In commemoration of her 60th year anniversary (1960 – 2020), University of Ibadan Medical Students’ Association (UIMSA) recently had interviews with 10 of its outstanding members who are making exploits in various fields of interest outside Medicine. This series of interviews was tagged “UIMSA DREAM OUTSIDE THE BOX” (UDOB). Its aim was to encourage medical students to become well-rounded doctors-in-training who take on extracurricular activities. I was privileged to be one of those interviewed. Many thanks to UDOB Team for this opportunity and all the good work they’re doing. Below is a transcript of our conversation where I spoke extensively on writing and other things. Enjoy!
(The official release is also available. It’s an artistic PDF, complete with an introduction by the amazing 2020 Special Duties Officer for Pre-Clinical Division, Chidera Ezeh. Download for free here.)
Interviewer: Hi, good evening. Welcome to the maiden edition of the UIMSA UDOB program. My name is Caroline. We’d start with you giving us a brief introduction of yourself.
Interviewee: Good evening, my name is Omoya Simult. I’m a 500 level medical student here at the University of Ibadan. I’m a writer, a public speaker and a social entrepreneur. Thank you.
Caroline: Great. So, when would you say you particularly developed interest in writing or public speaking?
Omoya: Alright, my writing journey started quite early. I was in JSS1, and it was at that point I mistakenly discovered it was possible to have fun and make money from writing. I would come back from school, tear out the middle sheets of paper from a book, and write a short story on the four pages. Then I’d take it to school the next day and tell my classmates, “Hey, guys! I have a story here. If you want to read it, bring ten naira.” And people would crowd around me saying, “Omoya, I want to read, I want to read!” I could have about four people read it in a day, and at the end of the day, I was a big boy. During break time, I’d go to the tuckshop and have a cool time (chuckles). That was my first baptism into writing. Subsequently, sometime in JSS2, I partook in an essay competition for schools in Ekiti State — I’m from Ekiti state, by the way — and I came third. Then I got into senior secondary school, partook in another essay competition and came first. So, by the time I got into the university, I knew I was good at writing, and that it was a talent I could harness for some bigger cause and maybe make extra cash in the process. That’s for the writing part.
The public speaking part started when I was in 100 Level. I joined Junior Chamber International and the President then, Oladejo Abdulazeez, met me during the interview session. Before you get into JCI, you do an interview and an exam, and based on your performance, you may get inducted into the organization or not. So, after the interview session, he saw me and told me there was going to be an oratory contest for intending JCI members. He would like me to take part in that contest. I just said, ‘Oh, well, let’s see how it goes.’ On the day of the induction, I participated in the oratory contest. That was my first public speaking event in UI, and I wasn’t there as an onlooker. I spoke. It was something about Buhari’s administration because Buhari had just become President at the time. That was my first proper exposure to public speaking. As soon as I partook in that oratory contest and I came third, I saw that it was something I could look into and get better at. So, I joined Tedder Hall Literary and Debating Society (Tedder L&D). At that time, Tedder L&D was the best L&D in UI because they had just won Jaw War in 2014. I joined in 2015 as a 100 level student, spoke at Jaw War quarter finals that same year, and Tedder Hall went ahead to win the trophy again, the second time in a row! Mehn, that was how I fell in love with public speaking.
Caroline: Okay, so we’re going to talk about your writing. I’d like to ask about your motivation: what inspires you to write? How do your inspirations come and what exactly inspires you to write?
Omoya: I do different kinds of writing. I write poems, although not as much as I write, say, essays. I also do fictional stories. But mostly, what I write majorly, at least in recent times, are essays. Sometimes, we have topical issues in the society, something that is probably controversial, viral, and people are airing their opinions on it — that could be an inspiration to write. Secondly, if you are a writer, you would understand that sometimes you could just be in a place, see something happen and be like, ‘Oh, this could be good for a story; it’s really interesting and I want to put it in a story.’ So, life experiences that I consider captivating enough, maybe they happened to me, in which case they become anecdotes, or they happened to someone else and I feel they’re worthy of being written about, could be another form of inspiration. Thirdly, I read a lot, and sometimes when I read, I see something profound, something I feel makes a lot of sense. I may borrow an idea from that and try to relate it to my own surroundings, you know, reappropriate it for people around me. So, that’s another form of inspiration. And, lastly, writing competitions and the money on them can also be a big source of inspiration, trust me (laughs).
Caroline: So, asides talents, which we are sure you have in writing, are there some special skills you had to acquire along the line?
Omoya: Uhm, writing is the major skill I would say I have. Public speaking is another I’m working on. Of course, I’m still working on writing too, but I’ve made some appreciable progress in that aspect. Other things are for leisure, nothing serious. I think one of the ways to success is to focus on one thing for some time and forgo everything else. You have to pick one thing and work at being the best in it.
Caroline: So, going through your citation, I can see that you’ve won a lot of competitions. Is there anything special you put towards winning these competitions or you think it just comes naturally to you? Is there perhaps a special ingredient?
Omoya: The thing about writing good essays is that you need to have stuff before you can convince whoever is reading your work that it is prize-worthy. In other words, first off, acquire stuff. When I say stuff, I mean vastness in knowledge. You have to know a lot about different things, you have to be up-to-date, you have to read books, you have to meet people, and you have to travel. Basically, I’m saying you have to have a rich mind. When you want to write an essay, you need to draw from all those places to write an essay that is interesting and convincing.
But apart from your own stuff, there is the place of research too, which is another big part of essay writing. Most times when I’m working on an essay, I spend more time researching than writing. For example, if I wanted to write a killer essay in four days, I could research for three days and spend the fourth day writing. I draw ideas from my research, link them up, introduce my thoughts, and then I have my essay. Apart from the two aforementioned, there is also the place of style, your writing style. Your writing style has to be something unique because the judges probably have hundreds of essays to go through in very little time. So, you want to capture the attention of whoever is grading your essay as soon as possible, and you want to keep them interested till the end. Every word in your essay must be indispensable, leaving no place for redundancy. Whoever is reading your work needs to feel like they are being informed, and by the time they are done, they should feel like they are more knowledgeable about the topic than before they read your piece. It’s advisable that you stay away from points that are too common or obvious, things other people are definitely going to talk about. The more unique your essay is, the higher your chances of winning the prize.
Caroline: So, have you had any of your works published?
Omoya: Yes, I’ve had some of my writings published over the years. I’ve been published in a national newspaper (“The Concept of Omowanism in the Affairs of Man,” Leadership newspaper). I’ve been published on BrittlePaper, which is the foremost literary website in Africa (“Tears for Dare Amuda”). I’ve been published on YNaija and The Cable (“How to Become a Millionaire in Nigeria”), to name a few. I also have my personal website, www.omoyasimult.com.
Caroline: I was actually going to mention your blog. What do you talk about on your blog?
Omoya: If you log on to www.omoyasimult.com, somewhere around the header, you’re going to see something that says, “Voila! You are permitted to have a peep into my thinking room for free here. No charges. I’m that much generous.” Essentially, what you’d find on my website are things that have crossed my mind at one point or the other, especially ones I’m comfortable sharing online. You’d find writings I published elsewhere that I decided to back up there. You’d find some of my award-winning essays. You would also find anecdotes, flash fictions, poems, products of introspection, opinion pieces, and the likes. There are about 100 posts there at the moment, some of them serious, some of them light-hearted. Whatever catches my fancy.
Caroline: What advice would you give to someone who hasn’t had any experience in writing but would like to try it?
Omoya: Well, one, you need to have a good command of English Language. So, the person has to work on their proficiency in the use of English. There are books that one could find helpful in that regard. ‘Elements of Style’ by Strunk and White is one such book, highly recommended for writers.
Two, know what to expect. There are books that are peculiar to writing, such as ‘On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft’ by Stephen King and ‘How to Become a Published Writer’ by Chukwuemeka Ike. Those two readily come to mind now because, when I started out, I found them helpful in shaping my expectations, ideology, and style. You need to read similar books to know what writing entails in the first place.
Three, you must read a lot. For you to write well, you need to read a lot. And by that, I don’t mean school books. Read all sorts of things, starting with newspapers. I read newspapers at least twice a week. I like to read on Mondays and Fridays. I go to Odeku library and read them from the front page to the very last page. It takes me about an hour, and it keeps me abreast of the latest happenings in the country. In addition, you have to read the classics, self-help books, anthologies of poems, business books, biographies, history books, etc. In short, you want to read as widely as possible.
Four, after you’ve read, there is need for practice. Often, some people get lost in the reading process. “Knowledge is of no value unless you put it into practice,” said Anton Chekhov, one of my favourite Russian writers. If you read a lot of books and you do not apply what you’ve learnt from them, you’re not very different from someone who never read those books. By practice, I mean you sitting down to write for as many times as you need to. The hardest part about writing is putting the first few sentences down. It might take some time, but as soon as you set the ball rolling, it gets better. And when opportunities present themselves in forms of essay, debate or oratory competitions, grab them. Those things can bring out the genius you never knew you had.
Five, you should be close to people with common interests, perhaps friends that write too, preferably those who are better than you, those who can be your mentors or support system. However, the difficulty with mentorship is, writing is a creative process, and most creative persons are often unwelcoming to criticisms or corrections. It’s really hard for anyone to have sat down for ten to fifty hours in order to put something down, then have someone say, “Oh, this is okay. I just think you could make it better if you did this and that. And you should not have written this part this way. Your grammar is bad here, and so on.” Most creative persons can’t stand that, but it’s actually part of the package. If you are lucky to have an editor or a better writer you look up to, who is sincere enough to point out your errors and show you how to correct them, then you are more likely to grow faster.
Lastly, there is the place of branding. You have to brand yourself in such a way that you are known to be a writer, because it has some psychological effects on you. It means people expect more from you, so you cannot afford to undermine your own reputation. That drives you to live up to a standard. You know whatever you put out there must be quality stuff, even if it is something as ordinary as Whatsapp status. You don’t just type anyhow; you put some thought and value into it. Your grammar and punctuations are perfect, and everything you write seems to be on point. When you get the packaging and branding right, you get to have more opportunities. When people see things that relate to writing, the first person that comes to their mind is you, so they reach out to you. And that may be what you need to hit it big.
Caroline: Considering you are a Medical Student, do you think writing takes up a lot of your time?
Omoya: Yes, it does. Not in the way you’d think, though. For me, writing doesn’t take as much time as reading — I mean reading non-school books. As I said earlier, you need to have stuff before you can produce good work, and to have stuff, you need to read widely. Oh, there’s one other thing I forgot to mention earlier. You need to live a lifestyle that allows you to be a good writer. What I mean by that is, be more adventurous with life. Be willing to embrace new things, and be open to change.
Reading takes a lot of my time, because it is what often precedes writing for me. As far as time is concerned, I think it’s all about management. In the series of outreaches I’m currently conducting to secondary school students, jambites and teenagers, I talk a lot about time management to them. This is because I have come to realize that what mostly distinguishes an average man from an excellent man is time management. This is my fifth year in medical school, so trust me when I say there is a lot of time in Medicine, a lot of free time. People tend to believe Medicine is time-consuming and very demanding, and that is true. But what is also true is that, despite the enormity of the work you have to do, you still have considerable free time that you could use for other things. How you manage that free time matters. I’m big on time management. When I wake up each day, what is on my mind is how to make every minute in that day count. At every point, I am deliberate about how I spend my time and with whom I share it.
Well, along the line, I had to drop some things. In my first three years in the university, I was open to experiencing a lot of things. I joined L&D, ANUNSA and JCI. I went into politics and student unionism; I was an honorable member representing Tedder Hall at the Student Representative Council. In my first three years, I explored as much as possible. But as soon as I crossed over to clinical school, I tuned down on many of those things to make time for myself since clinicals is more demanding. I’m more in control of my time now, with less responsibilities. I know that in the 24 hours that make a day, the major thing I have to do is go to school, then I can shuffle other things to accommodate writing. People say that if you are passionate enough about something, you’ll find a way; if your passion isn’t enough, then you’ll find an excuse.
Caroline: Thank you. Can you tell us about challenges you’ve faced in your journey as a writer? You can also tell us about how you overcame those challenges.
Omoya: Most people get to see the glories, the wins. They don’t get to see the many other times you put in for competitions or opportunities and you failed. Those periods of failure could be a major challenge, in that they make you question your abilities sometimes. You begin to wonder if you’ve lost your touch. But what I’ve come to realize is that failures should be seen as stepping stones to success. You should see failures as things that equip you with more knowledge and lessons to become a more successful person. At the end of the day, it makes for a bigger and better picture. I’d cite a quick example of that.
When I was in 100 level, I told you earlier that I dabbled into public speaking, the oratory competition organized by JCI in which I came third. The speech I wrote for that oratory contest, for which I didn’t get the best prize, was what I went back to, developed, edited, refined and submitted for Fisayo Soyombo Intervarsity Essay Competition. The final product won me the first prize in that competition, and I got 100,000 naira for it. That was a classic case of me going back to my failure and applying lessons from it to achieve success.
Another challenge is that you sometimes find it difficult to get your work published. For someone like me who has a website and some degree of social media presence, it makes it a little less troubling. Of course, sometimes you don’t want to publish on your own website or social media account because you want to give the piece more credibility, or in a way add to your writing resume. You want it published by a third party for these purposes. You might apply to some places and they’d tell you they like your work but aren’t interested in publishing it at that time, or it isn’t what they are exactly looking for at the moment. So, finding a place to publish your work can sometimes be a major hassle. Those are the two challenges that come to mind.
Caroline: Let’s talk about your vision for your writing. How far do you intend to take it? Where do you see yourself in a few years from now?
Omoya: This is the interesting part. The world is gradually moving away from ‘reading’ as we used to know it. If you gather ten people, they are more likely to watch a movie than read a book in the next one week. So, this generation is gradually drifting away from written things to more graphic and cinematic things, and my interest is tending towards that path, too. What I mean by that is, writing is not the final product for me; it is more like a means to an end. While I am uncertain about what the end is at the moment, I know I’ll continue making efforts to become a better writer, while also embracing new trends. For example, I am currently interested in screenwriting. I’m reading books on it, watching videos, taking online classes, and downloading award-winning scripts that were used in making award-winning movies, just to have an insight into what it’s like. I see my writing going in that direction, in some ways. It has also informed my increased interest in watching movies. I watch lots of movies and follow lots of series these days, and that’s not just for the entertainment.
Caroline: Do you see yourself practicing Medicine?
Omoya: Yes, I see myself practicing Medicine. The question is, for how long? Anyways, Medicine in Nigeria as it stands is very unattractive. So, if at all I’m going to practice Medicine full-time, it probably won’t be Clinical Medicine. At the moment, I have my eyes on biomedical technology, and I recently got selected for and completed a programme organised by Harvard University on that.
Caroline: So, to our last question. What advice would you give to young people who are trying to develop their skills in different aspects of writing?
Omoya: Well, I’d like to tell them that whatever course they are studying — Medicine, Dentistry, or any other course equally demanding — should not be allowed to become a hindrance to expressing their God-given talents.
The second thing I would like to tell them is that talent is never enough. Stephen King once said, “Talent is cheaper than table salt. What separates the talented individual from the successful one is a lot of hard work.” What really makes you successful at writing is the extra effort you put into your talent: the diligence, consistent practice, continuous sharpening of your mind, your openness to life and adventure, and the likes. So, if you think you are talented, it is not a big deal. Everyone is talented in one way or the other. You have to work hard at it.
My third piece of advice to upcoming writers is that, at the beginning, you should not be all about the money. I think value should come before money. You have to be able to offer value first, before you expect money from it. I meet a lot of young writers who come to me to ask how they can write award-winning essays and make hundreds of thousands, millions even. Then I ask them to write a piece and send it to me. When I read it, I’m like, you want to win hundreds of thousands with this piece?! (Laughs) You have to be good at writing before you start expecting some revenue, income or rewards from it. So I advise people that, before they go commercial with their talent, they should build it to a level where people would be happy to pay for it. That is how talent works in all spheres. I mean, you could see an average trumpeter and want to invite them to your program. If the person was not so good, you could as well talk them into playing for free at your event. You’d tell them to use the opportunity to practise and rehearse (laughs). However, if it was a master trumpeter, a virtuoso, and the person said they were already booked, you would be the one offering to pay handsomely. So, before you begin to expect money from writing or whatever talent you have, you need to build it to an extent where it makes sense for you to demand money for it. You have to build it to the point where people would be willing, excited even, to pay to read your work.
Lastly, writing is not time-bound. There is an adage in Igbo that says, ‘Whenever you wake up is your morning.’ What that means is, some people are going to write their best work at a young age, in their prime, probably before they clock thirty-five, like Wole Soyinka and Chinua Achebe did. Some people are not going to hit it big until they are in their mid-life, like Tolkien and Morrison. And some people are not going to make any remarkable success until they are at the tail ends of their lives, probably when they are sixty or seventy years old. The point I am trying to make is, be patient with yourself, but do not be lazy. Don’t expect to become the best writer since J.K. Rowling (chuckles) in just three or six months. These things take time, and the currency for success is often the time invested.
Caroline: Alright, with that we have come to the end of the interview. Thank you so much for your time.
Omoya: It has been a pleasure.