#360Mentor is a continuation of the #40DayMentor series. In this episode, Robert Kabushenga (RK) speaks to Daniel Kalinaki (DK) on Good Writing Skills.
RK: Many people want to know if you were born a writer. Someone asked if you were born with a pen in your hands. How did you become an articulate writer who can be understood?
DK: Good Evening Robo.
RK: You can call me that and you get a chance for me to pour for you some coffee.
DK: I have not tasted your coffee. Apologies in advance if I spit it. (laughs)
RK: No chance. (laughs) You had better compliment me otherwise I will throw you off the set.
DK: Let me reserve my comment till the end. Thanks for having me. It’s great to be here.
RK: The question that I always ask people when I host them on #360Mentor is very simple. Were you actually born? 2) Were you born with a pen in hand?
DK: I am not sure I was born. I was delivered. I arrived. I didn’t have a hand in it. Let me begin with two things. The first one is I have known you for many years. 20 plus years. We have worked together. We have been rivals. I am very happy to see that it took the end of your career for you to become useful.
RK: (laughs) Oh my God!
DK: I love what you’re doing; bringing people together to share their experiences is a good thing. The other thing is a complaint because you had pretty accomplished people here. You had Judy come to speak about real estate. You’ve had people who have climbed mountains. You had Francis speak about tax. My good friend Hillary spoke about making money and you have brought me here to speak about poems.
RK: No. No. No. Writing. We are still in prose. There is a lesson I thought I would bring in at the end but I think I can share it now: Every opportunity is an opportunity to learn. The fact that me and Daniel can sit together to chat after 15 years of rivalry should teach you an important lesson. By the way, we worked together before that in the same place, then we went into competition.
DK: You tried to hire me once, you remember?
RK: Exactly! For the young people out there, my advice to you: do not take work issues especially rivalry personally.
DK: And do not accept every job offer you are given. (laughs)
RK: Oh God! What an evening! Tell us, when did your journey start?
DK: So I wasn’t born with a pen in my hand. My journey started when I was uprooted from Kitante Primary School and taken to boarding school. There was this teacher Opio Caleb. His idea was that you teach young people by reading and writing newspapers.
DK: So I started a writer’s club at Kamuli Boys. That’s when I started writing. I was 8 and I think my first position was deputy editor.
RK: At 8, you’re a deputy editor?
DK: The editor was in the upper classes. When they left, I became the full editor. I ran a school newspaper all the way till my A level.
RK: The one you were running at school; was it a real newspaper or malice?
DK: It was better than some of the tabloids you have today. Handwritten. Posted up on the noticeboard about the goings-on in school.
RK: Where were you for High School?
DK: Mwiri for O level and Makerere High for A level. When I joined Mwiri, Andrew Mwenda was editing the Mwiriran. I came in when he was in S6. When I came, I started another one and ran it through.
RK: When I was at Namasagali, we ran the Riverside Review. I used to write a bulletin published every morning. We would have to handwrite and copy all the news that came off BBC. And guess who I succeeded in that role as Minister of Information; Conrad Nkutu!
DK: Small world!! People always ask, how did you get into writing? I think you don’t get into writing, writing gets into you. At that age you are very deliberate with what you want to do. Circumstances happen and you just carry on with what you want to do.
RK: …and you start enjoying it.
DK: Not really. I was very small and I discovered that I could get back at the bullies by writing.
RK: So the pen is mightier than the sword?
DK: … than the bullies. So defiance came from that formative time.
RK: No wonder you wrote a book about a man who is defiant.
DK: I thought we said no politics
RK: I agree. I want to take you back to something you said on twitter. “It is premium ocular secretions” what is that?
DK: Premium tears. It’s just a play. I try to write very simply. And the writing I am talking about is my column and every so often, I will introduce a word to people. English is a foreign language and we learn it. We have been speaking it since we were young. And it’s a broad language. It’s not static. It evolves. Every so often, you find words that are very interesting and I want to share them in the column. But I don’t believe in bombast. So you will find one or two words in a column.
RK: When I was still on radio at the Capital Gang, we invited someone who is now a minister. He wrote to us a letter explaining why he couldn’t come on the show. It was four paragraphs but we could not understand a word.
DK: It’s a play. Pick a word, put it in there. Get some people to think about it. Young readers will probably encounter it for the first time or just see it in context and hopefully take something from it. It is not an attempt to sound clever using big words. It’s just taking liberties with the language.
RK: Speaking about liberties, you said you were a Mwirian. That was a boys’ school. For us who were in a mixed school, there were two important writing skills you had to have. One was writing an exam and the other one was writing an application letter to a girl. And you know how we would start it? “May it fly to…”
So the language had to be flowery. And you put it in an envelope and you made sure there was a flower inside so that the scent went with it…
DK: and then perfume it.
RK: No. there was no perfume. You used the cover of soap.
DK: You’re traumatised. (laughs). I did Mwiri for four years and Makerere High for my A levels. But I don’t remember writing a love letter actually.
RK: You were very unfortunate! Actually you’re very fortunate. The worst thing that could ever happen to you when you wrote a love letter was to go for prep and find it pinned on the noticeboard.
DK: That’s the equivalent of having your DMs screenshot and put out there.
RK: Not even your DMs, your nudes being leaked.
DK: The point is that young people today are missing out on the art of writing. I still keep a post office box and nothing gives me as much pleasure as receiving mail. Usually it’s a cheque. Every so often you will receive a magazine. I like to subscribe to things, I have the digital version and a hard copy. That feeling!
Young people are losing the art of writing. First of all, the courage to write a love letter. I imagine it takes a bit of courage. The creativity required to put words together. The teenage. The sweaty palms. Then the declaration of love. That I think manifests itself in other ways when it gets to adulthood. If you have never written a love letter then you do not know the context, the pursuasion that you need to make it out.
There are so many forms of writing. There is religious writing. Legal writing. Academic writing…
RK: Before we even get there, you kindly breakdown for us, writing per say irrespective of the type, as a skill. Why is it such an important skill?
DK: Because it’s biblical. In 1631, a version of the bible was produced and I don’t know how good your biblical knowledge is, but in the 7th commandment, there was a word missing. The word ‘not’.
RK: First tell us, what is the 7th commandment?
DK: Thou shall not commit adultery.
RK: And the word “not” had been omitted?
DK: Yes. It was a massive scandal. By the time they discovered, a lot of copies had gone out. About 10,000 of them. It scandalised the brethren but justified the others. One word makes all the difference. This is a religious text. Writing is important in the sense that first of all, you have to get it right. But also it is a repository of knowledge.
We have oral traditions all around the world many of which get lost when pandemics come and wipe people out. But the art of writing, when it is invented, is able to transmit knowledge from one civilisation to another. A lot of the civilisation as we know it today would not be if there wasn’t storage of knowledge in written form. So it is important to that aspect.
The other thing is that people tend to narrow writing to just only the text whether it is a writing a letter or an application. But there are many forms of writing that young people do not consider as writing when indeed are going to become increasing more important like song writing.
RK: So you must have the skill to write.
DK: Yes. Think about movie scripts. There is an art to it. There is a process.
RK: Even if you are to live in the digital world, you have to know how to write.
DK: Unfortunately, that is becoming a lost art and I blame the mobile phone. We have now gone back to the holographic, to the Egyptians.
RK: So we’ve gone back to 5000 years ago?
DK: Yes, to the emoji. That’s where they start. And we get back now to the emoji. They are very convenient. You have them on the go, lots of them keep coming up. As a result of that, many people have lost the art of writing a sentence.
RK: And also because the social media spaces where we operate do not lend themselves to proper writing.
DK: I was thinking, if someone wanted to write, in a few years ago, they would run a blog. But blogs have become kind of old school. Now it takes an art to be able to tell a story in 280 characters. Many people who want to write do not have a platform where to write. An entire generation is growing up without the opportunity to go from words, to sentences, paragraphs and chapters. To books.
RK: I have got this friend of mine; he is South African. He used to work in the office of the President during Thabo Mbeki’s time. They had been given an assignment and when they finished, they asked for some time to share their report to him. They arrived with their report. The guy just cut them half way. He said he had read the report. He had read the whole report. The question I guess from that report is how much is the ability to read a contributor to the writing skill.
DK: It’s essential.
DK: Young children learn to read first before they learn how to write. You need the body of knowledge and understand then add your knowledge to it.
If you are not reading, then where are you getting the art from?
RK: From the conversations.
DK: It is not the same thing.
DK: Oral tradition is a fantastic tradition. One of the things I enjoy the most is listening to Paul Kafeero songs. It’s proper poetry. The oratory is so rich. If you listen to Luganda news readers or even other languages, they are rich.
That’s all well and good. But you cannot just transform that into text. Some of the people who speak very well can’t write to save their lives.
Reading is the foundation. Most writers will tell you. I have just found a way to express myself. The problem people have is that people are not reading.
RK: Especially adults.
DK: Because if children see what you are doing, they do.
RK: Monkey see, monkey do.
DK: You have people proudly telling you “I don’t read” like it is a badge of honour. But there is knowledge in books so how do you access that knowledge? Reading is very important and reading all sorts of things. I remember I spent much of my time of maths class with a copy of the reader’s digest under the desk because I was absolutely not interested in maths. I knew if I worked so hard I would get a C6. Reading transports you. One of the things that worked for me is that in my primary seven vacation, I spent the whole of it at our farm in the village. And my dad had the compendium readers’ digests. Laws of Uganda… so after the chores with nothing to do, you’d sit with the book. You don’t understand half of it but you are picking up structure and syntax and all sorts of things.
You have to read to collect the clay. To learn the rules of how people, weave words together. I don’t know whether this happens to you or I’m just weird. Sometimes you read something so good that you actually pause. You spot a beautiful sentence. It is like going through a museum and spotting a beautiful piece. Or reading a book and you don’t want it to come to an end. So you keep a page but you are itching.
To write, you must read.
RK: Rule #1 to all the people who have been asking how to become a good writer, there’s no shortcut. You must start by acquiring the reading skill. And you don’t have to read Shakespeare or Wole, it helps, you grow. After a while, you begin to grow in the feet of the writer.
RK: What I found amazing in my earlier years of reading fiction, especially of the African writers. One of the worst things that ever happened to the African continent was the collapse of the African Writers Series. You read Chinua Achebe, then Peter Abrams, Ngugi then Wole, Ben Okri, Sembene. The way they were able to teach themselves the art of writing is very amazing. You can have diverse ways of storytelling.
Tell us, for your own good, how crucial is the art of storytelling?
DK: Before we even get to that, I thought we could speak of three different tips of writing.
- The personal: On the socials, it is important to get it right. If the starting letter is not capital, it just signifies a sense of unseriousness. If someone sends you a whatsapp that does not make sense, so they have typed it out but have not read it to themselves to see what it says, they are not paying attention to detail. If you have two contractors that you have to give a job, and one of them sends you a flawless well written application and the other sends you something that is not well written, you will go with the one with a well written one.
Someone asked a question on how important the thinking process is. I think writing reflects conceptualisation or its absence. At the personal there is the need to be clear then translates into the official writing.
Imagine if you are applying for a job. A typical job will have about 5,000 applicants. If you send a plain vanilla letter, you get passed over. Oliver Murrya, a Canadian journalist one time let me read an application he was writing for a job he was applying for and I was blown away. He wasn’t just saying I’m applying for the job whatever whatever… no. He found out about the guy who was hiring. This was in 2001… he just told a story and that is the job he went to after leaving here. It is not just about getting it right, you’re competing.
RK: So what you’re saying is that in the world, we are 7 billion people, how are you going to get attention if you are muddled up? How do capture someone’s attention in the first paragraph?
DK: I write a column. There are about 30 columns in the paper, how do you jump out? No one reads all of them. That is the mindset that you need to be noticed. You need to be clear in your thinking.
- The organisation: Every so often I help organisations to clarify their writing, you read through and ask them what are you trying to say? The Economist recently had an article about how business leaders hide in jargon. Organizations have lots of people who learn the language. “Main streaming gender” “customer care is our DNA”.
We think it fits in but if an organisation cannot clarify what its mission is in the simplest way possible, it will probably go off the tracks.
The thing about Apple. If you have probably read Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs, he tells of the fastidiousness with which Steve Jobs tried to simplify things. He was obsessed with simplicity. One of the things I learnt from reading that book is that simplicity is the highest form of complexity. He wrote a simple book about a complex man about simplifying complexity.
RK: How do you simplify your writing without feeling that you don’t have gravitas? Wole Soyinka once argued “if it takes me six months to write a poem, why you want to understand it in one hour? Read Wole’s hard work, but the point is how do you become simple and accessible in your writing without being either childish or whatever it is that you want?
DK: I will tell you a story. When I was starting to write my column, I was trying to sound clever. And I thought you have to be clever. You have to have a strong argument. For a while I thought I wrote strong arguments but I was not being authentic both to myself and my readers. I was trying too hard. I thought I was not speaking to the audience. You were talking about the African Writers Series, those guys sprung up with revolutionary creativity. They found text and exploded in kaleidoscope of colours and stories. Then you find the guys writing in the 60s and 70s were writing for that audience. A friend, John Nagenda writes for the guys that used to drink at Kampala Club but are long retired. Very elegant writing but it’s all icing sugar, no cake. There is no harm in simplifying. You must know your audiences.
I don’t write for PhD guys. I am not clever enough to do that. I write for a secondary school teacher in Mityana. If I am able to bring a common sense argument to him or get him to get to ask questions then I have achieved my purpose.
RK: Can I just filter that argument, therefore, if you want to be an effective writer, know who you want to talk to and therefore what is the best delivery mechanism?
DK: That is basically rule #2: know your audience. If you want to write for PhDs, that’s fine, there is language for that. There is a structure for that. If you want to write for the ordinary people, that is a different ballgame. If you don’t know your audience you are going to hit all over the map. And there’s no shame in being simple.
RK: Let me tell you my own experience. The first assignment I had when I arrived as legal officer of New Vision was to draft a letter. In LDC, one of the lessons they teach you is how to write a legal letter. William Pike then sends me a letter and asks me to respond to it. I wrote and used the word obdurately. But William had to clear the letter. He was furious. He told me to never ever write a letter as complicated as that. In that one experience the man taught me how to write simply.
DK: And the funny thing that you mention law, I have lawyers in the family who’re fairly in high ranks and write very simply because they have realised that you don’t have to write all this jargon because you are hiding your deficiencies behind it. So if you have a lawyer and they are writing a letter and it does not make sense to you, chances are, they are hiding their deficiencies behind the jargon. You have an NGO that is writing things that you do not understand, chances are they are not doing anything on the ground. So that clarity of thinking will be reflected in the clarity of writing.
RK: Talk more about jargon and bombast
DK: Jargon are the weeds in writing. The thing is you learn the rules of writing so you can break them. So every so often you can use jargon but deliberately. So you have clichés, jargons and bombast. All the things you are not supposed to do. It is like whisky. You are not supposed to have it, but you will have one every so often deliberately. If you are using jargon throughout your writing, then you are a drunkard.
In terms of official communication, you have to be clear. And understood once you learn the rules.
Not everyone will get into the creative side. Everyone will get into the personal, the official. Not everyone gets into the creative category. Let’s forget the other forms. If you start by being clear in the personal, then that will feed into your official writing. Don’t use two words where one can do. Write short sentences.
I like to write long sentences and one of my brothers hates it. But I do it deliberately. I want to see how long I can take a sentence. I read it to myself and I am out of breath, I will cut it. Sometimes I will do a 200-word sentence and see if I can punctuate it well.
The reason people get into the jargons and the clichés is because they do not have enough material. The actual content is lacking. If you are comfortable in your skin, then you begin to take liberties. If you say it will end in premium tears, you picked something that a particular audience identifies and it will drag them into reading something that they could not have read in the first place.
The column I did two weeks ago, I picked it off a song from Japan. It takes a lot of work to run a column every week. You have to give it up to Charles Onyango Obbo who has been running a column for the last 25 years consistently. But you get bored. I have not written a column that I have enjoyed it in more than a year. But you need to have the firewood. I like to pick a line from a song and see if someone will pick it up from there and see if it blends. Once you are then comfortable, you then do not need jargon.
RK: I used to like to end mine with a quote.
DK: Maybe in the 60s
RK: Don’t make me feel old, man!
DK: You see it a lot once people get into creative writing, there’s lots of devices; similes, metaphors etc… The other thing that people do, and I find a lot of interest in, is non text writers, for instance my book on Besigye begins at the end. Do you know where I get that from? The movie ‘Reservoir Dogs’ by Tarantino. It starts at the end. Anyone who wants to be a writer might want to take liberties. Borrow from different formats and styles. Borrow but don’t copy.
RK: That anchors you. In law, there is the thing about writing judgements. One of the interesting judges is Lord Denning. He always started with the ruling. Most judges will bring it at the end.
DK: I did not speak to Tarantino but he did not originate the style. Someone like Kalundi Sserumaga will tell you of someone who has done it. Just take the idea and see if you can execute it.
RK: In terms of writing, does language matter?
DK: Absolutely! It does. One of my regrets is that while I can read Luganda fairly well, I can’t write it as well as I can read it.
RK: The reason why I am smiling is that I completely identify with you on that. At my former work place, I got very deeply involved with the Bukedde newspaper. I found that I had to read it every day. It was amazing. I have noticed one thing; while my Luganda has improved greatly, my Rukiga has stunted and my Lugisu has become rusty because I am not using it.
DK: I read Bukedde, these days not so much. The way those guys express themselves. Because everyone is trying to read in English, many of us think in different languages and I think what would be useful is that people should start expressing themselves in native languages. In languages where they feel very comfortable where they can bring colour and description and get out of the straight jacket of English as the only language. The reason I listen to kadongo kamu, is that those guys are very clever. The use of language and the story telling. They will tell a story in a song in a way you will not find in a conventional writer.
RK: I will have to pin you down on that, what are the rules of storytelling in written form?
DK: It depends on what you are writing about. The subject usually determines the devices that you use. I do not have structure. For me, the subject will determine the story and the way I tell the story. When I take the example of clay, I take story telling as pottery. You need to have the material. It could be fiction so it’s in your head or nonfiction, so it is real. You need the clay and the water (language) then you begin moulding.
Traditional African story telling began by setting the scene: once upon a time, there was this. Then they would introduce a character, a village… they created a string, built up suspense and then delivered something at the end.
Then we got the inverted pyramid which was an import by the telegraph because the communication line was unstable. Give the most important details at the beginning. That corrupts a lot of our story telling. People need to find the story you want to tell and see how other people render that story. Do you need to introduce characters, do you have the suspense, do you want to deliver the bombshell at the beginning and then explain how it came to that?
I don’t think there is a template for those things. You listen to your heart. You will know it when you get it.
RK: What is the practice that can help you to achieve the clarity of thought that you can then deliver on paper or keyboard?
DK: Some people begin with the headline. Other people begin with the end. I try to begin with ‘what am I trying to say?’ There used to be this thing in journalism school: imagine a relative is going upcountry and you want to send them to deliver a message to your grandmother and you only have 10 seconds to tell them, what is your synopsis?
It is just one sentence. If you can clarify the synopsis, then the rest is adding fat to it.
RK: What I find very helpful to me is that I use numbers to structure. The first thing I do before I write anything, is to layout out a structure. I outline all the information I want in that document in no particular order. Then I go back and prioritise it. Then extract the lessons I want.
DK: When you feel like you want to write, look into yourself and your experiences. That is a good place to start.
RK: Why would I assume that my experiences are so important that people will want to read about them?
DK: Well, are they unique enough? Is it an interesting story? Would your friends find it fascinating? If it isn’t fascinating enough to your friends, if you crack a joke and your friends don’t laugh I don’t think it’s a good idea to go on stage as a comedian. You probably want to do something else. Not everyone would be a writer. Anyone can write.
RK: Let’s get this clear; not everyone will be a compelling writer in the sense of having a big audience but everybody needs to be a clear writer.
DK: Yes. You couldn’t put it any better than that. You can be a clear writer whether it is an sms, a whastapp text or an email. That is functional. If you don’t want to be a writer, that’s fine. If you don’t want to be a writer and it doesn’t work out, it’s fine. No one goes to hell for not being a writer. In fact, hell is full of writers. Not everyone will be a compelling writer. God knows how many books are illegible. But there will be people who have the talent but don’t know they have the talent because they have not tried out.
If you want to try, find a story and write about it. In writing class, they used to ask us to find an inanimate story and write about it. Can you write an interesting story about an empty cup of coffee?
RK: You talked about different writing styles, you’re talking about the Time magazine and how it has helped you build a good writing structure, is it advisable to go and read different writers to look at?
DK: Absolutely. First of all, writing is a very lonely exercise. To paraphrase someone, to write is to suffer. Reading a book gives you the confidence to try but also allows you to pick different approaches. There is no harm in seeing what other people write. Different writers bring very different creative writing devices. Courage is 99% of writing.
RK: Let me tell you something else that has happened to me as a result of having the modest writing skills that I have. It was taught to me by Conrad Nkuttu. How to think on paper. Even for your normal clarity, you need to write on paper. Even your ambitions and dreams. So I find that for me to be functional, I no longer have the structure I used to have. If you muddle up in your writing, there is no way you can plan your life.
One of the questions that came up was how to write a CV, give me a comment, what do you think of CVs?
DK: I kind of gloss over CVs. I’m interested in the resume and the personal statements. The younger guys will find that if they are applying to college, the ability to understand yourself from a third person to know where you are coming from and where you going does not just clarify your thinking but also helps with clarifying your career.
I am not sure how many employers are looking at the stories of adversity but I think most people want to see whether you are an interesting guy. They want to see if you are some one they can work with in the office. The shortlisted guys have the same experience and skills; you are looking for a guy you will have a drink with.
RK: Someone asked, what is your normal writing day like?
DK: I spend my day doing boring things called administration and management. I don’t think there is a normal writing day. One of the beauties of journaling is that no days are the same. You can never know how a day will go. We call it the daily miracle. I don’t really have a normal day.
Tina: On long sentences, what would be the limit if you are going to write long sentences and does the punctuation apply in that case?
DK: My view is write short sentences.
RK: How do you develop the discipline?
DK: Get out whatever you want to write, read it out to yourself, if you run out of breath while reading it, it’s too long. Then the easiest way to reduce the length of a sentence, find unnecessary words and kill them like adjectives repetitions. If you can remove a word and not lose meaning of the sentence, do away with it.
Ugaman: Is it advisable to keep taking notes every time an idea comes to mind?
DK: Usually at night. But that’s for me because I have a day job and at night its quiet and the world is at peace. But I think write wherever you can and want. You don’t have to write the full thing. Just scribble it down. You don’t have to write the full thing you can always expound when you are in the right frame of mind.
Seanice: How best can one instil into a young person the craft of writing?
DK: Good question, I think the best way is to instil in them the habit of reading. Then you can ask them to write what they think about what they have read. It allows them to access text and ease their way of writing.
Julie: What are the contents of your schedule?
DK: A lot of my stuff is in the head. I am one of those people who live in my head. My notebook has a lot of things many of which I abandon when I start writing.
Eddie: What is the best way of writing a personal statement?
DK: It’s been a while since I wrote one. But I will say, be authentic and find something interesting to say about yourself and where you want to go.
RK: I find that the best way to start is to write the truth about yourself.
DK: Do not embellish in how you are an orphan, how you suffered. Many people are writing that.
RK: Don’t try to find an adversity that did not exist. There is no problem if you had a good life growing up.
Julius Muganga: You said writing can get lonely, how have you been able to enjoy the journey?
DK: I think the more memorable stories are those which were tragic. I remember one of the first stories I wrote in 1999 about a woman whose child had been sacrificed in ritual murder. For some reason, it’s always the dark stories that stay with you. I did the Arinaitwe story. It’s not that they are sad stories, it’s more like what the hell just happened.
RK: What does it take in written form to bring something to life?
DK: I go back to the clay. I did sports. I tried very much to get into sports writing but it was ring fenced. One day, Villa was playing Express at Nambole. I came back to the newsroom and Mark Sssali was the editor then. I found him on phone asking the guy who had been sent to cover the story to send in his draft. I just wrote the article and sent it to him. I asked him to tell me what he thought about it. He read through it and called the other guy asking him not to bother coming to office. But that’s not the story. I ended up in sports. I was there for a year and it was one of the easiest field to cover. But the sports guys had a herd mentality. You went and sat together, you compared notes and in the end, the stories were very similar. So I stopped sitting with them.
Earlier I saw a question on emotions. I think everyone has emotions and everyone can write. I do not know whether you need to suppress your emotions to become a good writer, I don’t have enough information. What I think is that some of the writers that I know find the mental space to be quiet in the middle of noise. They see things that take place that other people are not seeing. Over time you hone the skill of trying to see the things that other people do not see. Sometimes it is just mundane things; walk into a room and count the windows or their size. You just need to have a certain degree of madness.
RK: I wouldn’t call it madness. Isn’t that more like building a skill of observation?
DK: Observation is absolutely key. One of the things that allow the columns you read every so often to jump at you is when someone writes about something that you think you know but takes a fresh look at it.
RK: Good point. I also want to ask you about the skill of writing, how dangerous is it to think that you know everything there is to know?
DK: Very Dangerous. First of all, knowledge is always expending forwards and backwards. We are learning more about ourselves going forward and backwards and sideways. No one knows everything. The thing that allows people to be good writers and journalists is intellectual curiosity.
RK: What does that mean?
DK: Can you write the right questions.
RK: How do you know how to ask questions and the right questions?
DK: By being foolish
RK: Tell me more.
DK: I have a theory. Our education conditions us to say yes.
RK: Is that why most of us rush to break news on social media?
DK: Absolutely. We retweet things we have not read because it’s cool to be in the zone. I think it takes a certain deliberate mental effort to unlearn and to allow yourself to be intellectually vulnerable and ask stupid questions like how do they make cups? We are supposed to know but I don’t know.
RK: The guys who supervise my bananas and coffee one is semi-literate and the other got coffee training after high school but every day they lecture me on what needs to be done and it takes certain humility to accept that they know what they’re talking about.
DK: The rule of thumb is something that Mahmood Mamdani said; ‘What matters is not the answer, it’s the question’. If you ask the right question, you get the right answer.
RK: Even if that answer is silence?
DK: Yes. We go through life thinking answers. We need to go through life thinking questions.
RK: And by that same thing, you must have the discipline to carry a notebook and when you ask questions, to have the humility to write down the answer.
DK: And the intellectual rigour to ask the person how do you know what you claim to know. The more you dig, 9/10 times there is nothing, it is a rumour. That is how we survive bullets in the newsroom. You ask the question how do you know, so if you take the approach that I do not know enough about the world and the humility to ask and the rigour to arrange that knowledge based on the verification and the credibility of the sources. Then your knowledge and understanding of the world improves and then you can become a critical thinker but again you can bring new knowledge even to old subjects.
RK: One important rule is that, do not write what you do not know.
DK: We have to give a pass to journalists because they give the first draft of history. Sometimes the story ends up being different from what it looked like at the beginning. That is why I said there are different forms of writing. Journalism, whether online or wherever, sometimes you have a verification process, but then if you say you want to commit yourself to a book or documentary or a film, it helps to be able to get able to defend the thesis. What is why in academia, you have to write a thesis and then defend it.
Otim: Your day job versus your night job. Writing versus family, how is your typical day?
DK: Balance is non-existent for writers and journalists I think. I don’t know what balance looks like. If you read many of the acknowledgments in books, they are really apologies to wives and kids for understanding. I have a book I have been trying to finish but I have not been able to finish during the lockdown because you have to be a fulltime parent, a teacher, a prefect and all sorts of things.
RK: What do your children think of you as a writer?
DK: You promised there would be no personal questions.
Pesh Ssempa: How can you leverage your writing to join other fields of work? What more have you done outside your field of work?
DK: That’s a good question. Writing is like a black hole. You get in and it becomes your life. There are things you can do that seem off writing. There are skills you take from writing, the interrogatory skills for instance can be applied to due diligence. I have experimented in documentary making, script writing, editing and ghost writing with organisations, it is not just editing their work, it is about helping them to clarify their thinking.
You don’t take a text and proof it, anyone can do that. But you be able to ask are you doing the things that you claim to be doing. That’s the short answer. The long answer is that you need to get out of writing. Like I said earlier, to write is to suffer.
I don’t know whether I have told you this before but at a certain point I have been thinking of taking a break and try something completely different like carpentry. Writing is something you can well into your old age. David Kaiza got out of the newsroom to start making leather bags and he makes very good bags. So you need to step out of the madness and find yourself.
RK: One of the best journalists to ever come out of a newsroom! Where is he? Can someone connect me to Kaiza.
Flora Aduk: How have you been able to incorporate digital age into writing, are there apps you can recommend?
DK: I am too old for new things. I have a macbook pro that’s it.
RK: I’d say some times we look for solutions in places where they do not exist. If you are struggling as a writer, apps are not going to help you.
DK: You can buy the fanciest notebooks. You get the best ipad but it doesn’t make you a good writer. One of the things I do is get an A3 paper what we use in the newsroom and then do things around them.
RK: I still like using cassettes. Compacts.
DK: How old are you man? That’s how you went through law school. But those get lost.
RK: They allow me to scribble without the feeling that I am wasting a book.
DK: Get the notebook without rules in them. You can do the ipad if you want to be fancy. Flora, I don’t think that looking for an app will help with your writing. Old school pen and paper is a good starting point.
RK: How does journaling enhance writing? How important is it?
DK: Journaling helps you keep things. Ideas don’t pop up at regular intervals and at scheduled times. The other thing journaling does is that it allows you to remember how you felt about particular moments. I remember where I was, what I was wearing on 9/11. There are moments which are just epic. I remember where I was when Kiprotich won the gold medal.
There are lots of other things. Alex Atuhaire who I worked closely with at The Monitor keeps telling me things that I said or did in the newsroom that I forgot. Journaling allows you to keep track of such events.
The other day I saw a conversation of some people saying they could never pay for Ugandan journalism which- if you think back to Dewinton Road, the guys who went to Rwanda to cover the genocide, John Muto who covered LRA war, Lamwaka.
RK: There was someone who did the ambush which was 21km long. One of the famous victories by Gen Katumba Wamala and the stench run for two weeks.
DK: You look at that kind of journalism and of course it exists within a particular setting. Journalists cannot go to cover the war because there is no way. They have to deal with parliamentary speeches. Go back to Peter Mwesige covering the CA and Kyazze Ssemwogerere. You are losing a generation of gifted and talented people who could have taken mundane cents and rendered them with panache with a lot of exuberance.
RK: What is your last word on writing? What would you tell a parent now to do with their children on writing?
DK: Those are very difficult questions. Look. Writing is not inventing a vaccine for HIV. Let’s not get carried away. Let’s remain humble. Writing is the language of civilisation. You’ve got to get it right. It’s important that you get it and you use it. The thing that hurts me is the number of people who die with books or films inside them. If you are one of them thinking of writing whether you are a parent or your child, encourage them to do it. Life is transient but books and writing outlive you.
RK: Parents, the next time we have a lockdown and you are at home do a writing competition at home. That is more useful than trying to teach them what you don’t know yourself.
DK: And allow them to surprise you. Don’t tell them what to write. Just nudge them.
RK: Daniel, I owe you a big thanks and the only way that I can express that gratitude is to give you some of my coffee.
DK: Oh dear! Is it the same thing I had to drink! Do I have to?
RK: I have left you guys in the media and gone on to farming. I have gone back to the beginning. It’s like I have started life afresh. New slate. I have one more request, could you kindly mentor the twitter guys. Keep them going.
DK: Weren’t you surprised that I picked your call when you called? Allow me to say that what you are doing here is useful. I hope it helps one or two people out there. The little that I know I have learnt from other people and I continue to learn every day. I wish we knew the things I know now when I was younger, I would be a better person. A better writer.
RK: That is why we are doing this. A big thank you to Fugee and Solomon of Apt Media who make this possible.
6 thoughts on “Daniel Kalinaki on Good Writing Skills”
A good read. Thank you Kangye for transcribing.
This was so helpful.Thank you so.much for detailing everything on dot for us.
Wow, I missed the conversation on Twitter Spaces but now, here I have it all jotted down. Thanks Kangye. I have learnt a lot as a writer myself.
I have enjoyed the banter of RK and DK. But also learnt a lot from DK about writing. Thank you Kangye for doing the hard work so people like me could still benefit from the #360mentor space.
This was certainly one of the deepest conversations ever had on the Ugandan setup. I liked the sincerity and humility of DK of his biggest regret of not be able to write in Luganda his mother tongue though he can read. Guilty as charged. Surely our generation ought to unlearn this conditioning of only thinking and writing in English and train the next generation something better. About comparing writers to getting inside a black hole, I totally relate. Thanks RK and another DK (David Kangye) for giving us something to think about but most importantly act upon. Critical thinking has never been more relevant as it is now considering the dynamic times.