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