to the Isolation Journals—of an all-time favorite prompt, “Inside Seeing.”
In a particularly wild twist of fate, Alexa was diagnosed with early breast cancer last December, and she chose haikus for her 100-day project as a way to reconnect with parts of herself the cancer had eclipsed. “You can’t hide in a haiku,” Alexa says. “Like a good song, the melody sticks and you find out where you’re hurting. P.S. Lou and I are both doing well.”
Learn more about the 100-day project.