Woman with Purpose: Suleika Jaouad

Woman with Purpose: Suleika Jaouad

What do you do when your life suddenly turns dark? You turn it into a creative act. At the age of 22, confronted with a leukemia diagnosis, journalist and author Suleika Jaouad embraced the art of journaling. Her journey began with a daily journal that evolved into Life, Interrupted, an Emmy award-winning New York Times column, and later manifested as a best-selling memoir, Between Two Kingdoms.

Since then, Jaouad has become a fierce advocate for those living with illness — serving on Barack Obama's Presidential Cancer Panel and speaking on the main stage of TED, the United Nations, and on Capitol Hill. Recently, she and her husband, Grammy and Academy Award-winning composer, Jon Batiste, shared their hardest and happiest moments in an intimate portrait of the healing power of art in the Netflix documentary American Symphony.

In honor of International Women’s Day, we spoke with Akris Woman with Purpose, Suleika Jaouad, about honoring transition, Frida Kahlo as an inspiration, and turning the hospital into an artistic space.

You decided to publicly share your experience with cancer. A difficult decision without question. Why do you think it is important to show vulnerability?

When we dare to share our most vulnerable, unvarnished stories, we create a reverberation where the "I" quickly becomes a "you" and then a "we." We learn again and again that we're more alike than we are different and that nothing we struggle with is unknown.

What do you hope people will take away from your story?

When you're in a difficult place, you're confronted with a choice: You can stay mired in anger or pain or get curious about it. When I've been able to get curious, it’s led to my most profound periods of growth, both personally and creatively.

My hope is that through my work, someone who finds themselves in the midst of their own big life interruption and transition can reimagine that interruption as a necessary chrysalis. Even if you feel fragile and larval, trust that something sacred and transformational is happening in the cocoon. My hope is that my work can offer companionship and opportunities for reflection as we navigate that space between “no longer” and “not yet.”

Writing, journaling, and recently painting helped you through difficult times. What does the power of creativity mean to you?

Everyone will have their life interrupted at some point, whether it's by the ripcord of a diagnosis or some other kind of heartbreak or loss that brings you to the floor. That's just part of the human condition. When you're in that low down place, you can reimagine survival as a creative act; to alchemize and transform what’s plaguing you into something nourishing and useful, maybe even beautiful.

Creativity is a gift that we all have access to whether you think of yourself as “creative” or not. Everything we do requires creativity, whether it's resolving conflict with a loved one or just having a conversation. Creativity offers us the power to reimagine what's possible and to use our imagination to find workarounds. Ultimately, creativity empowers us to give back to ourselves and brings us together.

During the pandemic you started Isolation Journals, a creative writing community to bring people together. What does the Isolation Journals look like now?

The Isolation Journals is the weekly newsletter I write, and I call it a newsletter because that's the form it's delivered in, straight to your inbox, every Sunday. But it's so much more than that. It's a vibrant community of more than 155,000 people of all ages and backgrounds from around the world. Our mission is to explore how we can use creativity as a vehicle to convert isolation and life's interruptions into creative grist.

I've been a lifelong journaler, and I've kept a journal from the time I was old enough to hold a pen. What I love about journaling is that it's the least pressurized form of creative expression. It's not beautiful writing or even grammatical writing, but it's writing that's purely for yourself. You get to carve out the space and time to reflect, to sift through the swirl of thoughts in your mind and record memories. I often describe journaling as my hiding place and my finding place. It’s where all of my most important grounding work is done.

Each week, in the Sunday newsletter, I share my thoughts about everything from the creative practice to new ideas I’m grappling with. We also feature guest contributors' essays as journaling prompts. It's been amazing to bring in this wide range of voices, from our most beloved writers, musicians and artists, to community leaders like Lou Sullivan, a then six-year-old, two-time brain cancer survivor. I like to think of it as the kindest, most welcoming corner of the internet.

In your book, you mention that even though impermanence and uncertainty is a fact of life, we tend to be in denial about it. How has your relationship to impermanence and uncertainty changed? How has it changed your view on life?

To swim in that ocean of uncertainty is my constant work. It's our constant work, especially in recent years as our world has been upturned, and we've all had to grapple with big, seismic shifts, both globally and personally. At this particular moment in my life, I'm in a heightened state of uncertainty. After nearly a decade in remission, I learned two years ago that my leukemia had returned. This time around, the treatment will be indefinite. That word “indefinite” is the kind of thing that makes you want to crawl into bed, pull the covers over your head, and never reemerge. But I've had to surrender to that uncertainty and to keep moving forward in spite of it because I don't want to spend my life in bed under the covers.

The truth is that we can have the most beautifully, well-laid plans, but none of us know where our lives will take us. Rather than feeling filled with anxiety, I try to lean into the adventure and mystery of uncertainty because uncertainty has also brought forth great, unexpected joy.

We read about your to-feel list – which sounds promising. Can you explain what it is?

The "To-Feel List" was an essay and journaling prompt in The Isolation Journals that the illustrator Sky Banyes came up with. We live in a culture obsessed with hustle and productivity, and our sense of worth is so often measured by our output. Sometimes I feel like I’m on a high-speed hamster wheel, and there's really no end to that endurance race.

We know from seeing the mental health crisis unfolding right now, especially amongst young people and teenagers, how unhealthy that mindset is. Instead of drafting a to-do list, I love the idea of anchoring your goals for the day to a to-feel list, and thinking of that as the goal instead.

Today is International Women`s Day. What woman do you admire the most?

Frida Kahlo has been my biggest source of inspiration from the time I was a teenager with a unibrow to falling sick at 22, which is around the same time Frida suffered a terrible accident that left her bedridden and in pain for much of her life. She exemplifies the hardest thing that we're tasked to do, which is finding purpose in pain.

She started painting the self-portraits that would make her one of the most prolific artists of all time from her bed. Inspired by her, I began writing self-portraits from my hospital bed as I was trying to reimagine that space of confinement into a space incandescent with meaning and possibility. I look to her as a North Star when it comes to navigating my own health challenges, and especially when it comes to my creative practice.

At Akris we celebrate Women with Purpose. Why do you believe in purpose?

Finding your “purpose” can feel daunting for so many of us, especially for young people who are still finding their way and figuring out what they want to contribute to the world. I prefer to replace the word “purpose” with “curiosity.” That feels like a gentler, more organic way in. Whenever I've arrived at purposeful work or connections, it's the result of a softer approach: following the threads of wonder and intuition, without knowing where they will lead or worrying what they will amount to.

I'm also a big believer that we get to reimagine our purpose and reinvent ourselves along the way. Purpose isn't something static, it's something that is, and should be, constantly evolving.

Suleika Jaouad
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