Prompt 236. The Open Palm
Some thoughts & a prompt on creative intentions
As I’ve been preparing for our 30-day journaling challenge, I’ve been thinking about all the creative commitments I’ve made over the course of my life. I’ve gone through so many phases from the time I was a kid. When I was younger, it was a devotion to the double bass—to practicing for two full hours every day. Other times, I’d vow to start each morning reading for thirty minutes, or I’d buy a beautiful notebook with watercolor paper and tell myself I was going to spend an hour painting every day.
For my most recent writing residency, I went in hard hitting, planning a rigorous, boot camp-like schedule. I planned to start the morning by reading or researching for two hours, then to write for one hour. Break for lunch and a walk, then paint for three hours. After that a nap, then dinner, then early to bed, and start again.
Of course, it didn’t pan out that way. I had phone calls to field, my own procrastination to contend with, stark reminders of my physical limitations (i.e. afternoons spent in bed, overwhelmed by fatigue), and chats with new, beloved fellow writer friends long into the evening. I didn’t end up writing a single useable sentence, but it was a truly amazing week. I’m actually so proud of everything I accomplished, which included making two paintings, reading two books (two more than I’ve read since my relapse!), and totally reinvigorating my creative practice. But what I find interesting is that these accomplishments weren’t an outcome of that rigorous schedule. In fact, my schedule discouraged me. The weight of my own expectations made me want to quit before I’d even begun, and when I lapsed, I started wondering if I would ever be able to write a book again.
Instead, what allowed me to accomplish those things was having a very clear intention going in. In this case, it was a very simple intention, one that didn’t actually require a militant approach: to begin painting and reading and researching, to get myself back into a creative mindset.
Since then, I’ve been doing what my beloved friend Elizabeth Gilbert talks about: following my curiosity. It’s a much gentler way into creativity, and a more honest way too. Recently I’ve gone to a play and visited a museum (both firsts since before the pandemic). I’m going on walks and listening to podcasts on subjects that interest me. I spent last weekend reorganizing my office, spreading out my paints, gathering a stack of books, and putting some index cards in a beautiful box so I can jot down compelling details, poetic phrases, and exciting ideas. I’m trying to lower the barrier to entry for everything, to allow for a free-flowing, joyous exploration of ideas and art and creativity.
And really, that’s the tone I want to maintain for my 30-day journaling project. More than output, I want to live in a curious, creative headspace. I want to be playful, to stay open to the unexpected. Rather than focusing on word count or what I need to fix or improve, I want to have fun.
With all this in mind, this week I revisited a ritual that I use to set creative intentions. Sometimes the hardest thing for us to do is to state what we want, because the second we do, we’re afraid it won’t happen, whether from our own limitations or external forces—but in my experience, it’s a crucial first step to realizing a dream. Maybe the process will end up looking very different from what you thought; maybe the path from your beginning to your destination will be a circuitous one, but there’s power in stating it. It becomes a little touchstone.
So whether you’re joining us for our 30-day journaling project or simply hoping to jumpstart another creative practice, today I’m inviting you to set a creative intention for this next season—to conjure it and hold it in an open palm.
The 30-Day Journaling Project!
I’m not one who thinks you need a reason to buy a new notebook—but we’ve got a good one! To celebrate the third anniversary of the Isolation Journals, and to mine the benefits of a daily creative practice, we’re kicking off a 30-day journaling project on April 1. Find more details and FAQs here!
Prompt 236. The Open Palm by Suleika Jaouad
Whenever I teach, whether it’s a semester-long creative writing class or a weekend workshop, I like to start with a simple ritual. We all open our notebooks, close our eyes, and trace our own hands. Inside the palm, we write a creative intention, along with encouraging words and practices that will call us back when we hit a wall. Outside the hand, we muse about where that creative intention might lead—not professionally or productively, but energetically.
I’m always surprised by this exercise. I’m surprised by how vulnerable I feel when I place my left hand on the page, close my eyes, and begin to trace. It doesn’t seem like it should be a big deal, but I feel a little out of control, and I have to resist the temptation to open my eyes and check to see if I’m tracing my hand in a way that is good or right. At the same time, it’s a little exciting, even thrilling—like I’m a kid again.
I’m also surprised by how I usually don’t struggle with the creative intention or the things that will invite me back. I often know what I’m longing for, whether it’s a more regular journaling practice or to up my painting game, as well as the things that will inspire me at low points, like writing in nature, reading beautiful prose, or putting together a playlist of my very favorite songs. But I do struggle with daydreaming. I struggle to imagine where a practice could take me without making it some pressurized thing—without thinking that by the end, I need to have achieved a masterpiece.
Just this week, in preparation for a new daily project, I found myself doing just that. I drew my hand, revisiting that childlike thrill, and inside I scribbled this intention: “I want to resume a daily writing practice.” I jotted down encouraging words (“Let the words fly fly fly!” and “Discovery, experimentation, and play”) and practices for when my energy starts to flag (“Write in outdoor cafés”).
All of this felt so good and light, so expansive and useful. And then I turned my attention to the third step—daydreaming about where this creative intention could lead, and I suddenly got serious: “Dive into a bigger project—book two.” Instantly, my whole body tensed up, and the excitement evaporated, and I realized that it didn’t line up with my intention. So I began shifting from outcome in the careerist, professional sense, to something more experiential: “pressure valve for hard days” and “liberation from perfectionism” and “experiment with new genres, like fiction and poetry.”
I sometimes find myself regarding this ritual skeptically, even though I came up with it, even though I’ve experienced its benefits! I find myself resisting, which I actually think is a defense mechanism, because I like to be in control, to be unimpeachable in a self-serious way. But I always feel better afterward. Rather than grasping for some illusion of control or muscling myself forward, I feel eager, energized, and free. In my open palm, I find new direction.
Your prompt for the week:
Close your eyes, and slowly trace the outline of your non-dominant hand on a blank page. Take your time. Pay attention to the physical sensations. The sound of pen on page. The feel of paper against palm, pen between fingers. Surrender any illusions of control. Any attempt at getting it “right” or “perfect.”
Write a creative intention inside your palm. Around it, begin writing things that will invite you back to your practice—encouraging words, activities that inspire you, different ways of approaching your intention, small steps to get you closer to your goal.
Outside the hand: Allow yourself to daydream about what lies ahead. Write about where your intention could bring you. What it could help you discover. Record any new revelations and realizations, dreams or ideas that you want to carry forward.
Reflect on what happened in your mind and in your body at each step of the process, and how that awareness can guide your creative path.
If you’d like, you can post your response in the comments section, in our Facebook group, or on Instagram by tagging @theisolationjournals.
For more paid subscriber benefits, see—
The 30-Day Journaling Project, where together as a community we’ll explore the art of journaling and all that it can contain
Hope as a Creative Force, where we read a passage from Flannery O’Connor’s A Prayer Journal and leaned into hope—in spite of our fear
On Accountability, a discussion thread from our last daily creativity project where we crowdsourced ideas and resources on making your practice stick
If you’re new here—hi, I’m Suleika!
I’m the author of the memoir Between Two Kingdoms, a New York Times bestseller, as well as the Emmy Award-winning column “Life, Interrupted,” which I wrote from my hospital bed when I was undergoing cancer treatment in my early 20s. I’m also a lifelong journaler, a practice that got me through my first bout with leukemia and is helping me navigate a second.
I founded the Isolation Journals in April of 2020, and it’s grown into a vibrant community of over 100,000 people from all over the world—all looking to transform life’s interruptions into creative grist. My dear friends Carmen Radley and Holly Huitt help steward this little corner of the internet, which is big-hearted and smart and just plain wonderful.
If you have questions, you can check out our FAQ—or write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Hi friends! One of the links to the 30-day journaling project seems to be broken. You can find all the info here: https://theisolationjournals.substack.com/p/everything-you-need-to-know
Here I am at 5 am again--loving it! I didn’t low myself to monitor. Free flowing, not judgy. Even if I want to perform on Broadway. Trying new things, scared, and I will never stop learning. Yearning to be funny and bring joy. Leaving a meaningful legacy. Feeling strange and excited. Allow myself to reach for the moon! Feeling spacious. Leaving a legacy of love, beauty and grace. Allowing myself just to say and write “ I want to be famous@. That’s really scared for me to share. I’ve never allowed myself to say it or feel it. Allowing my intuition and wisdom to lead me where I need to go. If there’s pressure on me I just stop until more space is opened. To love when I’m naturally funny and people laugh. To use my social activism in storytelling and have it meaningful. Not to give up! If I need rest to take it. Learning to love unconditionally. My hands, body and mind are a gift to create. To always dance whether people are watching or not. It feels like I’m at the beginning of another journey into the unknown. Love of myself and my fellow travelers is more important than its ever been. Honoring my ancestors--letting them no that their always remembered. Receiving the gifts of being in this community. Knowing every day is my first day not my last. What a life!