Zen, and the Art of Poetics

“Writers are not just people who sit down and write. They hazard themselves. Every time you compose a book, your composition of yourself is at stake.” ~ E.L. Doctorow

In the bottom of my beach bag, I found a notebook full of poems I wrote last summer, along with a copy of Town and Country magazine from one year ago this month. Sometimes it doesn’t take much to undo me, or perhaps remind me is a better way to put it, of what I thought I was doing, or who I thought I would be by this time in my life. Sometimes it’ll be some other writer-woman ( who is in my peer group) that I see who obviously has it more together than I do, in every way. I’ll think, “What the hell am I even doing?” What I’m doing after that is reminding myself that I don’t live my life by comparison and it doesn’t matter what anyone else is doing. I have to correct myself to keep myself from letting my thoughts go down the road of “what might have been… if only…” I don’t finish that sentence because the rest of that sentence is “… I’d had my shit together/hadn’t still been falling apart when I started trying to be a professional big-time writer woman.” etc. There’s no point in that whatsoever. Really.Β  I will tell you, I shouldn’t have been trying to pursue a writing career at the time when I started to because I was still having some serious post-nervous breakdown issues, and at the same time, as always, the writing proved to be my salvation in that, if only because, it gave me something to do, to focus on. I also did a lot of praying, a lot. I’m pretty sure I still manage to say one prayer a day at some point, or just, “Thank, God.” So, there’s no point in dwelling on any of those things or concerning myself with what might have been if only. There’s something to be learned from everything, however, and always room for improvement. So when I see those, I think, better examples of adult women writers, in my age group, those whom are emotionally mature, who look to be getting things doneΒ in the way I thought I would be, it is inspiring, and that is helpful. ( Keeping in mind that being a writer is such a completely unique job, existence, way of being, that there are no other “examples” that are in any way helpful. It makes no difference to me if the woman who owns the bake shop is a prime example of womanhood with her life completely under control, she still isn’t a writer, I am, so none of it applies, unless I’m baking pies.) Of course then I have to remind myself, so I don’t start going over all my own faults with a fine-tooth comb… if I were more personable, charming, had more grace, whiter teeth, a better car, hadn’t been crazy, wasn’t getting so many damn wrinkles… that their lives likely aren’t perfect either, everyone has “problems” or something they’re dealing with or “things.” This is also part of the point, however, because they’re still getting it done, with style, with grace, with dignity, winning awards, earning the respect of their peers, living the dream. (It is also where I remind myself to let go of any momentary feelings of envy because if we knew what all any other person had dealt with in life, was dealing with in life, we’d never ever be jealous of one another, or anyone, ever, we’d all still choose to be who we are with the lives that we have…most of us.)

The other day I was trying to figure out what kind of story I’m in, what genre. As in, what kind of story is your life in. I could say for certain what kind of story I know I’m not in, I’m not in a noir story, it isn’t science fiction, not a western, and so on. The conclusion I arrived it is that I’m in some kind of romance/love story, fantasy, fairy tale, horror, myth legend, inspirational, etc. or any of the related sub-genres, all of which sort of falls into the category of something Gothic, something sort of 19th Century meets the modern world. That’s looking at what I know to be the complete story of my life up to this point, something with Gothic overtones. I say that because it’s been part nightmare at times, and part complete joy with times of wonderful calm and happiness, Gothic. I was all set to have an interesting discussion on the topic with my husband when he said, in usual Jess fashion, “I’m in a biography.” And that was quite a good laugh. But in his saying that, I realized I’d forgotten what it was that I thought my life would be like at this point, kind of the life you have, have really been having, versus the life you thought you would be having, and that brings me back to some of those examples of women writers that have ( look to have ) it together in the ways I thought I would. I thought I’d have nailed a six-figure book deal, or two, have one or two real friends, the most awesome relationship ever, etc., I’d be glamorous in an understated way, well-respected, just a completely fabulous life without any real problems. Keeping in mind that this fantasy of my life as a writer was likely first conceptualized when I was somewhere between the ages of seventeen and twenty. Suffice it to say, I’ve learned a few things about reality in the three decades since then. (Update, 1/2020, I think the story I’m in is considerably more modern than originally understood, though modern for what century may be the question…)

None of this is to be taken as any kind of complaint. I’m pretty happy with where my life is at right now. I really enjoy my sanity. I had to fight to get it back to this. I’m grateful, incredibly thankful, for every good thing, for every good moment. What I’ve realized, however, is that it’s likely none that of us are living the life we thought we would be living, but not only that, none of us are likely living the lives we think we are. I thought I was going to live this glamorous life as a writer, I’d wear beautiful silk shirts with coordinating slacks, high heels, silk pajamas and lounge wear, drive a Mercedes or a mid-80’s Jaguar, and this was going to happen based upon the fact that I’m so talented, amazing imagination, and phenomenally prolific, it couldn’t not happen. ( I guess I thought I was going to be Danielle Steel, from the sound of that. Who knows.) At no time did I consider the realities of my own story. (Danielle Steel is from a wealthy family and grew up in Europe.) I used to imagine myself wearing plaid skirts, tall boots, and a turtle neck under a tweed jacket with elbow patches, walking across some Ivy League campus in New England in the fall, as well. Despite my “humble beginnings” it would “just happen.” You can be whoever you want to be. You can live whatever life you want to live. I wear dress pants more often than jeans these days, around the house. I’ve many style/fashion intentions and plans. (Really, the idea was to be able to live decently and create art, to be able to write. Because I was, I am, going to write anyway.)

Sometimes it’s my own work that reminds me, found in the bottom of a bag, in a notebook I was carrying around so as not to be carrying around my actual notebook, that reaches up and hits the reset button. Reminds me of who I thought I wanted to be, what I thought I was doing or going to be doing. Sometimes, it’s something that makes me painfully, if only momentarily, aware again of my own foolishness.

In my beach bag, I found these poems I wrote last summer. Some of them are pretty good, I think.


ZenΒ  written on 5/21/17

I am reading Sandburg by the pool
and longing for Joan Didion’s ease and access
to vocabulary.
I think I remember
what an aardwolf is
and contemplate the word
and a world that neglected me
and a society that doesn’t seem to know
its own behind
from a hole in the ground.
But, I remind myself
I was out of my mind for a while
So I cannot blame it. (the world)
People think crazy is contagious,
like a list of symptoms
and side effects
at the end of a commercial,
for what cures you,
can kill you.
Roll the bones.
Worry about Skylab (it fell. hit no one.)
Worry about Skynet.
Learn to love the bomb,
and don’t worry.
You could be a championship motorcyclist,
and get hit by a car while riding your bicycle.(*)
You could eat salad every day
and still gain weight
because you’ve got to think
think thin
Admit your vanity still matters
and make it matter more than
your gluttony.
It’s your hormones.
if your hormones are off-key
out of tune
in December
you may need more bikini
in June.
They make a pill for that too.
How to remedy humanity
in daily doses,
just don’t take too many, or
These days
I prefer my chemicals be only diet Pepsi. Usually.
I’m reading Sandburg by the pool,
and Raymond Carver,
and Town and Country magazine, and
“How to Take A Bullet”
and “Streaming”.
I’m writing poems
for a new generation
to remember.
Keep your personality lean,
and the bullshit
to a minimum.
Turn the music up,
and the noise down,
so you can hear the sound
of your own being.
Forgive them.
Forgive myself.
They don’t know what it’s like,
to have to learn how to exist again.

Teri Skultety


*reference specifically to championship racer Nicky Hayden who was hit by a car while on his bicycle on 5/17/17, he passed away on 5/22/17