Shunga-Satori: The Big "Shunga-Satori" Sign-Off

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2023-03-06 07:00:00-05:00 No comments

Well, it's almost done. As of earlier today I put in an order for the proof copy for Shunga-Satori, with what I hope are the just-about-final cover copy and interiors. If all is well, then I'll set up the Kindle edition in the coming week, and we should have my latest, and strangest, novel out into your hands long before the end of the month. (Spend some of that sweet tax refund money on it! It's cheap! You'll be supporting an artisanal creation!)

I haven't yet set up an official splash page for the book — that's still to come in the next couple of days — but once I have that in I won't be able to shut up about it.

Here's a few things I picked up along the way while working on this particular book.

Sometimes a title is a signpost, and sometimes it's a focus

I can't lay claim to inventing the title "Shunga-Satori". It's actually the name of a track from the Missing Foundation album Go Into Exile. I understand Japanese, and so I was intrigued by the combination of the words -- shunga meaning "spring pictures" (or pornography), and satori, which anyone with even passing experience with Zen ought to know. What was the connection between the two words? The term itself had a kind of magnetism that demanded a story to be written from it.

I devised, and discarded, something like five or six different ideas for stories that revolved around possible incarnations of the meaning. Some were ideas I might come back to in the future, but none of them really clicked at the time. Only gradually, and by fits and starts, did a story come into shape. But it only did so because the title I was using was something to point me in another direction — encouraging me to think less literally and more metaphorically. The real story was a lot further away from my original interpretations of the title, and I had to heed that. I couldn't be literal about this one.

Sometimes a title is a focus: the story revolves around it effortlessly. Sometimes it's a signpost: you have to follow where it points to get what you want.

Ruthlessness nurtures a work

This is my own way of saying "Kill your darlings", but maybe expressed more kindly. The more you ask your work "Why? Why this way and not that way?", the more you'll find answers that actually make sense. You're applying what amounts to laws of survival of the fittest to the contents of the story.

Between the first and second drafts of this book, I took a good hard look at the last third or so, even before I had finished producing it, and decided it was simply wrong. You know a book isn't working when you find yourself pushing against everything you've set up instead of reaping opportunities from it. Too many characters had too many of the wrong kinds of struggles going on, and the way all that came to a head didn't work.

"I burned it all," Dostoevsky exulted when he threw out the original version of the work that in time became Crime And Punishment. Getting rid of what doesn't work is liberating: it frees you to find the things that actually do work. It's not a sunk cost to toss months of labor. There's a chance you wouldn't have been able to find the right things without first doing the wrong ones. Nothing is ever wasted.

I mention all this because I have gotten into the habit — not always a good one — of thinking that by the time I get to the actual writing phase, I've doped out all the hard stuff. My first drafts tend to be a little more like someone else's second or third in terms of what's been "spec'd out". So when a hard change like this comes, it can be difficult to not just accept it but say yes to it wholeheartedly. Once you do, though, you're in a better place. A freer one, certainly — free of the legacy restrictions of a story that wasn't working.

In theory you write for yourself first, but in practice for everyone

This is an old saw, and one I have a "yes, and" reaction to. Every great artist works first and foremost to satisfy themselves. But the best ones find a way to allow others a way into their work through the door of their own satisfaction.

Shunga-Satori was about a private mythology, and to make it, I had to come up with something that was insular and personal — sometimes so much that I wasn't sure other people could connect with it. But by relating what was in it back to things we all know about — the longing to find a place to be in this world, the need to make something that outlasts ourselves, the urge to impose our will on another even if it costs us — I felt I could make a doorway into it.

For much of my life I went back and forth about William S. Burroughs. My original moon-eyed amazement turned into dismissal, and then back again into constructive admiration. He was, out of just about every author I'd ever read, the one whose work was the most direct expression of a personal mythology that was also universal. And for that reason it made no sense to mimic him. One could only pick up where he left off, and on one's own terms too. This book was part of that process on my part — not in the sense that I want to be spoken of in the same sentences as Burroughs, but that it's an artifact of what I've learned from him.

We can only ever start by writing for ourselves, and that's the only way we ever write for anyone else, or everyone else. This book taught me that like nothing else I've worked on.

Tags: Infinimata Press Shunga-Satori creativity creators writers writing