On Letting Go of Perfection

Author of the prize-winning essay "You Don't Have to Be Here" for the Risk issue

Anne P. Beatty is a writer, high school English teacher, traveler, and mother of 3 who has lived in Belfast, Nepal, Los Angeles, and Guatemala, among other places. Her essays map the terrain of education, travel, and motherhood. They have appeared in the Atlantic, Vela, the American Scholar, Catapult, North American Review, and elsewhere.

Beatty’s prize-winning essay appears in Creative Nonfiction #68, Risk. “You Don’t Have to be Here” attempts to bridge the gap between a period she spent in Nepal, over fifteen years ago, and her current life as an American mother. She looks back on her life with self-deprecation: “Knowing almost nothing about Nepal except what information the Peace Corps had provided in a slim folder, I did not pack well. My governing principle was to not be a stereotypical Peace Corps volunteer, whom I pictured as an earnest do-gooder with hairy armpits and worn Birkenstocks, or worse, Tevas.”

View Beatty’s website for more information about her work.

CNF: “You Don’t Have to Be Here” is wide-ranging, from year 2002 to year 2015, and from Nepal to America. It’s also a reflection on risk and culture. Is this the story you envisioned when you first started writing?

Beatty: Not at all. I began this piece grappling with my complicated feelings about the 2015 earthquake. I felt so sad, but also discomfited by or even ashamed of my sadness, as if I weren’t entitled to it. My experience in Nepal was buried in the past, yet still vivid and very much alive in me. My years there were formative. For a long time, having lived in Nepal felt central to my identity.

The earthquake made me realize that fact was becoming less and less true as my life spiraled farther away from those years—a realization which produced another kind of sadness and loss. As I tried to sort through those feelings, I stumbled upon these ideas about distance and danger. That discovery process is typical for me. Only after many drafts do I unearth the story I want to tell.

CNF: There’s so much detail in your descriptions of life in Nepal. Did you write all of this from memory, or did you draw on photos or maybe even journals?

Beatty: I used lots of photos. I also brought home five journals and wrote many letters, which my mom and grandmother helpfully saved for me. I’m so thankful I was in Nepal just as email was beginning to take off and not five years later, because although I wrote some emails home (at internet cafes where the power was just as likely to be off as on), letters were more reliable and thus I wrote more of them. Fifteen years later, the letters have survived. The emails vanished. I also have two memory banks to draw on, as my husband was in the Peace Corps with me. Sometimes he helps me piece together what happened. Although, as I mention at one point in the essay, our memories often diverge and are generally less reliable than any of my other sources.

CNF: Were there elements of the story that surprised you as you were writing?

Beatty: Absolutely. If nothing has surprised me in a piece, I know it’s not done yet (Frost’s adage holds true: “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.”). In this essay, I think two things surprised me. One was how I kept discovering different ways in which Nepal helped me understand danger. The earthquake was my starting point, but then I thought about how being in Nepal at the time shaped my understanding of the 9-11 terrorist attacks. One of the things I love about writing—which is also maddening—is how everything begins to seem like relevant material when you are working on a piece. I can start to spin out a little (one draft of this essay had a long section about another tragedy that occurred while I was in Nepal, when the Crown Prince murdered the king and queen in June 2001; that section was ultimately pruned). I have to write a lot to find the hidden connections, and then cut a lot once the shape of the essay begins to emerge.

Another thing that surprised me was how much Nepal has informed how I move through the world even now, in ways that may not be immediately obvious. On the surface, I’m a pretty conventional American woman with a teaching job and three kids in a minivan. Yet living in Nepal forever altered the way I perform risk assessments in my own life, whether about my kids or my safety or my career. My vantage point shifted, and while it’s moved some over the years, it will never revert to what it was pre-Nepal. Teasing out all the ways that holds true in my current life was both a surprise and a joy while writing this essay.

CNF: How do you correct or supplement for fuzzy or fading memories for events that took place a long time ago?

Beatty: If my memory is fuzzy, I tend to admit that and explore it in my writing. Granted, that tactic could get a bit tedious for readers, so if something is fuzzy and not essential, I’ll let it go. Sometimes rereading my journals causes other memories to surface. I also write friends and ask what they remember, and between us we might come up with a line or image we agree on (or at the very least laugh a lot). Sometimes the memories are there and only need to be dredged up. Talking about a time or place with people who were there helps me immerse myself in those memories. New scraps emerge.

CNF: You write about a Nepali expression, Ke garne, that helped guide your experiences there. The expression means “what can you do?” How have you applied this to your own life and writing? 

Beatty: Not enough! As I’m sure my kids would attest. Slowly my type-A-ness has crept back in. But I think ke garne is in the back of my mind all my time, if only as a goal. Letting go of perfection, of the need to have everything fixed, is hugely freeing. It’s also easier said than done, both in writing and in life. In my life, remembering ke garne might induce me to sit on the porch at dusk instead of frantically load the dishwasher. It might help me let go of stupid grudges or regrets, especially about ultimately insignificant things like stained rugs or botched plans. In writing, I find my need to control where a piece is going—especially too early—can be disastrous. Ke garne is about admitting we’re not in control. It gives me permission to worry less, trust more.

CNF: There are several spots where you poke fun at yourself. For example, you write about your efforts not to be a stereotypical Peace Corps volunteer, “an earnest do-gooder with hairy armpits and worn Birkenstocks, or worse, Tevas.” But then you realize Tevas are practical, and ask your mom to send you some. Is this generally reflective of how you treat your younger self in writing?

Beatty: Yes, I think so. It’s so easy to be self-deprecating about my former self. I think this stance is my default, in part because I tend to take myself too seriously at any given present moment. Revisiting my former self and noticing all the ways in which I was ridiculous or self-righteous is a relief, like deciding that something everyone thought was cool in high school was actually idiotic. It’s also a trait I find endearing and reassuring in other writers, so that’s probably another reason I gravitate toward it. But I think there’s a risk in being overly self-deprecating. It’s so hard to create an honest depiction of what you were like in the past. I try to remember that no matter how silly some of my former ideas now seem, at the time they were very important to me. I don’t want to discount the things that now impress me about my former self, like how intrepid she was. She may have been braver than I am now.

CNF: You include some research and personal interview in this essay. There is a creative nonfiction spectrum with memoir/ personal essay on one end and literary journalism/narrative nonfiction on the other. Are you more drawn to one end of this spectrum than the other?

Beatty: I’d say I lean more toward the memoir/personal essay side of the spectrum. When I began writing, as a kid and then in college, I wrote fiction exclusively. I think of my letters home from Nepal as my first foray into writing nonfiction. I attribute my proclivity for personal essays to those beginnings. As I keep writing nonfiction, though, I am more interested in the possibilities that the tools of journalism offer. It’s nice to offset some of my personal musings with information about the larger context. Also, I’m generally more interested in research as I get older. There’s so much I don’t know. When writing, I often bump up against my own ignorance. Research and interviews can be an excellent way to jumpstart my writing if it’s flagging, or to tap a new line of thought I hadn’t considered.

CNF: Can you talk a little bit about the challenges of writing about another culture, if you found any?

Beatty: There are so many. The main challenge, of course, is my lack of knowledge. Writing about another culture is like seeing only a tiny corner of a photograph and trying to accurately represent the whole thing. I might know something happened, but I don’t necessarily know why or even how it happened. Or maybe something happened and when I asked Nepalis why, I got three different answers. Here is another place where research can be very useful. I also worry about exoticism and romanticizing a foreign culture, especially one like Nepal’s which is so prone to a kind of Shangri-La imagining among Westerners. I try to stick to the particulars of my own experience, but of course everything gets filtered through my own skewed lens.

CNF: You’ve also written an essay for What I Didn’t Know: True Stories of Becoming a Teacher, which has a similar outsider perspective. Both of these stories could run the risk of falling into a “white savior” stereotype. Is this something you worry about? And how do you avoid falling into this trap?

Beatty: I worry about the “white savior” narrative a lot. So much of my writing centers around my experiences in places like Nepal or South Central Los Angeles, where I was a white outsider with do-gooder notions that, however well-intentioned, can wreak all kinds of havoc. I think in some ways exploring that stereotype and naming it can be a way to maneuver around it. Also, self-interrogating honesty is necessary: a kind of clear-eyed reporting of what really happened in my interactions with people. It’s obvious from my writing, I hope, that I’ve never saved anyone. I was usually the one getting schooled. However, even that is a trope: the old I-once-was-blind-but-now-I-see white person narrative.

One problem with both these narratives is the way they position the white person’s humanity (and revelations, etc.) front and center, so I try to consider the viewpoints of other people, too—and how they might have seen me. At the same time, I’m conscious of not wanting to tell anyone else’s story, one I don’t have the authority to tell. So yes, it’s a tricky balance. I do a lot of ungraceful lunging off the tightrope. I think it’s worth worrying about, though. White people should be conscious of how often we—wrongly—put ourselves at the center of things.

CNF: How can an outsider perspective be beneficial and how can it be harmful?

Beatty: As an outsider, you gain new eyes. When you have no idea what’s going on, you are forced to pay closer attention (Where is this bus going? Why hasn’t the man taken my money yet? What is that thing squawking in the bag on the luggage rack above my head?). Noticing becomes easy. The problem with being an outsider, though, is discerning the significance of what you notice. You have limited access, whether because of the culture or the language. Sometimes people don’t tell you things; sometimes you don’t understand what they tell you. Or you understand their words but not the implications.

I think writers often function as outsiders, even in their own cultures. Standing outside the circle, taking notes, has distinct advantages. It may be harder to do in your own culture. As a foreigner, positioning yourself as an outsider is easy. Understanding what you’re seeing and your role in that place is much harder.

CNF: What other projects are you working on?

Beatty: I usually have half a dozen essays in various stages of sprawl, and that is true now. I write a lot about my experiences teaching in different contexts, so I’m working on a few essays about teaching. I have also grown interested in what it means to be an American parent in this age of consumption.

I have an essay about taking my underwhelmed kids to visit the landfill. And, inspired by my own kids, I started a children’s novel this year, also set in Nepal. Sometimes I feel a little panicky about having so many different projects, but I’m trying to embrace it as my normal state. You know, ke garne.

About the Author

Samantha Smith

Samantha Smith is an MFA candidate at Chatham University. She is managing editor of The Fourth River and has been interning with Creative Nonfiction since June 2018.

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