Let’s Zaimokuza

When making up a story, there’s a useful, simple concept we learned in writing classes: your characters should want things. The character wants something, but he faces obstacles in order to get it. This is a good tool, especially for building narratives: interesting obstacles, battles, enemies. 

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Today I woke up and went to Kamakura, a city about an hour south of Tokyo. Kamakura was the warrior capital of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, and today it’s a popular day trip from the city. This wasn’t my first time to Kamakura. I’ve been going on the weekends, waking up early and taking the trains while they’re still almost empty. When I arrive, the cicadas are singing, but the full, heavy heat of the day hasn’t settled. There’s a breakfast place I like near the station where they do teishoku, set meals served on a tray. I always get the same thing: salted grillled mackerel, rice, pickles. The miso soup is made with a white miso and grilled Summer vegetables from the daily famers’ market next door: green bell peppers, tomatoes, soft onion. The pickles are made in rice bran, which gives them a funkiness I’m not sure I like, but it pairs well with everything else. The little side dish today was hijiki, a type of black seaweed, beans. The rice is always pink, studded with beans and bits of other grains. It’s a small breakfast place, but it has wonderfully big windows that let in the morning light on the wooden counter where solo diners like me sit. When I finish eating everything, I wash it all down with some hot herbal tea. 

 Another breakfast.  

Another breakfast.  

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This diner gets its donuts from Betsubara Donuts, a tiny one-room shop and kitchen tucked away in a residential neighborhood not far from the station. Betsubara makes the best donuts in Japan. They are big, with a delightful chew, and thoughtfully chosen glazes. They are not overly sweet donuts. The rum raisin donut is studded with fat, rum soaked raisins. The passion fruit donut glaze contained crunchy seeds that constructed with the sweet, chewy dough, and my recent love was an ume donut, topped with a sweet-sour plum glaze. They fry the donuts four at a time in two pots on the stove, then glaze them and place them in the glass case at the front of the “store.” Betsubara Donuts closes in August for a well-earned vacation, so I had to make one last visit this week to say farewell and order a batch to take with me. 

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The first time I went there, I bought a couple donuts and walked down to the beach of Zaimokuza. I pulled out the rum raisin donut, with the sea breeze blowing, and I took a single bite. It was a magical moment. The sun was hot, and I was grinning. The best donut, I found myself thinking, I must take a picture. 

As I turned the donut so that it caught the light just so with the ocean in the background, just as I was about to snap a picture of the rum raisin donut, a hawk swooped down and snatched it from my hand. In one bewildering second, the donut was gone.  

The hawk flew off with the donut in its little white bag held fast in its talons, but it soon got into an aerial battle with another hawk and some crows. I watched as my donut fell from the sky and bounced against the roof of a surf shack. Never to be seen again. 

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If you walk south from Betsubara, you’ll run into the coastal highway, but before you pass under the road to go to the beach, there’s a little coffee shop tucked away. It’s a writing spot. They put big chunks of cut ice in the drinks, which is especially pretty when the weather is hot like it is now. 

A man and woman set up an old, hand-cranked shaved ice machine in front of Milk Stand and Coffee. I ordered the plum and sweet milk shaved ice before heading inside to settle at a worn table to write.

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I had gone swimming and washed off. Walked in the sun to the coffee shop. I don’t think there are better conditions to eat shaved ice. 

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It was a simple, almost perfect day. 

One of the problems with the clear motivation driven model is that sometimes we do not know exactly what we want (or need). It’s hard. I feel like we are mostly just fumbling and wandering, trying to determine what we want and then how we can get it, if we can at all. But it’s harder to tell those kinds of stories. 

I didn’t know how much I needed that day by the ocean until I was sitting at that coffee shop table, shaved ice in hand. 

Let’s Yokohama

I am mildly horrified.  

When was the last post posted? Too long.

I know they’re terrible, but I secretly love the double verb-object thing. The feelings I feel. The thoughts I think.  Gosh, I know, I know. It’s mildly terrible. 

Anyway, Yokohama. I have been in Yokohama, a big city an hour south of central Tokyo by train. There is a big box in my brain of unwritten blog posts, like mewling kittens that I’ve forgotten to fed, they’ve languished, their moment passed. Now it’s too late to write about the rose garden overlooking the bay, the kabuki play, the fancy beef dinner.  

But, Yokohama. It’s one of Japan’s old major port cities that was especially important on the mid-nineteenth, into the twentieth century. When Japan started trading more widely with the rest of the world, ships glided into Yokohama bay. The first gaslit streetlamps were Yokohama. The first jazz performance. The first newspaper, I think. Nineteenth century contact with the Western world left a fascinating mark on the buildings and the food. Lots of restaurants serve Japanese food that appeared in the early twentieth century: hamburger patties with potatoes and gravy, fried cutlets with heaps of shredded cabbage, bits of beef with winter vegetables cooked soft. Spaghetti Neapolitan, that most Japanese of dishes was supposedly “invented” in Yokohama in the postwar: It’s spaghetti topped with a ketchup sauce, green bell peppers, mushrooms, and pork sausage (or sliced ham). 

I’ve taken to the jazz scene in Yokohama. There’s a jazz cafe called Chigusa where you sip coffe and listen to jazz records from their library the owner collected since the 30s. There’s a big pair of record player speakers, the whole set up custom designed to fit the little space. Dark paneled wood. All the worn chairs face the speakers and no one  talks as the music flows out in great waves. I drink my coffee and sit. Sometimes I read.

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There’s a jazz bar crammed in the second floor space of a building that I’ve taken to visiting during the week. I eat spaghetti Neapolitan and sometimes the music is great. Sometimes disappointing, but the spaghetti is hot and good, and the whiskey is cold. 

I have not been writing very much. It’s been hard to build a writing routine here, and I end up working in the mornings. If I’m feeling generous to my time here, I’ll point out that seeing a Kabuki performance did help me with Kabuki-ish and it does count as research. It also reminded me of how un-Kabuki-like the Kabuki in Kabuki-ish is. Or, how un-modern-Kabuki-ish it is. Modern Kabuki is a little slow, a little ponderous, but with charm. This is not the first Kabuki I have seen, and I do not feel compelled to change the theatrical stuff as written, but I do think about it from time to time.  I think about how I avoid using the work Kabuki. I think about how art and traditions change over time. What would the Lord of the Rings look like as Kabuki? I think it would be pretty awesome, actually.

There’s something that Kabuki and jazz have in common that I like; they invite the audience to clap and cheer in the middle of performance. A bad-ass solo? Clap. An actor strikes a cool pose after challenging a bad guy? Clap and cheer as he stomps and glowers. It’s a moment when we all come together and become one in our expression of love of something, whether hunched over our knees in a theater or a bowl of steaming spaghetti. 

 

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Let's recover a little

I've spent the last couple weeks making Russian food, Eastern European food, in my spare time. The other night, around eleven, I started making a little loaf cake that was mostly eggs and cheese curds, studded with cherries and candied orange peel. It tasted like somewhere between an egg tart and cheesecake, like tea time by grandmothers in a faraway place. 

In a moment of weakness, also late at night, I bought a pelmeni press. Pelmeni are like tortellini, but they are the Italian dumpling's tastier, more rustic cousin. Pelmeni are made from a simple, soft dough. Packed with meat. Then, they are frozen. They were food carried in sacks in Siberia on long trips and the dumplings naturally froze. Because I do not live in the frozen wilderness, I scattered the dumplings on cake pans and placed them in the freezer. 

There's something wonderfully comforting about pelmeni. After pouring the little dumplings into boiling water, you simply wait until they rise to the surface. Dress them with sour cream and dill. Cracked pepper. The meat juices pop in the mouth and the sour cream is a sauce onto itself. 

Borscht is wonderful. I've only had it at restaurants where it is a special thing. I feel a special kinship with the soup if only because it begins with cooking onions and celery in butter. Only recently I've realized that is the comforting food smell of my childhood. Browning celery and butter. Borscht involves beets, can have carrots and potatoes too. And it's ready in about an hour with no fuss. A soup after my heart. 

 

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It's been an eventful couple weeks, full of book festivals and work deadlines. There was the LA Times Festival of Books, which I like to attend every year, as well as Yallwest. 

Yallwest this year was special, mainly because a group of writers that I'm a part of had arranged a meetup at the festival. I have met Samantha Chaffin in person, but never Kristin Yuki or Lydia Albano. Welcome to 2018, where it's not a big deal to meet people who only know online. My security measure was that if Lydia had turned out to be a beer-bellied ax-murderer, Samantha would have found out first. Anyway, Lydia turned out to be a lovely person and Kristin too, so we did all the things one does at book festivals. 

It was interesting also because the website that subsumed and erased Figment, where we all got our online start, was at Yallwest. Without coordinating, some of us came with our Figment totes won from contests years ago. It was a miniature protest. 

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I refused to do any signings, except to press Lydia's book, Finding You, into her hands and insist that she sign it. I essentially wandered from panel-to-panel depending on who I was with and what they wanted to see. I ended up at panels on comics, LGBT, a keynote highjacked by a moderator, strolling through the ARC and giveaway tents but needing nothing. I got to talk and listen. I stumbled across a girl I met on a program in Japan years ago, and we re-connected over Yuzuru Hanyu and stories. Having a new job.

This was the first year I did not attend a panel on agents or getting published. Lydia and I walked up to that panel, but the room was full. It was a beautiful day with a Santa Monica sky so blue and cloud-streaked that it could have been the walls of a baby's room. It was warm. We shrugged and walked away. 

Oh, fuck that. Like I need some to tell me to personalize a cover letter for the millionth time. Or look me in the eyes and tell me, a stranger, that my ideas matter. 

We got grilled cheese sandwiches and crispy tater tots, and we ate in the shade. It's tradition. 

 

We're all getting older, of course. I remember those Figment days when I came home from classes and banged out stories like I would never have another idea. Nowadays, I am comfortable with the idea that I'll always have ideas, but I'm increasingly uncomfortable with the reality that no one particularly cares. On some days, maybe most days, I'm comfortable with it. 

 

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Anyway, there was the LA Times Festival of Books too, which is a much more chill affair for me despite being spread over a whole weekend. I enjoyed just browsing the booths and books for sale. A good friend is working on an illustrated children's book, so we read and flipped through tons of picture books in the name of research. 

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In my usual fashion, I did not properly plan the book festival. But in a stroke of luck, I did stumble across the signing for Diana Galbaldon, author of the Outlander series. It was an epic signing line, and I was in it for two hours. We, the people of the signing line, didn't know each other, but we knew the books, and we clustered in shady patches, waiting as the line inched forward. 

She was nice. She must have been tired. 

I ate pitas stuffed with meat and grape leaves stuffed with rice, and it was a pretty nice weekend. 

Thinking about all this makes me ready to keep working. We'll see how it all comes out. 

 

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Let's type Kabuki-ish openings

I hate writing beginnings. I have never, once, in my entire life enjoyed writing beginnings. 

The one bit of positivity that I can muster generally about writing is that I've come to view it less with pain, an acute pain, than with just perserverance. When I was in high school, I recall walking through a part of the cafeteria with a friend. I had finished two fantasy novels by that point and was contemplating a third, and my friend enjoyed—or said she enjoyed—reading my work. I don't know. I figure if you willingly read 600 pages of someone's writing, you either enjoy the writing or hate yourself. I was talking about writing the third book. 

"Writing sucks," I said. "It sucks. Writing sucks." 

At that point, some cotton-ball-headed English teacher stopped at the coffee machine. "Don't say that!" 

"It's true," I said, with all the arrogance of fifteen year old me. That was a lot of arrogance by the way. You could make a veritable buffet for elephants out of my arrogance. I didn't give too damns about what that English teacher thought about writing. It sucked. 

If I give her the benefit of the doubt, she was probably upset about my word-choice. Sucks. Sucks. Sucks. 

 

When I think about word choice, I think of kindergarten. 

I went to a small local school a few minutes from our house. Like many elementary schools, we received a school supply list in the mail, and like many families, we cobbled together the things for the list from around the house and bought what absolutely needed to be purchased. On the first day of kindergarten, we came in with school supplies, and drew pictures. I had brought crayons, but not colored pencils. The school list had called for both. 

Apparently, I was the only student who had made this mistake. In my imagination, in my memories, I'm the only one who made this mistake, because Ms. Gibson proceeded to scold me off in front of everyone. It was embarrassing, and I when I went home, I burst into tears. 

I told my parents what happened, and in that positive parental support, my mom called Ms. Gibson a "fucking bitch." My dad, I believe, went out and bought me colored pencils. That might have been the end of it. 

A week later, or maybe the same week, because time is weird and molasses when you're small, we were drawing in class again. I was squeezed between my two best friends, drawing stick figures, with colored pencils, no doubt. 

Ms. Gibson leaned over us and asked what we were drawing. She point to my figures. "Who is this?"

"This is you..."

"Oh, how nice. And who is this?"

"And this is my mom."

There was a tangle of lines about the stick figures. That's a good symbol for my dialogue-writing abilities. At kindergarten, however, the conversation was a literal mess of lines. 

"What are we doing?"

"That's my mom calling you a fucking bitch." 

It really speaks to my kindergarten self that I didn't notice any strange reactions from Ms. Gibson, and I soon forgot about the whole thing. My mom swore a lot back then. We were not allowed to swear, but mom did all the time at home. It was incredible.

Anyway, Ms. Gibson called home to arrange a parent-teacher conference, but did not say why. My mom, who had an office job, set the appointment, and my father, who worked at home, was to go to the appointment. Dad went into that meeting with no idea that he would encounter. 

"Do you know why you're here?"

"No."

Ms. Gibson presented the drawing and explained what I had told her in class. At this point, my dad says he didn't know that this was that kind of meeting, about me being in trouble, and he thinks mom knew but sent him in blind. Ms. Gibson was righteous and confrontational in her description, her assumptions about my home life. 

After her angry telling of the incident, Ms. Gibson said, "Surely you don't use this kind of language at home?" 

Mrs. Gibson made the mistake of thinking that talking down to my father, a proud historian, would make him apologize. She probably thought he would be cowed, turn defensive. 

"Actually," he said, "when a teacher sends a kindergartener home in tears over colored pencils, yes, 'fucking bitch,' is the proper language to use. That is precisely what those words exist for." 

 

As far as I'm concerned, on a first draft, my goal is to write a beginning that's good enough to allow me to write the next bits. Inevitably, I am excited by what comes after the beginning. I am always most excited about endings. I like those parts the best. 

But, you have to write a beginning, and actually, many people will tell you that the beginning is more important because if the beginning is bad, then no one ever reaches the ending. This is certainly true. 

I still hate beginnings. Which brings me to Kabuki-ish. 

 

Kabuki-ish still exists primarily on paper. This week, for fun, I started to copy the opening and play with my notes. The notes look like this: 

It's worth pointing out the lack of breaks, paragraphs, and sketch-like nature of the opening scene, which is a rambling description by one of our characters of the theater. I took the opening couple pages, copied it, and fleshed it out to look more like a novel. Below is what I got. 

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But after  the writing, I realized that I had already fleshed out this passage in my notebook, and I copied that as well, ending up with different versions. Now, the next step would be to decide which one to use. Or, what sections to keep from one and the other, then Frankenstein them together. That is the likely outcome, I feel. 

There are two parts to the opening. The first part is mostly unchanged from the notes, as crazy as they appear:

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Now, the next bit is where it gets a little confusing. For the the next scene, there's a long version and a short version. Here's the short one: 

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And this is the other version of "Enkō Listens" that I found in my notebook: 

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Enkō was an orphan. 

There were a lot of orphans back then, in general, and Enkō had never let it get her down. 

Her pops had always frowned at her overactive imagination, but he never said anything about it. It probably helped that he was mute. As a small child, Enkō had imagined that he had found her in a stalk of bamboo, that maybe she was a princess from the moon—or at the very lease, the royal court. The day after she heard Umehito and everything changed, she overheard Mrs. Melon and the Well Widow talking. They were complaining about the distant highway traffic that inevitably dumped garbage and dead people on the eastern edge of their village, Swampside. Enkō normally didn’t pay them any mind, but she was trying to find spring onions in the patch of grass nearby. 

Their conversation shifted to the weather, which had been unseasonably dry. Enkō switched to looking for wild chives. She spotted a stalk of wild rice buried in much and crawled over to get it. That was when they started to talk about her. 

She froze. 

It was Mrs. Melon who said the weather could have been worse—there was that summer years ago, when they found Enkō, right? 

Wit her threadbare robe hitched up around her legs and her hands and knees in green mud, Enkō heard the truth. Or, at least, the truth as Mrs. Melon remembered it. 

There had been a bad famine that year. It didn’t rain. It was uncommonly hot, and the clouds didn’t form dragon nests overhead, so the dragons didn’t bring rain. No one could believe how dry it got. The paddies shriveled into the size of a game board, and the fields dusted. Even the bugs died. But not Enkō. 

A lot of babies had been left by the riverbank that year. Moms and dads fleeing the dead fields for the big city. That village, Swampside, was not far from the Great East Highway, the widest dirt road on this side of the world, and the highway that would take you to the city if you could brave the bandits, or even worse, the bored provincial warriors. 

Enkō had been one of the many babies abandoned on the way to the city. They all soon died, as they’d been starving to begin with. 

But not Enkō.

“Many of them, you know,” murmured Ms. Melon to her neighbor, “were quiet before they died. But not her. She wailed and screamed. It made my hair stand on end for days. All those dead babies and her screaming.”

“How horrible.” 

“The impure tanner took her in. It wasn’t natural at all, being around all that death for so long.” 

“He didn’t speak after his wife died, you see. And she’d been childless…”

What went unspoken but Enkō felt like a weight, was that they thought there wasn’t something quite right about her. As she listened to the women tell the story, she wound her hands up in her apron as her heart welled with gratitude and her eyes with tears. The lovely mystery of being an orphan, maybe a princess or a fallen nature spirit, had been stripped away from her. Just one baby amongst a bunch of dead ones. 

Enkō crept out the back door, following the bushes back to the grove where their hut was located. 

Her pops, her adopted and only pops, was covered in blood from his work stripping the hide from a carcass, but Enkō hugged him anyway, holding onto him like a rock in the surf. The waves threatened to drag her out to sea, a darker place. 

She never let go of her pops. 

Not having a mysterious past or even the possibility of royal parents made the acting even more special. That became the real dream, attainable and beautiful. 

“Pops, I’m going to learn to be an actor!” 

He just stared at her. 

Then he handed her a bowl of stew. They sat on the floor, slurping, and when they finished, she took the scraps outside to feed the flock of crows. 

The next morning, Enkō washed herself in a stream and wore her cleanest robe and pants before trying to brush her hair with a twig, unsuccessfully. “Wish me luck,” she said to the crows. 

They jumped around, feathers scattering, and went back to feeding on the deer remains at the edge of the clearing. 

She went to Umehito’s house, calling out before she walked inside. He lived alone. He was drinking on the back veranda overlooking his overgrown backyard, and the bottle was mostly empty. 

The villagers did treat her like a dirty mountain monkey—that is what Enkō meant. It could also mean halo, she knew, though even at her young age, that was not what the villagers meant. But she had washed up as she best she could. 

Umehito took another swig from his cup. 

“Excuse me?”

He lazily glanced over his shoulder at her, then refocused on his miserable garden. He had not reached for his broom, which Enkō saw as promising. 

She crept out next to him on the veranda. “Hello.” 

Umehito held out the wine bottle. 

“No, thank you,” said Enkō. “I would like very much to learn how to be an actor, and if you would teach me, please.” 

He stared at her. 

He took another drink, something sad in his eyes. Enkō couldn’t have known it at the time, but Umehito had studied under the great female role actor Umeyuki II, who had studied under the Umeyuki who audiences had called the God of Illusion. If Umehito hadn’t ended up in Swampside, his title Umeyuki III stripped from him, he would have had his choice of the most beautiful and talented children in the artistic capital of the world. 

He took another drink. 

Then another. 

A part of him wanted to drag this insolent little farm girl—with a country accent that could mold tofu—into the ugly, overgrown yard where he would strangle her with her threadbare clothes and shove her body in the bushes. Man, the wine tasted bad here. 

But the part of him, the passionate part of him that would be insulted was burnt out and buried under the months of humiliation, and finally, the boredom of this backwater, somehow remained.  

He looked up at Enkō, who was wringing her hands. “Why?”

She stared at him, because he had asked such a big question, she didn’t know where to start—beautiful costumes, grand stories, that roar of adoration—and Enkō had grown up with a mute man, so words were not her strength. Her big eyes filled with tears and longing, 

and it took Umehito’s breath away. 

“I want to be someone else,” said Enkō. “Just for a little while.”

He wiped at his eyes, trying to summon his disinterest. “Humph.” He reached behind her for another bottle and ignored her, opening the bottle and drinking. Enkō waited. He made her wait, and it was cruel, but he wanted someone to hurt, like he had. 

When he finally looked at her, the bottle halfway gone, she didn’t look hurt, just hopeful. 

“What do you want to do?”

“Do?”

“What do you want to play?”

“I’d like to play a princess.”

He laughed at her. She laughed nervously with him. 

She didn’t know it at the time, but Umehito had made a career playing princesses. 

“Whatever,” he said. “Fine. That should be fun. The first think you can do is clean my yard.”