Beat – Review by Marc Schuster


BeatA few months back, author Steve Almond did a piece on NPR’s Here and Now on the emerging branch of memoir dedicated to bad parenting. Among the works he discussed were Ayelet Waldman’s Bad Mother and Diana Joseph’s I’m Sorry You Feel That Way. As you might guess, what all of these works have in common is a sense of sympathy toward mothers who act in a way that may, at times, seem selfish and which reveals a certain degree of ambivalence toward motherhood. One of the points Almond made in his piece was that these books are emerging at a time when many mothers have grown tired of reading about their perfect counterparts–women who can do it all for the sake of their children and who never have any regrets, second thoughts, or curiosity about what might have been if they never had children.

This genre represents somewhat of a risk in that it calls into question one of the great myths of our (and almost any) time: the idea that mothers are selfless individuals who only act with their children’s best interests at heart. Yet while “confessing” to bad mothering in the form of a memoir may be risky, conjuring such mothers for the sake of fiction may be more so. It’s one thing for the memoirist to admit to past “mistakes” or missteps (and, in so doing, perhaps tacitly beg the reader’s forgiveness), but it’s entirely another thing for an author to knowingly invent a character who egregiously violates some of our most deep-seated social taboos. (The problem, I think, is that some readers tend to mistake description for prescription, storytelling for advocacy.) Case in point, Amy Boaz’s Beat.

In Beat, Boaz presents the story of Frances, a wife and mother who has absconded to Paris with her young daughter, Cathy. Frances, it turns out, is tired of the safe, boring life she’s been leading with her husband and wishes, instead, to shack up with a poet of some small renown. Wandering the streets of Paris, Frances continually plots a reunion with said poet while alternating between wishing her daughter would stop complaining and wondering what it would be like to be a completely free woman.

In one deliciously devious passage, the narrator reports, “We pass under a Roman archway with three thick columns. I enter first; on a sudden, inexplicable impulse, a wicked, vengeful whim, I slip behind one of the columns to hide myself… She shoots frantic glances left and right. How long do I remain hidden? My eyes are glued to her rigid form. Some seconds, not many, but enough to scare her, enough to scare me.” The thing that gets me about this passage is that Frances comes through as so utterly conflicted–and thus so utterly human. On one hand, she toys with the idea of losing her daughter in a crowd, of scaring her daughter into realizing that Frances is her only lifeline, but on the other hand, she reels at the prospect of losing her daughter. This tension builds throughout the novel, and even as we shake our heads at all of the narrator’s misguided thinking (not to mention her ongoing romanticization of her relationship with the poet), we also can’t help rooting her on–or, at the very least, turning the page to see what sticky situation she gets herself into next.

All told, Beat presents a fascinating investigation of motherhood in the context of a botched extramarital affair. Boaz brings the streets of Paris to life as deftly as she conjures her flawed characters, and her humane investigation of the misguided obsessions that drive us all to some degree or another make this a brave, heartfelt, intelligent novel. Highly recommended for anyone who’s ever felt torn between doing the right thing and doing what feels good. Which is to say, recommended for everyone.

(And if you want more “bad parenting,” check out The Singular Exploits of Wonder Mom and Party Girl!)

Michelle Wittle On the First Rule in Writing

Michelle Wittle On, Writing Tips

Everything that you love in your story, throw it out. If you love this one character…get rid of that character. If you love the setting…change it.

I know you are thinking ”what”? Here me out on this theory of story destruction.

I have this novel sitting in my computer for the past three years. I tried a few times to get it published, but it was always denied. I just thought it was because I was sending it to the wrong places. However, I now think it was because I wrote the wrong book.

I have so many things in the book that I love. I also let others read it and they loved what was written as well. Therefore I got lazy and just thought my novel was more then good enough because these two people loved what they read.

But my novel isn’t the best it can be and I know that now. All the things I love in the book blind me and I can’t make the book any better because I don’t want to let all those things go.

I have to let those things go. The book isn’t as powerful as it needs to be and that is horrible. My main character is a shadow of who she needs to be because I am so in love with the other characters I have in the book. She should be my main focus and yet I am letting her suffer. Also, the message in the book is the same message in all books just like it. My book is bringing nothing new. It has no new spin.

So, now I am at a serious cross roads. Do I throw out all that I have written and start over or do I try to fix all the “broken pieces”?

In creating that book, I lost what my main focus was in writing the book. I let all those things I love dilute my purpose.

I am going to take the basic things from my book and rewrite it. The things I love will not be present in this new edition. I will keep my focus of my novel.

In my book I made a lot of rookie errors. However, I think the biggest one I made was allowing the things I love take front stage to my real purpose.

When you love something in your writing, take it out. You may be able to put them back in later…but right now…in its early stages…you have to just let it go.

What is that saying if you love something, set it free? If it comes back to you, it was meant to be.

The same thing goes for your writing.

Michelle Wittle On Hating Being a Writer

Michelle Wittle On, Writing Tips

I hate being a writer. I know I am not the first person to admit to this, but I think I should explain where this hate comes from.

I have already explained that writing is like a bloodbath. One minute, I am just sitting there looking at a blank word document. The next minute that I can say I am conscious of, there are two hundred pages in a document written. There are about twenty-fours empty cans of coke Zero scattered at my feet. Yoda has that smug look on his face. On my left are about a dozen or so wrappers of various things I must have consumed, yet I have no recollection of eating them or even buying them. Did I leave the house? I can’t say that I know for sure. It is three days later and I haven’t showered. My cat is even put off by me.

Does this sound like fun? Is this something anyone in his or her right mind would want to sign up for? I know that all writers aren’t like this. Some writers hold down jobs and commit only a few hours a day to their latest creative endeavors.

I am not like that.

I wish I could be someone who goes to work and when I come home, my job is just waiting back at the office. I want to clock in and out. I want to have a time sheet and only work a certain amount of hours a week.

But writing for me isn’t like that. I get woken up at 2am (it is always 2am and I have a theory on why…but not for this blog) and I can’t go back to sleep. My characters are dancing around telling me what comes next. Sometimes I don’t even get to sleep at all.

This isn’t fun or pretty. I hate being a writer because sometimes I can’t get it to stop. I can’t turn off my mind. I am not sitting at my beachfront house, looking at my computer and writing my “little stories” as the tide ebbs and flows.

I hate being a writer because sometimes I don’t want to write. How long has it been since I have updated this blog on a regular basis? So, because of all of that procrastination, I get to suffer the wrath of my creative self. I don’t get to sleep anymore. My stories have piled up and like that full cup of water, they are all running out.

I hate being a writer because I have no choice. Everyone else gets to choose his or her career, yet why can’t I? No, I can’t go out and play today because I have to sit down and write. If I don’t write, I will just have to pay for it later.

I hate being a writer because no one but another writer can fully understand what this is like. There is no glamour in this job. It isn’t all book signing and wine parties. We writers don’t all sit around discussing latest trends in the book business. Most of our time is spent with our characters and if we are lucky maybe a pet. The time we spend with people verses the time we spend writing is never equal. It is lonely being a writer.

That’s why I hate being a writer.

Michelle Wittle On a Writer’s Portfolio

Michelle Wittle On, Writing Tips

I remember as a little girl, I would watch my dad run to the mailbox. I just assumed he was waiting for a check because why else would a grown man run to the mailbox every day? He would come back into the house, ripping open another envelope and his face would be filled with anticipation. With shaking hands, he would drag the letter out of its holder and then his face would just drop. His head would even fall a bit onto his chest. Becoming aware of his little girl looking up at him, he would shake off whatever news he read in that letter. Looking down at me, he would tap me on the head and say, “not this time.”

I would run off and play with my Barbie dolls (there was always some kind of big drama going on in my land of Barbie and this time one of my Barbie’s got into a car accident and she died. However, she was still haunting Ken because Ken couldn’t get over her death. Even though Ken already had a new girlfriend, he still loved the dead Barbie and she wanted him to move on. This explains a lot…doesn’t it?) and my dad would take this red scrapbook out and begin gluing the recent letter in the book. As it was drying, he would continue to stare at it and shake his head.

Years after my father’s death, I found that red scrapbook. I had to look in it! Sure, I felt like I was reaching into my dad’s diary and at any moment he would turn the corner and whack me in the head, but the curiosity was too strong. I needed to read what was so important in those letters that my father had to not only keep them, but also put them in a scrapbook.

“Dear L.L. Wittle:

Thank you for you recent submission to “We Aren’t Publishing You” magazine.  Although your story was very well written and your characters were brilliantly crafted, at this time we cannot publish your work.

Best of luck to you in your future writings.


Mr. Mean Editor”

It went on like that for pages. On each page were at least four cut up letters resembling the one I crafted above. Oh and p.s., that magazine…I just made that up.

On one hand I understand the need to want to keep these rejection letters around. It can help you want to fight harder for a spot in some publication. When you get that acceptance letter, maybe you want to copy it and send it to all of the people who rejected you. Even in the movie, “Running With Scissors” Augusten Burroughs’ mom was cutting up all her rejection letters to put them in a collage on her writing table.

At one time, I would have suggested that writers should hold on to these rejection letters. But now, I think you should make a spreadsheet on excel. Import all the places you sent your story to and when the rejection letter comes, just mark a little “n” in the column for “published” and then shred that letter. There is no need to carry those letters with us and I really think they do us no good.

If you keep holding on to these rejection letters, you are going to start believing no one will ever publish you. This will then stop you from sending your work out. Now really, how does THAT help you become a published author?

When I was in creative writing class in high school, we had this picture we had to respond to in some way. The quote under the picture was, “one person’s trash is another person’s treasure.” I am in no way saying what you have written is trash. I am saying that just because one magazine didn’t like it, doesn’t mean all magazines will hate it as well.

Instead of making a rejection letter portfolio like my father did, I highly suggest you make a published portfolio. So what if you only have on thing in it? At least you have one thing in it. Holding onto all that negative energy…those negative and cold rejection letters will only hurt you and you might even start to believe them. On the other hand, if you have a place to put all your published work this will only encourage you to send more of your work out. You will want to fill up that book.

At the end of the day, positive reinforcement is more powerful then negative. I know at times it doesn’t seem that way, but train your mind to see it that way. Then watch your writing portfolio fill up.