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On Writing the Inconsequential Diary


‘I hate writing, I love having written’ – Dorothy Parker

A few weeks ago, I circulated the hundredth edition of The Inconsequential Diary (ID).  It was eleven years and over 160000 words in the making at the pace of roughly ten pieces a year.  Who would have thought.

The idea for The Inconsequential Diary came to me after a business trip to KwaZulu-Natal where I wrote up some humorous incidents and circulated them to colleagues.  One of them suggested I do this from time to time, and the idea stuck.  That is how the first edition, ‘Diary from the Deep Country’, came to light on 14 February 2006.  Today it gets emailed to over 230 people in about a dozen countries.

The Inconsequential Diary is singular, but not unique, in that it covers many topics.  It’s of course more of a journal than a diary.  Successful bloggers stick to one topic and become known for that.  This hodgepodge of output needs like-minded people of similar bent to appreciate.  That is why some of my friends are not on the distribution list, whereas a few people little known to me are some of its most avid readers.  It is also why one ID entry might appeal to a reader whereas the very next might disappoint.

I’m often asked about writing, and how I go about it.  Reviewing the past one hundred editions, I’m sometimes bewildered, in retrospect, as to where the ideas came from.  In a way, it’s nothing more than non-fiction with an observer’s twist, written mostly from the first-person point of view, which has its drawbacks.  To the extent that it is my immediate experience, the incidents and happenings are easily enough available to me, for life happens to one.  The key is to recognise an event as worth writing about.  The challenge is to give the incidents salience and to elevate them to pieces worth reading.  I get it wrong at times.  Some pieces should never have been written, but I do hit the target with others; it all drops out of the mix of concocting material like this.  Someone of more reserved inclinations could take offence at a piece that those of prurient leanings enjoy.  It’s a broad body of readers, but if you dare to write, your enemy is blandness, not censure.

The diary entries take spark when some occurrence prods my mind into writing about it.  Prefatory ideas are initially dumped onto an MS Word document.  Details are then loosely sketched after which a rough structure is imposed on the piece.  It can then lie incubating for months, being crafted from time to time when the mood takes me.  This requires writing, deletion, re-writing, referencing, application.  It doesn’t come easily; a discipline underlies the fancy.  Obstacles delay publishing.  For example, the grammar of a sentence might trip me up.  Or the piece might not have ‘flow’, or it might lack ‘bite’.  Or the idea itself, entertaining at first, quickly stales after an initial flourish and doesn’t have the legs to sustain itself.  That is why I often have three pieces running concurrently which get worked on haphazardly.  Luckily there is no deadline or pressure on me to get them out – that is a luxury professional writers do not have.

Neither are the pieces of uniform standard.  At times, when my mojo is running hot, the outcome is an enduring pleasure which doesn’t fade.  Some pieces are inspired and humorous (e.g. No. 33 ‘What Air France Needs’ – one of the ‘top hits’ on my blog as ‘Threesome with a French Air Crew’) whereas others are shockers, bordering on embarrassment (e.g. No. 47 ‘Of Wine, Men and men – a Hemingway spoof’).  Some pieces are like an arrested fermentation and take over a year to get going, languishing tauntingly on my desktop and goading me to complete them (e.g. No. 84 ‘On Being Someone Else’).  But these eventually satisfy.  It’s the ones over-hyped in my mind that fade with time.

A few pieces never get circulated because they risk being misinterpreted by the politically correct crowd.  Not that they intend being offensive in any way; it’s just that the current PC ethos has gone too far in my opinion.  You have to resort to allusion, evasion and euphemism to say what everyone knows is meant.  (That is why many find Donald Trump so refreshingly frank despite what they think of his politics.  You need not decipher Trump as you do with career politicians.)  ‘BBC in Balito Bay’ was such a piece.  Graeme, Alida, Raoul, although liking it, suggested it be canned, which I did, rather than render it bland by editing out what may have given offence.  That would have killed the ‘edge’ of the piece, something which a writer should never compromise.  Luckily the overly-PC trend seems to be reversing.  The University of Chicago last year banned ‘safe areas’ from its campus, adopting as policy that engagement in dialogue and exposure to all streams of thought is good for its students.

I do have fun with my writing though.  My writer’s imprint, as everyone’s, has its distinct quirks.  It is strongly pulled to runs of alliteration (e.g. ID. 24 ‘…who, having had haddock, now wishes he had had ham…’), to metaphor in its broadest sense and at times even to zeugma (e.g. ID. 99 ‘the president’s back vanished into people and the next morning’s society pages’).   I like to use a word I just learnt wherever I can to ingrain it, “prefatory”, “velleities’  and ‘unmeet’ for example being recent additions to my vocabulary.  Where possible, I like appending photographs as they add an element of concreteness and interest to the stories.

Have I had any training in writing?  Not really, apart from reading widely and paying attention to the way people write and express themselves in different registers.  There is always a subconscious meta-thinking about language when I read, as though some part of my mind is paying attention to style, vocabulary, flow and elegance of a piece apart from its subject matter.  This requires deliberate exposure to different types of writing, for which I alas have little time these days.  I have had no training in writing apart from an extra-mural week-long writing course years ago.  One of the tasks we as a class had to do was to complete, with various endings, a story of a man sitting with a broken leg on a veranda of a house in a little town.  We were given cards stating the setting in which we had to complete the story.  For example, some had to write the story in a tragic setting, others in gaiety, others in hope, others as a fairy tale, yet others as a crime thriller, etc.  As fate would have it, and fate does seem to choose its targets with deliberation one sometimes feels – I had to complete mine in a pornographic setting.  This I had to proceed to read out to the class the next day, much to the asphyxiating horror of a religious auntie from Parow who considered it unmeet.  I’m not making this up.

I luckily have help with all of this.  In the last twenty episodes or so, I have had the good fortune to have Alida Potgieter editing my pieces.  My, what an eye she brings to the writing!  What insights, what comments!  She was in publishing for many years and worked with the books of authors like André Brink among others.  The independence of a corrective eye is important in anything one does.  And then there is Graeme Comrie, who is a professional sub-editor and who comes up with titles for the pieces now and again.  Leta Naudé did a sterling job of reading over the pieces as a final edit.  I stand indebted to them.  Of course, any faults and oversights are entirely mine.

I’m often asked whether I would want to become a writer.  ‘One day when I’m grown up’ is my reply.  When I look at the magnificent literary corpus out there, it’s terribly discouraging, but perhaps I will one day get around to making a small addition to it, if not a contribution.  What I’ll write about I’m not sure, although ‘alternative travel’ does take my fancy.  One of my many velleities includes writing a libretto for an opera.  Another is that, as a crypto-autobiography, I’ll write the story of a little village choir, replete with characters and events and all, who dream of one day singing in the capital but who are not good enough despite everything so never get there, narrowly failing every year at the regional finals in wrenching disappointment… but who, despite that, pick themselves up and get their hopes high again for the following year’s competition, which they know they’ll never win…  Kafka always lurks, you see.

Now there is another diary, a personal one I keep for my eyes only.  Be ever grateful that what’s there will never assault your eyes.

Otherwise, it remains for me to thank you for reading and for your correspondence over the years.  Your comments in particular keep me going, especially from those whom I call my ‘mole readers’.  These are people who read for fifteen to twenty episodes or so, never saying a word, but who unexpectedly respond to an ID submission that somehow intrigues them.  The time of week I send out the pieces also has a bearing on the response rate – pieces sent out on a weekend don’t elicit as much correspondence.  Also, I’m sure that the usual Gaussian distribution of readership occurs – from readers who never fail to read an edition to those who read hardly any at all with the bulge of readers falling between these poles.  The ID is, however, a way in which I keep in touch with people I haven’t seen in a long time.

Do I have the wherewithal for another hundred editions?  I might just.  The next edition of Inconsequential Diary follows in a few weeks, as always.

All the very best