“In all things, it is the beginnings and the endings that are the most interesting.”
Or, so wrote Japan’s famed medieval poet-monk Yoshida Kenkō (1283–1350). Kenkō illustrated this bit of aesthetic wisdom with advice on how to appreciate a romantic affair.
The beginning of the affair is buoyant with anticipation, and the end, poignant with memories. The middle, according to Kenkō, is rather pedestrian. “Is the love between a man and a woman to be understood only in terms of the times they are together?”
He also applies his dictum to the enjoyment of cherry blossoms and the moon. Should we only enjoy them when they are full? Isn’t the waiting, the hoping, far more meaningful, more potent with imagination? Once the blossoms have fallen and the moon has set, isn’t it the memory of them that tantalizes us? Kenkō would think so. It’s not that the cherry blossoms in all their glory or the full moon in a cloudless sky are not breathtaking. But when we see so clearly what is in front of us, what is left to dream about?
Perhaps Kenkō’s evaluation of “beginnings and endings” could apply to writing as well. I always struggle over the beginnings and endings in any work I write, whether academic or creative. The beginning has to capture the reader’s attention and gesture towards the unfolding of the plot or argument. The beginning must tantalize the reader about what may lie ahead, what is yet unseen. The conclusion needs to wrap it all up and send readers away with the story still playing out in their mind. They need to experience a sense of catharsis and growth. In this post and the next, I would like to reflect on the beginning and ending of The Kimono Tattoo.
Where to Start?
Here’s the way The Kimono Tattoo began, before it didn’t:
I was watching the pigeons when the doorbell rang. I hadn’t noticed before the way they appeared to divide into different squadrons. As soon as one squadron of five or so pigeons set down on the electrical wire outside my second-floor window, the second squadron would take flight. I hate pigeons. But I enjoyed watching them soar up into the unbelievably blue April sky, wheel out over the Kyoto zoo, and temporarily block my view of the ritzy Miyako Hotel on the far side of Higashiyama. As they turned for home, their wings would wink iridescently. For pigeons, they were uncommonly beautiful. Once landed the earlier squadron would return to the skies. Pedestrians below, tourists mostly—marching noisily between Nanzenji Temple and the zoo—rarely thought to look up at the pigeons perched dangerously above their heads. I always had a chuckle when one noticed too late, dabbing desperately at a desecrated head and glaring upward at the delinquent bird. Usually the victims were raucous high school boys. The one singled out by the pigeon missile would be harangued by his unscathed buddies who would blot at his once perfect coif with hand towels and handkerchiefs. But a few weeks ago, when a pretty junior high school girl was globbed by a bird, I slipped down the stairs and offered her a damp towel. I am not sure what brought her more trauma: being shat upon by a pigeon or being set upon unexpectedly by a red-headed foreigner. “Thank you,” she managed to sputter in something resembling English, despite the fact that I had spoken to her from the start in Japanese. “Dou itashimashite,” I continued. “And please, keep the towel.” I closed the door.
And, so the chapter continued.
I liked the pigeon opening. I worked on it for a few years as the novel emerged, adding to it and subtracting from it. This was the beginning that led me to the discoveries I would later make in the novel, as the storyline slowly unfolded, folded, and then unfolded again, before my eyes. I thought the opening established the location, Ruth’s sense of isolation and difference, her sensitivity to the space around her, and her self-deprecating-snide humor.
In October 2019, I submitted The Kimono Tattoo to the contest Pitch Wars, for debut novelists. The successful applicants would win mentorship by seasoned writers who would help them revise their manuscripts and secure representation with an agent. I “pitched” to a number of writers. Of these Kellye Garrett and Mia P. Manansala, working as a team, were kind enough to provide feedback. They encouraged me to revise the opening:
We want to jump straight into the story, especially for a mystery. Maybe also take out the non mystery related stuff . . . . You’re throwing a lot of info at us in these first pages and it might be easy to get lost/overwhelmed. You can always factor these details in later. It does end on the right spot.
Good advice. But, as my earlier posts on editing have revealed, it’s not easy to know what to let go. So, I spent several months trying out new beginnings. In one version, I start with the discovery of the tattooed body. That was very dynamic. But it changed the mood of the story and de-centered Ruth. Eventually, I found a way to begin with the arrival of the mysterious woman who asks Ruth to translate the novel by the long-forgotten author, Tani Shōtarō.
And yet, the pigeons did not disappear entirely. They remain in the title of the chapter as a trace of my original opening. It was the image of the pigeons, after all, that carried me into the world of The Kimono Tattoo. It is the talismanic power of birds that identifies each chapter of the novel.
Deciding to have the mysterious woman walking to Ruth’s house was an inspired choice. But this pigeon story brings me right back to Kyoto!
Right? Those pigeons can get pretty rowdy! I remember watching them endlessly while sitting at my desk in Kyoto translating Grotesque. Their synchronized flight patterns were really spectacular.