WHY EVERY WRITER NEEDS TO KEEP A JOURNAL

The most disappointing part of my visit to the Lord Egerton castle was that I couldn’t find a single write-up by Lord Maurice Egerton of Tatton.
As a writer, I felt a sort of anti-climax with just the oral tales by the tour guide and nothing concrete by the lovelorn owner of that 52 room castle. Lord Egerton loved photography and travelling and he documented all his adventures .His journal would have therefore been a rich source of world travel tales, adventure and a peek into the feelings of the man who built a castle for the love of his life only for her to reject it. She refused to leave the sophistication of wintry England to join him in tropical Africa.

The important document was, unfortunately, stolen along with other valuables when the castle was vandalized by locals after Egerton’s death. Consequently, no matter how often I visit the place, I will never get to answer the many questions I have. Did he ever forget the lady who broke his heart and made him detest women? What informed his decision to return to Africa and lead a solitude life after he went back to fight the Second World War? Why did he choose not to have children when he was but the last surviving member of the Egerton lineage? Somehow, the answers to these questions lie in two places from whence they are irretrievable; those stolen journals and with the man who now lies six feet under. Sadly, historians, writers and poets interested in the Egerton stories will have to keep guessing and basing their writing on ‘what ifs and maybes’.

It was therefore with palpable detest and a tinge of annoyance that I read a cdertain writers’ claim that he keeps neither diaries not notes(Saturday Nation September 14th 2013). The writer, claims that he plans his work solely in his mind. ‘I believe that what cannot remain in my memory is not worth my intellectual salt’ clams the author.

How misleading!

As a teacher and writer, I feel the immense need to dismiss that statement as fast as possible before any upcoming writer or student throws their career down the mediocrity drain by following that misguided and unwise piece of careless misadvise.
According to the Psychology of learning, it is not possible for the human brain to remember everything we learn. We tend to remember the most recent occurrences. Those happenings of long ago are pushed back into the long term memory and temporarily forgotten. This therefore means that we need the aid of cues to jog our memory and help us remember what lies in our subconscious mind.
Let’s say a person decides to write, say a memoir or an autobiography. How is it possible for them to remember their life from childhood through teenage hood to adulthood if they only depend on their memory? How practical is that given that we have to master theories in university, learn new concepts at work, cram pins for ATM’s and Mpesa, remember passwords for Yahoo, face book, twitter and Linked- in and still bear in mind our spouses’ birthdays?
How accurate would Mr Raila Odinga’s recently released autobiography have been had he just depended on memory alone to document the numerous occurrences of his long political career?

In her book, ‘How Write and Sell Your Life Experiences’, America’s nationally syndicated columnist and award winning novelist Marjorie Holmes encourages writer to keep diaries and Journals. ‘Remember, you are your own best source of article ideas’. She says.
She adds that wherever they come from, ideas aren’t much use unless you write them down in a notebook. ‘For a new writer, keeping a notebook will get you into the habit of writing ideas down. Ideas are ephemeral things, likely to disappear. Whenever or wherever one occurs to you, don’t wait, stop whatever you are doing and write it down. Half an hour from now may be too late’ she concludes.
It is a fact that even in writing, practice makes perfect. The more one writes, the better they become at articulating their thoughts. Three years ago, I decided to keep a diary in the form of a blog. There, I relentlessly recorded my travels, political opinions, daily experiences, life outlook and literary events I attended. Undoubtedly, my writing has since improved. I have also learnt how to find an angle for each story I write. Since a writer cannot dare use the same method everyday (unless they want to bore readers) one needs to practice diverse styles of storytelling. This is best done through experimentation of different styles.

Biographies of great writers are filled with anecdotes of just how much they depended on their journal and diaries for inspiration and even characterization. For one, Writer F. Scott Fitzgerald of the Great Gatsby fame wrote stories based on his and his wife’s life experiences. He heavily depended on his wife Zelda’s diary to create his elusive female characters. So heavily did Scott draw from Zelda’s diaries that at one point when an editor friend of theirs wanted to publish Zelda’s ‘very interesting’ diaries, Scott completely refused.

Award winning novelist Gail Godwin, while still an aspiring writer in her 20’s, kept journals that she used as thinking out ground for her personal and professional life. She recorded her journey as an ambitious writer eager for success and trying to find her place in the world. She poured out her feelings to the tiniest of them into her journal.
One day, while researching about her town with the help of a librarian and town historian, she got the idea of turning her vast personal and professional experiences into a book that would help other writers cut out a niche for themselves. That is how Gail Godwin wrote her two very insightful and overly successful volumes ‘The Making of a Writer ‘1961-1963 and 1963-1969. They are my best friends’ Godwin says of her notebooks. ‘Even now, years later, I still mine my early journals for story ideas. The footnotes too are useful in contextualizing the political atmosphere and what I was reading then,’ she adds.
‘The longer you keep journals, the more you realize that you may need to read them again in the future. So you become more and more responsible about putting in the kind of things that one forgets-how people talk, how rooms look; very trivial things that make a moment unique. However, you must try and cut out those very personal details. Concentrate on taking a small subject and expanding it until you feel you’ve captured it right down to its tiniest detail. Whatever you do, just get out of that journal tone into the form you want.’ Says the writer of 13 novels, 2 short story collections and three non fictional books.

During the funeral service of the late Education Minister Mutula Kilonzo, one of his sons, while paying tribute to the fallen lawyer, mentioned that his dad faithfully kept a diary from his first day of work to the last. That struck me and I remember thinking to myself ‘at least I’ll one day get to read a biography of my favorite minister’.
That there is already material rich enough to coin a story of his industrious life is a pleasant reality. I do hope someone will write Mutula’s biography soon. For posterity’s sake and so that our children will know that Kenya has actually had a handful of good leaders who aren’t just interested in feeding their ever hungry stomachs or crying out ‘give me more bacon, give me more bacon,’ in a true Oliver Twist-like manner.

2 thoughts on “WHY EVERY WRITER NEEDS TO KEEP A JOURNAL

  1. AH says:

    Interesting blog you have! I feel our topics are similar and I’m kenyan too…feel free to visit my blog!

  2. samuel1arts says:

    great!
    thank you for the insight!

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