Non-Humanities Professionals as Writers; Challenges and Prospects – Dr. Wale Okediran.
(This keynote speech was delivered at the ANA OYO Reading of February 1, 2020.)
Madam Chairman, Ladies and Gentlemen, my purpose this
afternoon in line with the title of the Key Note Speech is to examine the
strange but intriguing marriage of Literature and other Professions. This is in
order to see how the union has advanced and hopefully will continue to advance
our pursuits of Creativity, Humanism, Leadership and Scholarship. We shall also
attempt to situate the meeting point of this engaging union to determine the
challenges and prospects. In doing this, I am quite aware that within and
outside this assembly, we have writers who are Engineers, Pastors, Doctors,
Accountants, Lawyers, Soldiers, Nurses and even Chicken Farmers!
As a matter of fact, history is replete with the
instances of many famous authors who have
come from non-humanity backgrounds. For
example, one of the most prolific and esteemed English novelists of the
Victorian era, Anthony Trollope wrote for three hours every morning before
going to his job as a postal clerk. He finally resigned his position at the
Post Office at the age of 52, having earned enough money from his forty-seven
novels and dozens of short stories to replace the pension he forfeited by
T.S. Eliot is regarded as one of the greatest poets of the 20th century. Before the publication of his epic poem The Waste Land, however, Eliot worked as a banker at Lloyds Bank in the foreign transactions department. Nevertheless, even after achieving literacy success, Eliot continued to work as a clerk for a number of years prior to accepting a job as an editor for Faber & Faber, a position he held until his death. The renowned poet preferred to hold a steady day job as opposed to writing full-time, stating in an interview: “I feel quite sure that if I’d started by having independent means, if I hadn’t had to bother about earning a living and could have given all my time to poetry, it would have had a deadening influence on me.”
It is also important to note that Franz Kafka, another famous author was an Insurance Clerk by day and writer by night. As Sarah Stodola notes in her excellent book, Process: The Writing Lives of Great Authors, while his day job seemed to get in the way of Kafka’s dream of becoming a full-time writer, the conditions under which he worked – ”the insubordination of the individual to the larger machine, the overwhelming and confusion-inducing bureaucracy, the incomprehensible structure imposed from some nebulous above” – inspired some of his greatest writing including The Trial and The Metamorphosis.
Agatha Christie, who in 1917 qualified as a pharmacist’s assistant, drew on her knowledge of pharmaceuticals in many of her novels, the first of which, Hercule Poirot’s Mysterious Affair At Styles, was published in America in 1920, and in the UK in 1921.
list of men and women who have combined medicine and literature is long and
varied depending on the inclination of the compiler. Famous literary physicians include Oliver
Goldsmith (Circa, 1730) John Keats (1795-1821) Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
(1859-1930) Tobias George Smollett (1721-71) Anton Chekhov (1860-1904) Somerset
Maughan (1874-1965) William Carlos Williams (1883-1963)
writer like Chinua Achebe began but perhaps wisely did not finish medical
school. By contrast, William Somerset Maughan finished his studies but never
practised. Others like the poet John Keats eventually abandoned practice for
full time writing while the greater number of doctors whose list is long
continued and still continue to juggle both occupations throughout their lives.
The famous Russian writer, Anton Chekhov’s description of his double life,
“Medicine is my lawful wedded wife and literature is my mistress” is a famous
characterisation of the appeal of two demanding and absorbing occupations.
Nearer home, the likes of Professors Olatunde Odeku, (late) Anezi Okoro, and Adeloye as well as Ewa Henshaw, Tony Marinho, Femi Olugbile among others were able to combine literature with their medical practice. Other professionals with callings outside their training include, the late Bola Ige who was an accomplished Lawyer, Writer and Politician and to the glory of God, my mentor and leader. Pa T. M. Aluko, an Engineer and Writer as well as Cyprian Ekwensi who was a Pharmacist.
From personal experience, perhaps
the most profound challenge faced by a writer with a non-humanity background is
the fear of being a good writer. This is natural since it is easy to be
overwhelmed by the big names in the writing business. When I had this problem,
I did three things. First was to seek out a fellow Medical Doctor/Writer Dr
Tony Marinho for guidance and support. Still not satisfied, I applied for a
course in Creative Writing and bagged a Diploma in the program a few months
later. In addition, I joined ANA and attended the regular monthly meetings
where I was able to exchange creative ideas with other fellow writers. Apart
from helping to cure a new Writer of his/her self doubt, these measures will
also improve the Writer’s literary skills. With these, I soon became confident
enough to plunge into my writing career which by God’s grace has produced many
award winning books. In addition, I held many Literary offices both at the
State and National levels.
Combining Writing with Daily Occupation
This can also be very challenging, however, once one has a deep passion for Literature, finding time for Writing will not be difficult.
Confused Professional Identity
Another issue which can be frustrating is the occasional confusion of what to call the professional who makes a foray into writing. Is he/she a Writer or his/her previous Profession? While this apparent confusion may not mean much for Writers in paid employment, it can greatly affect those in private practice. On many occasions, a lot of people have forgotten that I am a Medical Doctor by training because my writing career has virtually overshadowed my medical career. To such people, anytime I wanted to treat them, they usually panic believing that I must have forgotten all my medical training. Being a self-employed Medical Doctor, this reaction can be bad for business.
A major advantage of a writer with a non-humanities background is the ability to bring experiences from another field into writing. For example, John Grishan who is well noted for his Detective Novels has credited his Legal background for the successes of his books. Equally too, my medical training has, to a large extent, given me a lot of inspiration for my novels.
The other advantage is the broad mindedness that the pursuit of Literature brings into the non-humanity profession which the writer belongs to. It has also been established that the use of literature in the education of the doctor is now well established and increasingly recognised as a powerful learning tool. Apart from being concerned with emotions, feelings and reactions to illness and suffering, literature is also relevant in debates on health and social issues and ethnic matters. Its purposes are to help in the development of an educated, compassionate and caring doctor complementary to and supportive of the scientific knowledge.
As a result of changes in US medical education that began in the 1960’s, the relationships between literature and medicine have been explored in myriad ways. Beginning with the appointment of the first full time professor of literature and medicine at a US medical school, the field has grown in the past 25 years to the extent that literature is now taught in about one third of all US medical schools. This was done in the belief that to teach a student to read, in the fullest sense, is to help train him or her medically.
In addition, the University of Ibadan two years ago commenced the Arts in Medicine project where the incorporation of the arts into the healthcare experience is expected to give a positive impact on patient health outcomes. It is believed that the arts benefit patients by aiding in their physical, mental, and emotional recovery, including relieving anxiety and decreasing the perception of pain. The patients would be impacted in various ways. For instance, in an atmosphere where the patient often feels out of control, the arts has served as a therapeutic and healing tool, reducing stress and loneliness and providing opportunities for self expression.
Even though the marriage of Literature and the Non-humanities
may appear strange, the act has a long historical antecedent. From the foregoing, even though the
relationship may have some challenges, its plethora of advantages certainly
makes it worth its while.