All posts by Gerhard Venter

Writing A Novel Can Be As Technical As Writing Code

I don’t think any writer starts off with the intention of writing a complex book. In fact, smart authors will do their utmost to write a simple book. Like Jonathan Livingston Seagull.

Yesu's Baboon hardcover book
Yesu’s Baboon hardcover book

I didn’t even want to write this book. Initially. I was tinkering with a short story, and it ran away with me. By the time I started organizing things, I discovered that the book was intricate as hell. One does not want that to show. The principle is “write hard, read easy.” A reader must not even think about  technicalities. My slogan is, “the prose  mustn’t be easy to understand. It must be impossible to misunderstand.”

Let me just demonstrate how tricky things can get. Forgive me for mentioning Solzhenitsyn in my humble company, but my book is, time and tense-wise, similar to One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.

The entire story is told by my protagonist, an 18-year-old Maasai boy, to a white toy heron who sits in his small woodcarving workshop, which is part of the prison in which he is not only incarcerated, but also on death row. How did this situation come about? It’s a long story. I’m not kidding.

Now as Koyati tells his story, he uses the past tense (As a small cattle herder I had to go out after the herd at five in the mornings), but also the present (Miss Heron, my secret weapon is Tung oil–it shows up the wood’s beautiful grain.) There are also recent events (Last night the Brute gave me two punches in the stomach). I must keep Koyati’s POV (point of view) in view (haha) every moment.

But then, towards the end of the book, Koyati runs out of true past tense, because the events he tells to Miss Heron, the plastic heron with a voice recorder under her wing, catches up to the present moment. Aha, I thought. Now I can tell the story blow-by-blow in the present tense. Man, will this create immediacy and action and drama!

Not so fast, dumbass. It’s still past tense. Miss Heron (his voice recorder) is still sitting on the top shelf in his tiny woodcarving workshop (which is nothing but a paint storage closet). Isidora (his young but brilliant lawyer) still comes by every Friday to download his narration to her laptop, looking for anything she can use in her hopeless effort to save him from the gallows.

So, even though we’re now dealing with current events, they are still narrated in the past tense, because Koyati has to wait until the next work day before he can tell Miss Heron about them: Yesterday in court Judge Zaidi swore he would rid the United Republic of Tanzania from a scourge like me.

This is how crazy it got sometimes: Koyati is working on a sculpture in his prison workshop (strict present tense: I am sanding the prodigal son) while at the same time telling how he worked on another carving project in the past: (Elder Nuru laughed at the way I attacked the stick with my pocket knife). At the same time he will mention the almost-present-tense of his current circumstances (Sparrow says they might bring back the death penalty), or recent past, (Shomari grabbed me by the shirt this morning and warned me not to try anything.)

Continuity was a nightmare. Koyati loves wood more than he loves people. He can identify tens of species of carving wood by appearance, weight, sound, smell, and taste. If he sits down in a chair he first examines the arm rests to see from what type of wood it is made. For that reason I decided to tell the readers the species of wood he used for every single project he carved. There is no such thing as ‘I carved a fearsome lion.’ There is ‘I took my best bubinga blank and carved a fearsome red lion.’ (Koyati’s constant struggle to find good carving wood is a theme in the book.)

So I needed to remember after  couple of hundred pages which wood Koyati used to carve a tiny lion as part of his Maasai rosary. Eventually I had to create a database for Koyati’s various carvings and sculptures and the wood varieties he used for each.

There is one more modality: the little baboon story. While Koyati carves and chisels and sands in his little workshop, he hums and sings his own made-up story about how the High God created a small, furry baboon right in the beginning, in the garden. Little Baboon’s story is given in a formal font, deeply indented as a block quote. Almost like a Bible story. He follows Yesu Kristo from his birth to that awful moment when Little Baboon falls down in a swoon at the foot of the cross and tries to bury his little head in the bloody mud. The block quoted text is a full story in its own right.

That is how crazy it got, and part of the reason why the book took me eight years to complete. But the final test of this book has nothing to do with how hard it was to write, and everything with how easy it is to read.

If You Want to Write, You Need To Blog

Whether you’re self-publishing or in the power of a publishing company, Bob Dylan’s lyric “You gotta serve somebody” applies. It’s even worse if you are working for yourself. Then your boss is a jerk.
That means, in my case, that I WILL blog regularly because my boss said so. It’s not so hard. I rather enjoy throwing out a few lines now and then. Blogging is to a writer what finger-exercises are to a pianist.
Yesu's Baboon hardcover book
Yesu’s Baboon will be available in hardcover

My novel, Yesu’s Baboon, is at 130,000 words. I’m looking forward to mercilessly cutting them by around 50%. If you cut all the crap and redundancy out of a novel you’re already pretty proud of, you get an even better book, right? That’s how I’m going to force Hemingway’s 80% of the iceberg underwater. There’s already a lot of stuff under the waterline.

The combat phase is almost over. I’ve got three or four scenes to finish, then the revisions begin. Towards the end, the timeline gets really complex. The court case concludes, Isidora escapes, she’s got business to attend to at the law office, Koyati experiences a riot and conducts a funeral — lots of stuff.These events must occur in exactly the right sequence. That gets tricky. I use a professional-grade timeline sequencing app called Aeon Timeline. Here’s a small section of its screen:

A section of Yesu's Baboon timeline
A section of Yesu’s Baboon timeline.
Now if you think that this level of detail is going to make the book hard to read — it’s just the opposite.  The principle is straightforward: Write hard, read easy. Or like Steven Taylor said: “It costs a lot of money to look this cheap.” Or, “A writer is someone for whom writing is harder than for other people.”
Anyway, stay tuned. I’ll be keeping you up to date.

Doxology

Doxology

A doxology is any song or text or prayer that glorifies God.

This is mine.

Thanks be to Almighty God for deliverance from the scourge named opioids. Thank you, Lord, for giving me back to my family and my precious calling.

What are you talking about, you ask

Have you heard of the opioid epidemic? Here’s how it works: an unsuspecting patient goes to his doctor and complains about back pain that will not quit.

The doctor prescribes opioid pain medication, because the patient

Crocodile
Crocodile – one of those in the opioid river.

begs for relief. For a while, both are happy, because the patient’s pain does not make his life a living hell anymore.

Then, accidentally, one day he runs out of pills, and his body does a number on him, and he begins to learn that he cannot be without his pills. Ever. He is not addicted, but he is dependent.

In my case, I recorded every pill I took for the last five years in a database. I never took a single pill that wasn’t prescribed for me, but even so, I was as hooked to the stuff as any junkie. To miss a pill meant painful withdrawal.

What opioids do to you

Now, dear friends, listen carefully to what happens to a person, a normal, everyday man like me, who is in pain and takes opioids — pills legally prescribed by his doctor — for relief:

  1. The opioid pain medicine messes with your central nervous system and actually causes pain. This pain can only relieved with — you guessed it — more opioids.
  2. In this process you can eventually not distinguish between opioid-induced pain and the original pain. You cannot pinpoint your pain anymore. Where does it hurt? Everywhere. Everywhere.
  3. You gradually disappear into a fog. Names, places, spelling, all impaired. Writing is dreadfully slow, because every little thing has to be researched.
  4. You sleep all the time. Your family’s life passes you by, because you’re just not there.
  5. You become irritable, even irascible. I never did, but many people do.
  6. The pills become the most important thing in the world. More important that family or work or hobbies. And why shouldn’t it? After all you are punished horribly if you don’t give them all your attention.
  7. Your doctors and healthcare providers begin to treat you just a little bit differently. With just a little bit less respect. Because they know you’ll blow up if you don’t get your prescription.
  8. Your body changes. Much of it I cannot even mention in this family blog. You become constipated. You develop problems in your urinary tract, with your breathing, with your weight, with your vision. Your eyes are constantly leaking at the corners.
  9. You become isolated, because nobody — nobody — understands what you’re going through. You cannot make long trips to go and see your friends and family, because what if you run out of your pills?
  10. Your sparkling personality recedes into the fog and you start disappearing into it completely and seemingly forever. People start thinking they’re losing you. You look as if you’re will die soon. And maybe that’s true.

There’s probably more, but I’m tired of thinking back on this nightmare that is now, thanks be to Almighty God, receding in my rear view mirror.

How I escaped

I understood that I had to get off this devilish concoction.

I went to my pain doctor and said (verbatim), “I need to get this shit out of my body.” He started prescribing less and less every month to wean me off it. After a couple of months I said, “Please, I need to go faster and get this suffering over with. This slow tapering is hell on earth.” The doctor said, “At your age, that would be dangerous. You have to do it very gradually.” So I tapered on my own, without his knowledge. At that stage, I still had to have full prescriptions available, because I would go into a panic if the stuff wasn’t there.

God blessed me with a strong will and a very non-addictive personality. I stuck it out. What helped me a lot (apart from praying day and night like a mad monk), was CBD oil. That’s the part of cannabis oil that does not make you high. Trust me, there were many days that I wished it had some THC in! But cannabidiol  saved the day. It’s not a drug, has no side effects, and can be bought over the counter at most health shops. Its molecule (C21H30O2) is almost infinitely complex and does everything from killing cancer cells to opening your sinuses. No it’s not snake oil. It’s more like the 21st century equivalent of aspirin or penicillin. Oh, and it relieves pain.

I’ve been “clean” now for 165.08 hours; that is around 6 days. I don’t have to worry about ever going back, because I was never addicted, I was only physically dependent. And that was pure hell in itself. Besides, I gave the remaining pills a burial at sea down the toilet. And I will never get a prescription again, because I told the pain doctor’s nurse to shove the prescription up her ass, and the reception staff that they’re unfriendly and they disrespect the patients. I got applause from the waiting patients for this. I didn’t burn that bridge — I blew it the hell up with 20 pounds of C4. It felt better than — whatever.

Aftereffects of my ordeal

My central nervous system is now screwed up. I get spasms in my legs, for which I used to take Baclofen (a muscle relaxant). I don’t take that anymore, because it makes me sleep all day, and I cannot sleep all day, because I’m 75,000 words into my novel, Yesu’s Baboon, and I want to finish it.

I still take a lot of Gabapentin, an anti-spasm capsule. These things don’t have deadly side effects, and the help a lot.

I’ve become very emotional and I cannot speak about certain subjects. Farm murders? I stay away — they destroy me. Endings of Russian movies? Murder! I mean, emotionally, on me.

I look back on  lot of my writing and I wonder what the hell I was thinking.

The pain is still there, but now I know I have to deal with it in different ways. Somehow the pain is not so bad anymore, I think — I hope — probably because my nervous system is so screwed up.  Now I take two Ibuprofen and deal with it. It’s like a wildfire firefighter with his fireproof blanket: I pull it over me and wait for the burn to pass over me. I come out without eyebrows, maybe, but alive and full of beans.

What this nightmare has done for me
  1. I learned that to let go of your faith is to be lost. My faith, feeble as it is, was strengthened immensely by the wonder of seeing what God does for you when you ask.
  2. I wrote a book and the spiritual aspects of coping with chronic pain. This writing has kept me positive and has played a role in my turning it all around. I pray other people can be helped by the book.
  3. I finally started researching medicines, supplements, home remedies, and alternative medicine. I had a mental block against knowing exactly what medications were prescribed for me, and what they do to me. No mas!
  4. I feel as if I’ve come through a deep river, one full of crocodiles, and am now safe on the other side. I feel I am now qualified to finish my novel, Yesu’s Baboon, which will blow your socks off.
  5. I have my family back, and my family have me back. I am stronger than ever. I’m interested in their activities again. I participate again.
  6. I don’t see death ahead of me. I’m too busy writing. I need to write four or five lekker novels before I go.
  7. I have plans for the future again. I’m working on all kinds of projects. I’ve installed shelves for Anna to put her nick-knacks on, and I’m planning our spring garden.
  8. A spend more time on Facebook, which is our lifeline to our folks in the Old Country.
  9. I’ve become reluctant to use the word “pain.” I don’t take my walking cane along unless I’m going to walk a long distance. I don’t tell people about my chronic pain anymore (not that I accosted strangers to do that!). I am not defined by my pain anymore.
  10. I don’t catastrophize pain anymore. It hurts like hell. It will pass. I won’t die from it. Whatever…
  11. I work around my back pain. I know I have about 20 minutes in the morning when I get up in which I can do physical project, and from 5-20 minutes at a time during the rest of the day. So I get up and boogie during those times!
  12. I have forbidden my family to disable me. Anyone who dares tell me any object is to heavy for me to lift gets a scolding. I say to them: Do not disable me! There’s one person, and one person only, who will decide if I can push this wheelbarrow, and that is me! They respect that. They also let me nap whenever I want to (I get up between three and five in the morning and begin to write — I need the darned naps).

Again, there’s more, but this isn’t a school project. I’m just telling you stuff.  Now that I look back on what I’ve written, I realize that I don’t know exactly, in minute detail, how I was saved. I was just saved. I don’t remember all of my swim across that dark, crocodile-infested river.

Maybe some lifesaver dragged me part of the way.

 

 

 

 

 

The Psalmsinger

A Kudu horn shofar
A “modern” shofar, made from kudu horn.

I’ve got a novel idea (get it?) for a new book even as I’m still working on the current one. It is about an intelligent and inventive chief priest in the ancient Israelite temple who is always working to increase the loudness of the worship music. Why? Because they had no electronic amplification systems. I could probably find some support for this view in Scripture, i.e. the wish to produce loud music to please the Lord. There are references to shouting and detailed instructions from  God for the Levites to form large temple choirs. I’m still researching this. If he could only modify the shofar, the ram’s horn trumpet, to play a variety of notes …

Swearing and Journaling

Journal entry, Jan 19, 2017,
in Gerhard’s Day One* Personal Journal

#med_painlevel = 7
Ooooowwwww
F**ng oooooow!**

The ROC (Rules of Conduct) for personal behavior of people with chronic pain states clearly that this type of whining and moaning is most unbecoming and should never ever be engaged in in public. I wouldn’t be caught dead (or near-dead) moaning like that (apart from that one time when I came out of back surgery and I was still

Ned Flanders cussing
Ned Flanders cussing

sedated. That doesn’t count).

Normally, even at home, you keep most of your ass-cramp to yourself and share it in a quiet and dignified way with a trusted loved one, or as a number on the pain scale (hash tag #med_level = 7) with your doctor. Level 1 is ‘no pain at all’. And level 9 is ‘preposterous’ — remember Space Balls where the speed of the spaceship is shown as ‘Ludicrous?’ That’s level 9 on the pain scale. If it lasted for a long time you’d be unconscious and go into shock and stuff. So, for instance, you never go to that level with your doctor. But level 9 does occasionally happen to people. Not good.

That’s why you have a journal.

Your journal is utterly private. This is where I write ‘Good morning, Lord’ between 4 and 5 am most mornings. But that is also where I let loose the most fearsome curses and abjurations. You have to do that cussing  somewhere, otherwise you’ll probably let it out on your loved ones, and they don’t deserve that. Not that early in the morning.

*Day One is a Mac/iPhone/iPad personal journaling app that I recommend. It is fantastic. No, they don’t pay me anything for the endorsement. Nobody does.
*I can back up my cussing: Richard Stephens & Claudia Umland  published an article titled Swearing as a Response to Pain — Effect of Daily Swearing Frequency in The Journal of Pain, 12 (2011) 1274-1281. doi:10.1016/j.jpain.2011.09.004.

I feel like a sacrifice, sometimes

Consider Romans 12:1:
Nice graphic of Romans 12-1 with a hillside and an ancient building in the background
Romans 12-1

Came across it first thing this morning while trying to figure out how I could afford Logos 7, the latest incarnation of my electronic reference library. I was at pain level 7, which is pretty intense, but in my case doesn’t last forever, thank God. But while it’s in force, things get a bit crazy, and I sometimes flail around for spiritual support.

I grab at anything I can find — a Bible verse, a cat, a hot water bottle to put on my lap, a cup of coffee, my pain relief playlist — particularly Michael W. Smith, or even the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Especially the MTC. And when something soothing comes my way, as it always does, I thankfully attribute it to God and thank Him for it, because the stuff provided to me to help me in my pain are often way more than coincidence.

During what was probably my worst pain flare-up of 2016, one of our wild barn cats, Alex, the loudest purrer on the farm, who has never come to me in my room, came to me and jumped up on my lap, where he proceeded to stretch his body out over my screaming upper legs. He had never done that before and has never done it since. The pain subsided almost immediately. And I could only thank God. By the way, if chemicals have stopped working for you, try a cat.

Ok, back to the business at hand. Offering myself as a living sacrifice. Wow. The implications are far-reaching. So how do I offer my body as a living sacrifice to God? We know from Church practice and theological evidence of centuries that God does not require (or will even tolerate) a Christian to go jump off a cliff or throw himself into the fire. That doesn’t make you a martyr. That makes you an idiot. And it has happened in Church history, trust me. So, offering my body as a “living sacrifice” to God is not like that. We’re Christians, not dumb-asses. And while there’s a huge overlap in the Venn diagram, there is a distinction.

So this is what I concluded about Romans 12:1 as applied to my life. Since my body is being consumed anyway, wouldn’t it be a God-pleasing “living sacrifice” if I used my pain to think of others who are in dire straits, to pray for them, and thereby to not focus on my own problems but to try and be useful to others? If I said: “I’m being sacrificed in the fire today, but I’m not sitting here feeling sorry for myself — rather, I’m praying for others; I’m deflecting my thoughts from my own physical pain and lifting my fellow-traveler up to God in my flawed and dirty, but nevertheless praying hands — am I then sacrificing myself as a living sacrifice?

And is that, according to the Apostle Paul, “true and proper worship?” Wouldn’t it be glorious if I could take this pestilence in my life and turn it into true and proper worship of God! I don’t think it’s an easy thing to do, but at least it gives me something to work on during those level 7 times. And it’s consoling to think, during a little level 7 tête à tête with old friend pain, that I might at the same time be glorifying God.

The apostle Paul was a clever dude. But he was only channeling one microscopic bit of the immense wisdom of God. One atom is enough for me.

*As a footnote: my dour Dutch Reformed Calvinist faith frowns upon the idea that I could ever please God in any way. We were taught in Sunday school that those Catholics (and others) who were trying to please God were delusional and had a works-based Old Testamentic faith that negated the atonement of Christ — nothing they did, as miserable sinners, would ever be acceptable to the Almighty. But that is too strict — and constricting — for me. I can’t subscribe to that. I’m not giving up my grace, but I’m gonna try, try, try to please God. I always do. And I always fail, of course. My best efforts are the ones that flame out most spectacularly. But I try. But besides my own feelings: the Calvinist doctrine does stipulate that we have to try to do good anyway in an effort to show God gratitude for His grace. That’s good enough for me. Even as I’m being tossed into the hearth as a piece of firewood to keep the room warm, I’ll be yelling: “I’m a sacred sacrifice to the Living God! I’m sacrificing myself!” Call me an opportunist.

I’m The Captain of my Soul

I started writing this post this morning, Pearl Harbor day, December 7, on my 62nd birthday, at 7:00 AM, at pain level 7. This is a victory for me, since before, at this level, I used to whimper and cower under a bush like a dog run over. But now I’m writing. I’m still whimpering a bit, but I’m making sure nobody hears me. But I’m writing. Writing admittedly grim stuff, with lots of typos and weird phrases, but writing. In some places I write those things that you edit out later, thinking: I was going to post THAT to my blog? In the background — OK, foreground — Michael W. Smith is singing “You are holy; holy are you, Lord God Almighty …” Anna doesn’t mind the music; in fact, I suspect that if I suddenly turned off the music she’d sit up and ask: “What was that?” She’s been doing this for forty years.


In my throes, the Victorian poet William Ernest Henley (1849–1903), a contemporary of Rudyard Kipling and Winston Churchill, came to my attention. Henley’s leg was amputated due to tuberculosis, and he wrote the poem after he was informed that the other leg would have to go too. He refused to accept this latest blow, and eventually his remaining leg was saved by a competent doctor. But lots of pain, lots of anguish.

While you ponder the poem, I’ll make my way to the kitchen and get some coffee for Anna and myself. She’s the only person I know whom you can wake up in the middle of the night and give a cup of coffee. She’s the only person I really know, period, because the day before yesterday was our fortieth anniversary.

OK, here’s the poem. Read it and think about it. There will be a short quiz.

Out of the night that covers me,Black as the pit from pole to pole,I thank whatever gods may beFor my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstanceI have not winced nor cried aloud.Under the bludgeoning of chanceMy head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tearsLooms but the Horror of the shade,And yet the menace of the yearsFinds, and shall find me, unafraid.

It matters not how st