An Interview with Karen Beatty
by Rebecca O’Bern, Mud Season Review Creative Nonfiction Reader
“Applied psychology can help us find the courage to be introspective—to authentically know ourselves and others. Being willing to examine and let flow who you are—that is definitely part of the creative process.”
Your creative nonfiction piece, “Snake Bits,” appears in our latest issue. We found the narrative to be descriptive and well written, and we were glad to publish it. Where did this piece originate from? Do you often write travel narratives?
“Snake Bits” started percolating in my head after I had the dream about the serpent. I was reminding myself that real snakes aren’t always dangerous, and that snakes can have a variety of symbolic meanings. Then I realized that I had encountered snakes in most of the places I had lived, even in New York City. I started jotting down the encounters in each environment: Kentucky, New Jersey, Thailand, Malaysia, and Japan. I even eliminated some insignificant sightings of snakes in caves in China and other places. I also did a little ophidian research to be sure my descriptions were accurate. The story starts out with a dream and ends with a projection. The last thing I did was to imagine a title. I made a little word play on the phrase “snake bites,” and came up with “Snake Bits” to inject some levity into what can be a discomfiting topic. During that time I was focused on my counseling and activism work, so I sat with “Snake Bits” for a few years before submitting it, occasionally doing some editing. This is a very personal story that encompasses a timeline of my life. Besides, in most instances I felt sorry for the snakes in the stories, and I thought about writing a disclaimer saying, “These stories are true, but this is not how animals should be treated.”
Every writer has a writing process, even if an exact strategy remains unseen. Some writers plan ahead, while others fill blank pages in one sitting. Please share your writing process, and specifically, how “Snake Bits” came into being.
Growing up in a working class family of nine in a dicey environment, I found that listening and observing skills were essential to survival. I don’t think about what to write. I just scribble down ideas and images that are already in my head, and since childhood I have liked to make up titles for imaginary books or stories. I used to have slips of paper all over the place, but now I also take notes on my computer or even on my phone.
When I accumulate enough ideas or a viable theme emerges, I start the sorting and organizing. I don’t even try to publish most of the stuff I write; I send it to friends or let it be used for the Greater Good in some way. Writing just comes through me, even when most of my time and energy is focused elsewhere.
“Snake Bits” came together when I realized I could synthesize the notes into a narrative that reflects a lot of my life experiences. Essentially, I am writing—and editing–all the time. Sometimes I weave the ideas, notions or experiences into a story or an essay. Writing is the part that flows naturally for me; marketing is the draining and burdensome work.
As someone who was in Berkeley, CA at the height of the anti-war movement during the late sixties, and having joined the Peace Corps, you’ve led an interesting and important life. I’m curious how these experiences have shaped you over the years and how this perspective has informed your creative endeavors?
I am a lifelong peace activist. “Act” is the operative part of that word. Since my late teens I have been in the streets standing up for civil and human rights, marching for peace, allying with the LGBTQ+ community, and documenting injustices. Confronting oppositional values requires direct and clear communication, and developing creative, impactful messaging.
In addition to your anti-war efforts, you have a background in psychology and have worked with women’s groups and veterans. Thank you for your dedication to such important causes. From your vantage point, what aspects of psychology would you say integrate and mesh with creative nonfiction? What can psychology teach us as writers?
I recently found an old grammar school article I wrote that was poking fun at people building fall-out shelters and at teachers making us kids hide under our desks to escape the A-bomb. I developed a sense of irony at an early age, finding fascination in things at once beautiful and threatening. I am trained as a trauma-informed psychotherapist, so I have developed a great deal of compassion and understanding of how we manage our life stories. Applied psychology can help us find the courage to be introspective–to authentically know ourselves and others. Being willing to examine and let flow who you are—that is definitely part of the creative process.
Having been published in a variety of journals, what publication are you most proud of for showcasing your work (aside from Mud Season Review), and what makes that accomplishment so noteworthy for your career as a writer?
Of course I am proud and honored to be part of a quality journal like Mud Season Review. I’m a late bloomer to publishing, but not to writing. In 2001 I had been writing about witnessing the fall of the Trade Center buildings, its aftermath, and my work in trauma. Yet, I did not try to publish that material. Instead, in 2004, I first submitted a story about the challenges of my youth and how I was soothed as a child by practically living “Down the Brook.“ The story was immediately accepted by Snowy Egret, a beautifully illustrated and well-regarded nature journal. That was the validation I needed to continue submitting. I had plenty of material; I just needed to get it out.
Some of the best writing advice I’ve ever received is to not try to write the story about a topic, just a story. What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received, or what advice would you like to share?
First, just jot your thoughts and images down, then organize, synthesize and eliminate. After that, you can add relevant introductory and concluding remarks. Finally, come up with a creative title. Titles are important! Then the next three important steps are edit, edit and edit.
Please tell us more about what’s next for you on the horizon. Any new or current projects? How or where can we learn more?
I actually have three more stories and essays that have been accepted for publication in the next few weeks. What I have been most focused on in the past decade, however, is a novel. The pitch: young girl in an abusive environment escapes the bonds of poverty and religious bigotry: resilience, ambivalence of character, surviving abduction, predatory preachers, family secrets, and the sixties drug culture.
There are some obvious autobiographical elements, but it is definitely a novel. The events and characters are true, but not real. I have confidence about publishing my short stories and essays, but have not been able to secure an agent or publisher for my novel. I keep getting those frustrating responses that read something like, “We really like this but it does not quite fit what we are looking for.”
I’m not giving up on it, but I may have to retool it—again. Meanwhile, I recently told my acting-talented daughter, “From now on if someone asks what your Mama does, do not say, “Psychotherapist” or “Professor;” say, “Writer.”
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