Atoke, is an editor, a creative writer, and author of the soon-to-be-released book, An Awkward Guide to Being a Nigerian. In this interview with TweakMyContent.com, Atoke shares about her journey as a writer, transitioning from her job as a lawyer into a full-time writer and editor. Her reputation for keeping it real comes through in this encounter as she shares useful tips and highlights the realities of the life of a creative writer. Enjoy reading!
Please tell us a little about yourself; perhaps something not many people know?
I’m a socially awkward and writing is one thing (other than drinking wine) that makes me really happy! I’m 4ft 11 and the noisiest one of my siblings. Oh! And I sucked my tongue till my late teens. I had a nice soft pillow that was the PERFECT accessory for the sucking. Even the memory of the sucking is quite blissful! All tongue and finger suckers know that the accessory is EVERYTHING!
Having studied Law and being on a path considered lucrative by society, why did you decide to become a full-time writer?
My decision to become a full-time writer wasn’t a very easy one. I think I was really just tired of my job. The subsidy removal in 2012 meant cost of going to work increased. Then, they went and installed the Lekki Toll! I had to start thinking of the quality of life I was living. It helped that, at that point, I was writing a lot – while waiting for traffic to ease out on third mainland bridge. Eventually, I said to myself, “I’m a better writer than a lawyer. I should just do this full time!” I really just wanted to have a better life doing what I enjoyed without having to travel 6 hours to do it.
When did you start writing professionally, and what kind of writing do you do?
Professionally is such a big word! I don’t think I write ‘professionally’ now. Haha. Okay, that’s not a very helpful response.
I started writing seriously in 2009 and working as an editor in 2012. My job as the Features Editor (at BellNaija.com) involved creating content, including writing. I write fiction, and creative non-fiction. I also write screenplay for TV. I have written scripts for stage drama, but none of them has ever been produced. Do they still count? I guess they do. I write mostly creative content – not business or advertising.
From where do you get your inspiration for writing? How often do you experience writer’s block, and how do manage it?
My inspiration comes from everywhere around me. As corny as that sounds, it is true. I spend 70% of the time thinking of what I want to write and coming up with a structure for the layout for whatever piece I’m going to write. 10% of the time is spent writing, and the remaining 20% of the time editing and redrafting. My process is very weird, but not unique. I see something in the park, my wild mind churns it over and over and over, and I’m whipping out my computer to type.
I don’t know about writer’s block because my writing is usually predominantly done in my head. If I can’t properly articulate what I want to write, then I won’t sit down to write. So, there’s no block because there’s no story. Also, when I was writing my weekly column, Atoke’s Monday Morning Banter, I HAD no choice, but to write every week. Sometimes, I went to bed on Sunday night with absolutely nothing to write. Since I never jump on the band wagon of trending topics, I’d spend the entire sleep time subconsciously worrying about what to write. By Monday morning, there was always something to write. Please don’t ask me how… something always came. A block is not an option when you have a challenge in front of you. Sometimes, if I’m stuck on a point, I’ll just close my computer and go and cook efo riro. While blending pepper and tomatoes, a story will come.
What are the challenges you’ve faced since you became a writer; has it been a worthwhile endeavour?
Plenty challenges oh! People say things like “quickly help me write….XYZ” How do you explain that this is something that you need to be financially compensated for? Sometimes, you spend hours just trying to fine tune the details for a story or an interview and the response isn’t as resounding as you expect. I mean, you’re there working your ass off thinking wow this is a life-changing inspiring story, then something fluffy comes up on the pop-culture scene and your story is ignored.
Oh, another challenge of being a writer is when you say to people that you’re working and they say “oh you got a job?” It’s maddeningly frustrating because you just wanna yell THIS IS MY JOB!
What makes it worthwhile is the relief I feel knowing that one person read my work and was inspired. Or, when I get emails from readers saying they could relate to something I wrote. Yeah, that feeling cannot be quantified.
What benefits come with being a writer for you?
Ah! I find writing very cathartic. The benefit of writing for me is the relief it brings me. Writing saves my life – I’m not kidding. Writing is primarily my life source. Everything else is a bonus. When people meet me and say oh “Atoke, I love your writing,” it’s a secondary benefit. Finally, writing has exposed me to loads of people I ordinarily wouldn’t have met in the course of my own boring life. I don’t know how else to say this… writing is the best thing that happened to me. For real!
What has been the toughest criticism you have received as a writer? What has been the best compliment?
I got a lot of criticism from my tutors at back at Swansea (postgraduate degree). My supervisor, Dr. Anne Lauppe-Dunbar is a brilliant writer and she constantly had to tell me to tighten my words. I would think I had written something so brilliant and well executed, but she’d come back and say – that sentence is all over the place. Keep it tight. Another criticism that stuck with me was from a trusted writer friend of mine. In the early days, he’d read something I’ve written and he’d say “this is trash.” It used to hurt so badly. Most of the time I went away licking my wounds, but I always got back after a few weeks to restructure the piece.
Now, I no longer accept broad, ambiguous criticism. I say, “Tell me what you don’t like and what I should fix.” I don’t try to defend the bad work. What I do instead is: narrow down what the problem is, and fix it. I also make sure I take criticism from people whose work and sense of articulation I respect.
Best compliment? “Oh, Atoke, this made me smile!”
Don’t judge! I’m pretty easy.
How would you describe how you have evolved as a creative; what do your friends and family think of your writing?
The evolution has been interesting to watch – if I do say so myself. I read some of the stuff I wrote in 2009 and I think… ohh this is awful! But now, I’ve learned about sentence structure, plotting, characterization, tension, style, twists, and language. I think it’s important as a writer to work on your craft. That’s the only way your writing can evolve. That’s what I’ve done. I’ve studied, and studied, and then written a lot – to make my work better. I’m still not where I want to be. I want my writing to be so fluid that the reader thinks they’re eating a communion wafer.
My friends and family can’t seem to merge the person they know with the person they read. Nobody in my close circle takes me seriously! I’m still the baby in their life and I’m un-serious, playful me. My writing means diddly-squat to them. They’re proud of me when people tell them they’ve read my work, but they themselves… haha not impressed!
Which of the books you have read has influenced your life the most, and why?
The most recent book which has influenced my life and touched my soul… yes, I know you didn’t ask for the soul touching bit but…work with me here… Shonda Rhimes’ Year of Yes! The woman is basically me!!! That book gives me hope that I can achieve my goals.
What has been the biggest highlight for you since you became a writer?
Meeting Uche Pedro – my boss turned friend, turned tea-sharer, turned mentor, turned everything. Everything that has happened to me since I started writing has been a direct consequence of being with Uche.
What do you do to improve your writing? Any special resources, or websites, that have been helpful to you as a writer?
I read! Then, I read some more. And then I read even more. I read novels and interviews. I read books of different and diverse genres. I read a whole lot. Yeah, ask my failing eyes.
What advice do you have for someone who wants to switch career path, or who is interested in taking writing as a full-time career?
Plan. Be focused and be sure that this is what you really want to do, that it is what you’re skilled at.
A lot of times, we have lofty ideas of what we believe we should be doing. We’re frustrated at our current job and we think something that is ‘reigning’ is where we should be. I didn’t quit my job for learning how to tie gele or making beads (they were the in-thing in 2010). I narrowed down my skill set, and then I researched the career options I had, given my skill set. I planned how to improve my existing skills, and then I worked like the devil was on my heels. For money, I cooked and delivered food. At the time, writing wasn’t paying any of my bills, so I had to get money from another skill. But I never stopped writing.
Chase your passion, and work at it. Hard work meets opportunity… or whatever corny ass stuff people say at this point. It’s true sha.
What do you do for fun/how do you relax?
I watch TV, play Bejewelled on Facebook and I talk on the phone with my friend, Anne. My life is boring, don’t judge.
In October 2016, you held an event in Lagos, which you tagged “Atoke’s Friday Night Banter.” What were your highlights from the event?
Atoke’s Friday Night Banter was just supposed to be a cool night of conversation. People having fun and talking about the things that I wrote about, topical issues. I wanted it to be engaging, so I asked people to send in topics that they liked for banter. What I had in mind was to have like a real-life comment section. An evening of conversation, cocktails, etc. It was a very humbling experience for me. I met people who read my work; I mean, little old me, just writing in my house, on my computer, and then people read my work fervently. Many people really wanted to come, but we had space for only 20 people. Highlight of it was to know that people actually wanted to engage with me in real life and that was really powerful. It made me realize how far writing can actually take you and how influential writing is.
A lot of people say, “Oh, what have you done other than writing?” You see, writing is changing the mindset of people. It says,”This is how you’ve always seen it. How about you look at it from this side?” The biggest highlight of Friday Night Banter was meeting people whom my writing has touched.
My new book is called “+234: An Awkward Guide to Being Nigerian.” It’s a collection of articles I have written in the last 5 years. It is a handbook for everything we are as Nigerians. It shows us the positives about us, the not-so-positive, the things we can change, the things we should more… it’s the Naija handbook.
I hope everyone likes it when when it is released to the public and available on the shelves. It is well curated, and was edited by Uche Okonkwo of Farafina Trust. Uche Okonkwo is an amazing writer and editor.
So, when will it be available to the public? Our target is September 2017, and we hope to do a launch in Lagos, Nigeria. I’m also hopeful for a publisher in North America.
I am going to tell you something about writing. What has happened to me in 2017 is not writer’s block; it was more like, I wanted to write something differently and I found myself starting to write again because I felt had not written in a long time, so I should write. Because the motivation was wrong, it wasn’t enough to sustain me.
I love writing. Writing is my life.
In 2017, I have focused on my fiction work, building that up again to ensure I have one work of fiction ready for publication by the end of the year, so that when we come off the high of An Awkward Guide to Being Nigerian, the next book will be ready.
Tell us a little about your other plans for the future. Where do you see yourself as a writer in five years?
In the next 5 years I want to have my TV show in production. I want to teach writing to teenagers and young adults. In the next 5 years I am hoping to have written my second and third books and have them published.
Any other comments/details you would like to share?
Oh, thank you so much, Tweak My Content. I truly feel honoured to be interviewed. Like, little me…
Thanks to Gbenga and the entire TMC team. You guys are doing a great job.
All images provided by Atoke