Nonfiction co-editor Julie Patterson recently had this exchange with Issue #45 featured nonfiction writer Storey Clayton. Here’s what Storey had to say about the balance between the universal and the personal in creative nonfiction, the art of revision, his literary influences, and more.
“Unbecoming Doogie” is clearly a story that few people could write—such a unique experience of childhood and education. What do you hope readers take away from it?
I most want people to consider the structure and pace of American education with an eye to how it works (or doesn’t) for students. There’s a lot that we’ve come to accept or take for granted in our society that is deeply problematic: bullying, boredom, dropping out of school, feeling like a failure. In writing emotionally about my experience, I hope I can get readers thinking about their own journey and how we might craft a more nimble system that works for more children.
Our team loves the way you’ve braided together your story with the fictional Doogie Howser story, the real Neil Patrick Harris interviews, and the story of the real-life counterpart that you never actually met. Can you tell us more about how that structure developed? Was that your intent from the very start?
It emerged pretty quickly in writing this piece, and it gave me a lens through which I could ground my experiences in something more accessible. For decades, my educational journey has been so hard to talk about because it’s so different than a typical experience and it wasn’t a “success story.” The presumption that Doogie Howser as a cultural phenomenon perpetuated is that if someone was smart enough, that’s all that mattered and they would rise to the top. So I wanted to write a story that engaged with and rebutted that narrative directly. I also went to high school in Albuquerque, where Neil Patrick Harris is from. He’s a bit of a local celebrity, so this grew my fascination for the Doogie story and made me consider him as a real person engaging with that story as well. I sometimes imagine this piece almost as a letter to Neil, a little whisper from the real side of what he portrayed.
In the last line of the essay, “No one ever had that conversation with me,” you’re referring to advice that Neil Patrick Harris was given at the start of his work on Doogie Howser, M.D. How might things have been different for you if someone had said this to you?
I have spent years pondering the counterfactuals to this whole series of unfortunate events, trying to look for turning points where something could have gone differently and perhaps better. Like any dwelling on the past, it’s hard to really delve too deeply into changing formative events, because such events are so deeply tied to who one ultimately becomes as a person. It’s a rabbit-hole. But I wish I’d had a better sense of what I was getting into beforehand. Personal violence and intimidation at the level I experienced wasn’t really on my radar, nor was the lack of support from the school administration. If I’d known what was coming, I may still have made the same choices, however, given that I didn’t try to get out of the situation once I was in it. And I’m hoping the reader can sit with that uncertainty as I observe it and come to their own conclusions.
Your story shines light on some important education issues, forcing us to think about how America’s education system serves—or perhaps doesn’t serve—students who fall outside of the bell curve academically. What advice would you offer classroom teachers or education policy makers about engaging all learners?
This is a great question. My wife taught kindergarten in New Orleans for four years, and we talked about this all the time, thinking about how variable students’ learning styles and rates can be. It’s tough, because any given classroom can have a mix of students who are way “behind” or way “ahead” of the expected rate. It’s realistically very challenging for almost any public school teacher (in the current structure) to differentiate their learning rates enough to meet everyone’s needs in a single packed classroom. I would love to see a holistic shift in education that’s based more on fostering engagement and less on a specific set of age-based benchmarks. Something that enables a fluidity between grade-levels without restricting or overly tracking students who need more help and labeling them as “slow” or “behind.” This would also require tying grades more to effort than to achievement, which feels like it would also keep students more invested in their education. The truth is that almost everyone learns differently and responds to different approaches, but most kids enter school excited to learn and leave it demoralized. Fixing these problems would take a lot more resources that we currently spend on education in the U.S., but I think it would be well worth it.
Creative nonfiction is tricky, because readers expect personal stories that still somehow appeal to a wide audience, perhaps say something universal. Since you write creative nonfiction regularly, how do you find the balance between these two opposing demands: personal and universal?
This is one of the things I find most fun and exciting about creative nonfiction! Every piece has to start from and be driven by the personal: that’s the core of any story (fiction or non). If one loses focus on the emotional depth or truth of the story, the reader will lose interest. My main pivot from that to the universal is usually emotional: We’ve all had successes and failures, hopes and fears, highs and lows in our journeys. So if I can tap into that frothy churn of lived emotion and draw out the core of what I was facing, I think it will ultimately be relatable, no matter how different my specific experiences have been from my readers’ experiences. Finally, it hopefully leaves readers with something to think about, which often has political or social implications, like this piece does with education.
You’re currently in an MFA program in creative writing. What do you value most about that experience? Where do you stand on the ongoing argument of can/should writing be taught?
I spent so long trying to write outside of an educational environment and, now that I’m in an MFA program, I largely regret that decision. I never even took an English class in undergrad! The experiences in this essay made me try to divide academic tasks from my true passions: I always wanted to write, but I wanted to keep that separate from academic pursuits. I was afraid that creative writing classes were an oxymoron and would stilt my writing approach. What I’ve found, thankfully, is the opposite: My professors have been far from proscriptive and I am continually inspired by my amazing peer group of writers at WVU, even though we often write quite differently. Receiving thoughtful and earnest feedback from eight to 10 students and a professor on every piece is an invaluable luxury and one I already know I will miss in a couple years when I leave the program. “Unbecoming Doogie” was greatly impacted by my MFA workshop, and I’m grateful especially to my workshop professor, Katie Fallon, for suggesting that I shorten the piece by about a third from its original format.
What is the revision process like for you?
I struggle more with revision than anything else in writing. My MFA program is full of people who love revising and everything one reads about writing on the internet insists that revising is where all the writing happens. None of this is the case for me, though the program is helping me get more comfortable with revising and cutting. My writing process involves a lot of pre-writing before I sit down at a computer – I’ll mull an idea for weeks or months before it starts bubbling over in my mind and I’m suddenly impatient to sit down and write it, at which point a piece usually comes out in one or two sittings. So I end up somewhat in love with my vision for a piece after all that imagining it, and it’s hard for me to rework it in an emotional state where I feel less inspired. Getting lots of strong feedback helps, however – I’ve improved in revising based on other readers’ insights. I’m still hopeless at revising on my own without that support.
Who are your literary role models? Which writers do you turn to again and again for inspiration?
I’ve always loved Ray Bradbury. He was the first adult writer I truly adored, and I devoured so much of his work. A lot of it is about the writing process: He was a hungry, impatient writer who was always full of ideas. One of his essays about writing is called “Make Haste to Live” and that title has become a real writing mantra for me. I re-read Watership Down (by Richard Adams) every few years and always get something new from it. I wrote an essay about finally getting to visit the real-life Watership Down earlier this year. Peter Høeg and Haruki Murakami are consistently phenomenal. Lately I’ve been really impressed by Ann Patchett, Margaret Atwood, and Louise Erdrich, who all write with an emotional urgency I really admire.
Your bio describes a wide variety of career endeavors. How have various experiences contributed to your writing?
I always grew up thinking a “writer’s resume” should be wide-ranging and disparate, full of adventure. When I was introduced to Høeg in high school, I saw the back of his jacket flaps said he’d been a ballet dancer, a mountaineer, taught acting, professionally fenced, and worked as a crewman on pleasure boats. That felt right to me. This is probably part of why I eschewed creative writing classes for so long. As a writer, one has to collect experiences and feelings and people from which to draw, especially in nonfiction. So I’ve tried to remain a student of life and human behavior and a collector of experiences. I get bored easily, so shifting careers has always felt intuitive anyway. But I think being in different jobs and different parts of the country has helped give me an appreciation for the diversity of perspectives people have.
Last question. Storey is an interesting name for a writer. Is that your given name or a chosen one? How has the name shaped who you are?
This is a question I always get in writing circles. My standard joke is “it’s a long story” and people chuckle and then I observe it’s actually a very short story: It’s my birth name, and my parents named me after a county in Nevada where they were living when I was born. It’s a very small county, where near-ghost-town Virginia City of Comstock Lode fame is slowly melting back into the mountains. My parents figured the name would work for a boy or a girl, so I would have had the same name either way. It feels like it must have influenced my desire to be a writer, but this was never a conscious connection for me. And now a lot of people assume it’s a pseudonym, which is fair. I love having a unique name, even though people often misunderstand it. It’s an easy conversation-starter with people I’ve just met. And I think the gender ambiguity of the name has influenced my life – people are often surprised when I show up for job interviews that I’m not a woman. Of course, I have very long hair and don’t conform to a lot of male stereotypes, so that bit of ambiguity suits me.