BY THE BOOK: Tobias Otieno

Monday February 03 2020

Tobias Otieno, a senior lecturer in the Department of Literature, Theatre and Film Studies at Moi University, talks about his experience teaching creative writing. PHOTO| COURTESY

Tobias Otieno, a senior lecturer in the Department of Literature, Theatre and Film Studies at Moi University, talks about his experience teaching creative writing.

For 22 years, he has taught creative writing, Oral Literature and Literary Theory . Among his publications are Emerging Patterns for the Third Millennium (drama), The Missing Links (a novel), poems anthologised in (among other publications) Echoes Across the Valley, Counterpoint and other Poems and Journey into Madness and other Poems. His short stories have been anthologised inThe Doomed Conspiracies and other Stories. Tobias is also the Lead Editor of Ngano: The Journal of Eastern African Oral Literature, published by Kenya Oral Literature Association (KOLA).

What is your favourite thing about teaching creative writing?

I’ve taught more than 200 undergraduate and post-graduate students, some of whose M.A Thesis - like mine – was a work of fiction. The best thing about this course is that the student does all the work, and the lecturer just supervises.

There is no formal lecture – we are always having workshop sessions.

Is there a way you have been able to keep a track of the creative writers you have ‘created’?


I don’t necessarily keep a track; some of them send me their published works, some of them are senior professors in various universities all over the world, others joined the NGO world, and some are teachers in secondary schools who apply their creative knowledge in producing plays, narratives and verses that compete in the National Schools Festivals.

How often are writers nurtured than born, or born than nurtured?

Nobody is born a writer, just as nobody is born a singer, or an engineer, or a doctor. Rather, children develop passion for certain crafts when young, so when they get the right nurturing at an early age they excel in whatever it is they are talented in. If they don’t get, this talent dies.

That is why we are hopeful the Competency Based Curriculum (CBC) will be able to identify and nurture all the talents, and nothing will be lost.

Do you have a particular approach to teaching creative writing?

No. Creative writing is as diverse as the writers. Each writer is unique, each style is fresh, each approach to an existing genre very original. You cannot subscribe to a creative writer what to write – it’s a personal choice.

You are also a writer who has penned a novel, short stories and poems. Which do you find more challenging?

All creative writing is a challenge. It’s just a question of which one you are best in as an individual. Personally I find writing plays a real challenge. However, I believe a good playwright will find writing novels a nightmare, the same way an accomplished novelist might find writing short stories an insurmountable challenge.

How do you balance teaching and writing?

Writing and teaching was easier when we used to have fewer students, and an official break between the semesters to mark scripts and do research.

But since the double intake, the introduction of back to back trimester system and an average of 1,500 students per semester, writing took a permanent backstage.

What other challenges have you experienced?

The student numbers. A class of 10 to 20 is manageable in creative writing, but when you have fifty and above the workshop model becomes impossible, and you can’t pay individual attention to the writers.

Some of them end up not finishing the work they started. Another challenge is passion without effort. You can love songs very much but if you don’t practice 24/7, you will never be a good singer. The same applies to writing. You don’t become an accomplished writer overnight. It is, as they say, 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.

Are you writing anything at the moment?

Yes. A collection of short stories, and a novel. But due to lack of time, none of them is getting finished. But the short stories will definitely come out first – they are way ahead of the novel.