Category Archives: Books, Writing, Reading

All about literature — both highbrow and for the rest of us, and how we write it and read it

Yesu’s Baboon

I don’t really know where this book came from.
I’ll tell you what I know.
In the spring of 2008 I wrote a short story for a Theology and Literature seminar at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta. The seminar was taught by Dr. David Pacini, with the assistance of Dr. Stacia Brown, now Pelletier, a successful novelist in her own right. 
    While looking for a story idea, I remembered an interview that Krista Tippet of NPR had conducted with the late Dr. Jaroslav Pelikan, a famous theologian who converted to Easter Orthodoxy late in his life. They spoke about Dr. Pelikan’s collection of creeds from many different belief systems.

Maasai jumping
Maasai warrior jumping

One of the interesting creeds that Pelikan highlighted was the Maasai creed. Nineteenth century missionaries had written a version of the Apostles’ creed that was ‘translated’ into the Maasai world.
     You can see a transcript of the interview here, and the full text of the creed here.
     I wrote the story, from the first person, of a Maasai boy, a little cattle herder, who lost his way, metaphorically speaking, and stole a goat from a neighboring village. From there on, his life went from bad to worse, and he ended up in jail in the big city, Dar es Salaam. In prison, the regional parole officer, Captain Ndulu, calls him a baboon. But he also gives him the Maasai creed. the protagonist uses the Creed to clear up the muck and start “seeing” into his own mind again, where the spark of God lives.
    A couple of years later, around 2010, I started tinkering with the story to prepare it for inclusion in a bundle I wanted to publish. I got inspired, and when I looked up, I was at 1,700 words.  I thought Ok, it’s definitely not a short short story anymore. But there was more to do: some pre-shadowing—just setting things up nicely to give more impact to this final words of the story. That took me to 28,000 words.
   I don’t recall much of writing the eighteen or nineteen thousand words that pushed me over the boundary from story to novelette to novel. That part is still a bit of a mystery.
    The last phase was laborious crafting, using Scrivener and Aeon Timeline.
    Finally I started self-editing—writing and fixing and writing and fixing—until one day I couldn’t take it no more and sent it off to my editor, ready or not.
    I guess in that respect my book is like poetry—a good poem is never completed; it is abandoned in despair.

 

 

 

 

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.

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 strait the gate,How charged with punishments the scroll,I am the master of my fate:I am the captain of my soul.

I’m back with coffee. Gave Anna her mug. Got a kiss for my trouble. Hey, Agamemnon started a war for less. [sip] I swear this stuff can not only cure cancer but possibly raise the dead. Cannot do without it. The coffee ain’t bad either. My name is Gerhard and I’ll be here all week.

Before we discuss, let’s just unpack some of the stuff between the lines.

In the first stanza,

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

there are some clues to the eternal nature of the horror facing us: the “pit” in the second line refers to hell, “night” and “black” set a pretty dark tone as well. “Whatever gods may be” says the poet is not sure of the aid or even of the existence of a helping God. But in the mist of this picture of hell stands his soul: “unconquerable.” This “unconquerable” anchors the poem to its title; it’s simply the English word for the Latin title: Invictus.

The second stanza details the powers arrayed against him:

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

The first stanza already placed him in a hellish situation; now he is in the “fell clutch” of this random earth. “Fell” is the favorite word of Tolkien, for instance, to describe the hellish forces of orcs, demons, and evil gods (or “wizards” in Middle Earth). He is “bludgeoned” by this randomness (“chance”), and his head is bloody. But again, just as in the first stanza, his soul defies all these forces of darkness: he has not winced or cried out, and his head is still “unbowed.” Still invictus!

More of the same in third stanza:

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.

This hellish earth is a place of “wrath and tears,” which is self-explanatory. There is also the horror of “the shade.” In antiquity, the souls of the departed were not the immortal rays of spiritual light they are now; the departed were thought of as weak and powerless versions of our vital selves — mere shadows of our human bodies. Shades. The final scene in the Russel Crowe movie “Gladiator,” which paints his return home after his death, although triumphant, is set in shades of gray and in slow motion. Thus “shade” refers to death here. The years “menace” us, because inexorably with the years come old age and, of course, death. “And yet,” he says, death will find him how? “Unafraid!” See the pattern? In each stanza, first the forces of evil, then his unconquered soul, still standing.

It matters not how strait the gate,How charged with punishments the scroll,I am the master of my fate:I am the captain of my soul.

As we’ve come to expect, the last stanza begins with a detailing of the forces arrayed against us. Note how easy it has become by now to substitute “ourselves” for “the poet.” By now, he is speaking for all of humanity. The “strait” gate refers to the fact, in my opinion, that the Christian way of salvation is not necessarily open to him. Matthew 7:13, (*NIV*) reads: “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. “Strait” has the meaning of “narrow” in the poem, as in sea straits.

In a similar Biblical vein, the scroll into which his name should have been written is, instead, full of indictments of his past sins. The dice are loaded against him. But by now we know that he will defy all this. And he does. “I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.”

Now pay attention, class. He is not saying that he is stronger than God or “whatever god (there) may be,” or resistant to the bludgeoning of fate, or even qualified to get into eternal glory through the narrow gate. No, he is the master and captain of his soul because he, and only he, and not even God, controls how he reacts to his circumstances.

Yes, I said “not even God.” How can I say this? Because God gave each human being free will. He wanted us to have the power to love him; to choose to serve him out of our own accord. There was no claw-back clause. We were stuck with our new, exciting world, the one in which we were master and captain.

I think Tom Petty is saying the same thing when he sings, in I won’t back down:

No, I won’t back downYou can stand me up at the gates of hellBut I won’t back downNo, I’ll stand my ground, won’t be turned aroundAnd I’ll keep this world from draggin’ me downGonna stand my ground and I won’t back down.

Being invictus means that you, my dear reader, are in full control of how you react to your circumstances, no matter how grim they may be. If you get gangrene in your leg, you cannot control the fact that your leg will have to be amputated. But when your loved one walks in you must decide whether you say: “I love you, thanks for coming” or “Leave me alone, I’m in pain. Go away.” The leg? Slings and arrows of outrageous fortune (or God, if you’re so inclined) are responsible for that one. But how you react to its loss and the pain and heartache? Look to the captain of your soul.

How is a devoted Christian to read this poem? Well, the bludgeonings of chance have done a number on me, too, so on some days I can’t even manage to get out of bed without my faith (imperfect as it is) in God. Note very well that I’m not saying that I’m a man of God who has an angel sitting on my shoulder 24×7. I am saying that I’m a poor, broken human being and that I sometimes fall asleep while I’m praying and sometimes don’t say a word to God for a week. And we all worry about having a few entries in that scroll when our final trumpet sounds.

As a Christian I’m not living in a hotel for saints; I’m languishing in a hospital for sinners. And as a Christian I’m not afraid to say: “I’m the captain of my soul.” But I wouldn’t want to steer that sucker without God in wheel house.

If I Had A Hammer – The Sayings of Thomas à Kempis

Original post by Gerhard Venter, May 7, 2013

In this post I tell how I came to start reading The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis, whose Dutch surname was Haemerken (Afrikaans “hamertjie”) — little hammer. And his book is a little hammer, if there ever was one. I’m putting my reading life back together bit by bit. I don’t have a reading plan. I’m suspicious of plans. I just think broadly of the kind of things I want to read.

Fifteenth century mystics are not what I want to read right now. In fact, right now I’m reading The German Way of War by Citino as part of my self-imposed course of study in military history (but that’ a blog post in itself). In the process of trying to establish some semblance of order, I think of a very old technique to get your stuff together: positive affirmations.

I was in my early twenties back in Pretoria when I started dabbling in positive thinking. I got Paul J. Meyers Success Motivation Institute system and pasted positive affirmations (surely a tautology) up on my mirror; inane sayings such as “I get up every morning excited about the person I might help that day.” Don’t you just want to slap the man? Anyway. So I begin to look for some sensible affirmations — ones I can believe in.

In the process a website named http://biblia.com snags the seam of my toga and I have to pause. Mmm. They have wonderful books in there: Several Bibles, some in Hebrew and Greek (with the real orthographies); they have Luther, Calvin — everybody who is anybody. My eye catches The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis. Yeah, I’ve known about The Imitation for many years. These guys used to beat themselves over the back with little cats-o-nine tails they carried with them in silver boxes. Wore hair shirts and stuff. Really into their suffering.

Suffering . . . aha! One of my favorite topics. So I begin to read The Imitation of Christ. After the first page I’m wide-eyed like Ali Baba after he lights the first candle to see what treasure there might be in the cave. Dear Lord, thank You for a resource like this! For insight, for wisdom, for wit, for rules for living like this! This pre-modern man writes rules of thumb such as:

“He does much who loves much. He does much who does a thing well. He does well who serves the common good rather than his own interests.”

Note that this is not quite a corporate “How to get your own way, no matter what” philosophy. But that’ okay by me at this time in my life. So, instead of compiling a reading list, I spend the next several work hours copying out aphorisms and and epigrammata (I’m not sure exactly what they are, either, except short witty sayings) into flashcards at Quizlet so I can hang onto them as tightly as possible.

I called à Kempis a “pre-modern man.” That certainly shows. To mine 21st century affirmations from him, you must do a certain amount of violence to his work by cherry-picking passages, because he was a religious and a mystic.

We squirm a little bit at concepts such as having Christ as your Divine Lover and doing violence to your own body. 99.99999999999% of us aren’t quite at that point. And if you want to be fair to the author, you need to remember that that’ the core of his work — indeed, of his soul. But his deep wisdom surely lifted my spirits and continues to do so.

The Monk’ To Do List

Originally posted on June 14, 2013

I started reading Thomas à Kempis to find some affirmations for my daily life, which, like everyone else’s, I suppose, can be challenging. Being a monk doesn’t exempt a person from work. I’ve met monks who told me one could become exhausted, because in some orders they don’t get a lot of sleep. Anyway, The Imitation of Christ is a treasure trove! Listen to these hints for the monk’ (and mine!) daily to-do list. First, general priorities:

“On the day of judgment, surely, we shall not be asked what we have read but what we have done; not how well we have spoken but how well we have lived” (Book 1, Ch.3)

Next, how do I prioritize my daily activities? Carefully, and in accordance with what pleases God:

“A good and devout man arranges in his mind the things he has to do, not according to the whims of evil inclination but according to the dictates of right reason” (Ch. 4)

What should my attitude be towards work? Do everything well and with love:

“He does much who loves much. He does much who does a thing well. He does well who serves the common good rather than his own interests.” Book 1, Ch. 15.

Is it OK for a monk (or for me) to just read a lot or should our work be a bit more practical than that?

“On the day of judgment, surely, we shall not be asked what we have read but what we have done; not how well we have spoken but how well we have lived” (Book 1, Ch. 3)

Some days at the office are doozies. Work can be true suffering at times. How do we handle that?

“You have come to serve, not to rule. You must understand, too, that you have been called to suffer and to work, not to idle and gossip away your time. Here men are tried as gold in a furnace” (Book 1, Ch.17)

Finally, check your to-do list as a daily routine:

“Each day we ought to renew our resolutions and arouse ourselves to fervor as though it were the first day of our religious life. We ought to say: “Help me, O Lord God, in my good resolution and in Your holy service. Grant me now, this very day, to begin perfectly, for thus far I have done nothing'” (Book 1, Ch.19)
“. . . In the morning make a resolution and in the evening examine yourself on what you have said this day, what you have done and thought . . .” (Book 1, Ch. 3)

If you’re diligent, and you achieve something, albeit small, every day, you will feel fulfilled:

“If you have spent the day profitably, you will always be happy at eventide” (Book 1, Ch. 25)

I don’t think I’ve ever mined this quantity of gems from a single book, apart from the Bible. Mother lode! The Imitation of Christ is available free all over the Web. Check it out.

National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo)

gods-grandchildren-morgan-tcboo-e1477275117220This is a very important day! Today, I’m going to plunge into NaNoWriMo. This means starting my Sci Fi novel, God’s Grandchildren. I have a sort of an outline ready, but it’s not the detailed outline that James Patterson does. That’s probably the reason why Patterson writes eight books per month and I don’t. But we’ll see. If you know me, please hold thumbs for me (or spit in your cat’s eye — whatever your culture demands).
If you want to know more about NaNoWriMo, click here:
And so — off to work!