Discover more from The Isolation Journals with Suleika Jaouad
Prompt 232. The Value of Venting
& the novelist Molly Prentiss on exorcizing gloom
Despite all my trepidation about the metaphorical ceiling caving in, I made it to my writing residency on the banks of Cayuga Lake in upstate New York without a hitch. I’ve spent the last week reading and writing and painting, taking periodic breaks to walk River along the dock, and that’s been magical. While she noses around on the shore for crab legs, I follow the example of my maman, gathering stray feathers and driftwood and pretty stones, bringing them back to my room, arranging them on the windowsills. I’ve been enjoying lovely dinners followed by glorious late-night conversations with the nine other fellows—all extraordinary writers and even more so extraordinary humans.
Yet early in the week, I found myself yanked from this idyllic setting and thrust into a full-blown anxiety spiral. It started with the wait for my most recent bone marrow biopsy results, which after some delay finally arrived on Tuesday. Fortunately, the preliminary results bore good news: no signs of leukemia and marrow that’s still 100 percent donor.
I felt peace and relief and immense gratitude; I know how fortunate I am to be getting such good news. And yet my relief and gratitude were tinged by a second update from my medical team, which is that next week, I’m scheduled to have my first donor lymphocyte infusion. (Periodic infusions of my brother’s donor cells combined with maintenance chemo are my best chance of keeping the leukemia at bay.) Immediately I began the ill-advised but irresistible foray into the dark corners of medical Reddit, where I learned that a common side effect of donor lymphocyte infusions is graft-versus-host-disease—the very same complication of transplant that immobilized me for much of the last year.
I could instantly feel myself leaving my body, hurtling back to a dark room with curtains drawn, under a mound of heating pads, unable to get out of bed. Just when I’m off steroids, I thought. Just when I’m no longer vomiting and in pain every day. Just when I’m starting to live again.
My therapist says anxiety is fear of a future unknown and the belief that you won’t be able to handle it if it comes to pass. But I didn’t want to live in that future, to allow my racing thoughts to hijack the present. So I pulled out my journal, and I began to write through it, until I found myself on the other side of that fear. I vented and vented until I bled off the pressure, until I could gently remind myself: “Be here now. You can make something useful out of this. It can all be fodder, all creative grist.”
That’s what I always end up coming back to—that I can make something useful, even beautiful, out of any circumstance. While waiting for my biopsy results, suspended in that familiar state of “scanxiety” that anyone who’s been sick knows all too well, I spread out my watercolors on the table in my room, picked up a brush, and began to paint for the first time in a very long time. And with each brushstroke, my shoulders relaxed, and my breath returned to me.
Writing and painting do not erase my fears. They don’t disappear completely. But translating them into words and watercolors allows me to explore them and to have volition over them, even a sense of wonder at what emerges. I become the handler of my fears, not the handled. This is what I told a dear friend later that morning. A loved one of hers is sick, and they were waiting for test results, and we commiserated over how torturous the waiting is. “I hope you get a chance to write some morning pages, or maybe even paint,” I said. “It doesn’t take away the terror, but it changes its shape.”
It’s with all this in mind that I’m absolutely elated to share today’s gorgeous essay and prompt with you: “What Else?” by the novelist Molly Prentiss. Immediately upon reading it, I thought, I’ll be coming back to this one again and again—to exorcize, to find catharsis, to continue living.
Sending love from the suspended place,
P.S. If you find yourself eager for more backstory on the half-fish/half-woman and heron painting, I wrote about it in a good old-fashioned Instagram caption.
Some Items of Note—
I recorded this creative heart-to heart with my beloved Jon Batiste the other week—and I’m still aglow from the love and insights and general kindness from the community. If you haven’t listened yet, I’d love to hear what you think when you do!
We’ve scheduled our next meeting of the Hatch, our virtual creative hour for paid subscribers. It’ll be Sunday, March 19, from 1-2pm ET (click to add it to your calendar). For anyone looking for a pattern, that’s the third Sunday of the month! It’s our default, barring holidays or other unforeseen interferences.
Prompt 232. What Else? by Molly Prentiss
It was the first really cold day of the year. We’d had a warm November, and I had relished it, dreading the arrival of this day, which meant many days like it: too cold for long walks and outside playdates for my energetic four-year-old; too cold for all the things that make the Hudson Valley wonderful: farms, trails, hillsides, orchards, lakes, and rivers. I’m not sure if it was the cold or the morning sickness—I’d recently found out I was pregnant again—but I felt a sadness creeping in.
I managed school drop-off and responded to all pressing emails, but by 11 am, the melancholy had overtaken me to the point of exhaustion. I had planned a walk but feared the chill, so decided against it. Instead, I drove home, lay on the couch, looked up at the sorrowful clouds passing over the skylight, and promptly fell asleep.
The nap should have revived me but instead it made things worse. I woke up drooling and sour-mouthed, angry for no reason I could articulate. I stood up and stomped around the room, taking my mood out on the old floorboards. I’d slept so long and hard that it was already time to pick up my daughter.
On the gray drive, I called my mom, masquerading it as a check-in. But my mom knows me too well. “You’re upset,” she said. And I was. And I cried. It was the cold, I blubbered. The impending winter, the gloominess, the isolation and time cooped up. I couldn’t do it all over again.
“What else?” she asked.
The new baby, I said. How were we going to have another when we could barely manage one? When neither my partner nor I could work full time anymore and never seem to make enough money?
Me, I said—my impractical decisions. How had I ended up here, driving this lonely East Coast highway, when everyone I loved was across the country? Why couldn’t I be more like my sister, have my shit figured out?
“You can’t be her because you’re you,” my mom said. I cried a bit more and she let me. Before hanging up, she told me I’d feel better in the morning.
Only moments later, my daughter climbed into the car and burst into tears. The teachers hadn’t let her pick an activity, Fiona didn’t want to play with her, her pants had a hole. I wanted to sob along with her, but I knew that in that moment, I was the mother on the other end of the line. I tugged my own feelings toward me, as if I were wearing some kind of emotional corset; suddenly I was held tight by my own ability to feel. I could give her this, I thought. I could offer her my strength, but only because I could also offer her my vulnerability.
I nodded and told my daughter that yes, it was a bummer of a day—I’d had one too. Things will be better in the morning, I said. But until then she could feel free to complain to me, to cry, to melt. My daughter took a few ragged breaths, and her crying fizzled. I reached back, and she grabbed my hand, held it all the way home.
That night, the cold sky broke open and it snowed. The next morning, the world was white and quiet, sparkling from certain angles. I felt rested and good. When my daughter woke up, she bounded out of her room and leapt up to hug me. “It’s a nice day!” she cried.
I smiled. It was.
It is. We step out into the snow together and spin around.
Your prompt for the week:
Indulge in your own “What else?” Start with a grievance, a frustration, or a fear. Ask yourself “What else?” after each sentence for as long as it takes to feel a little catharsis.
Molly Prentiss is the author of Old Flame (2023) and Tuesday Nights in 1980 (2016), which was longlisted for the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize and the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction, and shortlisted for the Grand Prix de Littérature Américaine in France. Her writing has been translated into multiple languages. She lives in Red Hook, New York, with her husband and daughter. Find her at molly-prentiss.com, follow her on Instagram @mollyprentiss, and preorder a signed copy of her forthcoming novel, Old Flame.
For more paid subscriber benefits, see—
Read Me, See Me, Like Me, the very first installment of Dear Susu, where I answer the question, “Why do I continue to write if my words are going to sit unused and lonely?”
On Finding Your Voice, a video replay of our Studio Visit with Ashley C. Ford, where we discussed taking risks, dreaming big, and the most important question you can ask yourself when you’re at a crossroads
Seeking Patterns & Searching for the Why, a reflection by Carmen Radley and a community discussion on what a regular creative practice can reveal
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.