This debut author transformed the circus of his life into a moving saga of hope, self-discovery, and advocacy.
Clay Boatright’s twin daughters were born into a society that didn’t understand autism. The disability existed, but the educational resources, the appropriate vernacular, and our contemporary awareness of the autism spectrum’s nuances were still in their infancy.
Unlike Clay’s first child with his wife Carole, the twins — named Paige and Mia — were a difficult pregnancy replete with many hospital visits. Carole gave birth at 33 weeks, but despite concern over their premature arrival, Paige and Mia showed nothing out of the ordinary. But by age two, the toddlers were barely crawling and cried continually. Something was just not right. They heard twins supposedly developed more slowly than single babies, but trips to the pediatrician and Easter Seals revealed that Paige and Mia had autism and intellectual disabilities.
Clay, Carole, and their three daughters redefined their personal idea of “family life.” The intervening years between toddlerhood and kindergarten were tiring; Clay compares trying to wrangle his family to all the raucousness of a circus. On one particular night, Clay wondered why God had chosen this path for his family.
Clay fell asleep asking a question. Overnight, the Holy Spirit answered: God intended to use Clay to help the autism community. Given his priorities and mindset at the time, Clay knew he would never have possessed the wherewithal to discover this answer of his own accord. Refreshed and carrying a new charge in his heart, he began researching local resources for individuals living with disabilities.
A Life of Tireless Advocacy
The Arc of Dallas-Fort Worth is a grassroots non-profit dedicated to spreading awareness about intellectual and/or developmental disabilities and improving the quality of life for those with said conditions. (In modern terminology, this would include the autism spectrum.) Clay met the Arc’s leaders; later, he joined their Board of Directors. He learned firsthand the difficulties faced by many families and worked on the ground with parents in need. He played a vital role in launching new events and initiatives in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. Clay attended advocacy meetings and legislative legacies, accepted a role on the Arc of Texas board, and worked with local elected officials.
For Clay, providing beneficial services to and serving as a voice for a sorely underserved community was of paramount importance. For his cumulative efforts, Former President Barack Obama appointed Clay to the Presidential Advisory Committee in Washington.
As a public servant, Clay was alight with a newfound passion that, like his overnight revelation, he suspects was God-granted. Although he continued his professional marketing job, he also became a tireless disability advocate. One role paid the bills; the other was his life’s work.
Ironically, as Clay explains, “everyone [knew] what I [did] for free,” while few recognized him for his day job. He was a man on a first-name basis with chaos — but who was he beneath the work?
Released from Mourning
Once the twins graduated college, Carole returned to the workplace after twenty years as a stay-at-home mother. She was diagnosed with ovarian cancer almost immediately and passed away after a long, hard-fought battle on February 11th, 2020.
Three days later on February 14th, Clay found himself standing alone and motionless in a grocery store. This was the first Valentine’s Day he had spent alone in 33 years. Blaire, his eldest, and the twins had moved out; his best friend, Carole, was gone. He was mired in despair, confusion, and anger.
Much like that pivotal evening of revelation decades earlier, Clay experienced another divine transformation. With absolute clarity, God reassured a grieving widower that his wife was at peace in heaven. Clay didn’t have to worry, even though he missed Carole profoundly. “God released me from having to mourn,” Clay remembers.
Subsequently, Clay realized he had no obligations and responsibilities for the first time in his adult life. At fifty-five years old, he was a new man seeking another new purpose. What else could he achieve before God called him home?
Waiting for the Right Fit
The first time Clay heard the phrase “you need to write a book” was during a church Bible Study. His friend Terrie introduced Clay to a publisher with a focus on autism-related books. The fit wasn’t right, so Clay put the idea aside.
Twelve years later, Terrie reached out and repeated her insistence. “Clay,” she said, “you’ve got to do this.”
Terrie was right. In a beautiful twist of fate, she introduced Clay to Nancy Erickson, the founder of The Book Professor®. One year later, Clay’s debut book God’s Plan, Our Circus: A Family Odyssey through Autism, Death, and Reinvention was published by The Book Professor®’s sister company Stonebrook Publishing.
Even the Greats Needed Coaches
At the outset of his journey with Nancy, Clay considered himself a reasonably good amateur writer. But he was humble enough to realize he needed a guide to navigate the official publishing world.
The stark quality difference between Clay’s first draft and the finalized version of God’s Plan, Our Circus stems from Nancy’s involvement. She taught Clay fundamental best writing practices and helped him hone his vision into a polished, communicable objective. Natural talent can only get one so far; the coaching element is the difference between good and great. Even the greats had coaches, Clay argues: Serena Williams, for example. Clay watched his writing competence improve as he implemented Nancy’s techniques; even his emails flowed smoother and read clearer.
Without her encouragement, Clay doubts he would have completed a full rewrite. Nancy’s “perpetually positive” nature as a person and a teacher gave Clay the motivation to charge forward. He looked forward to their sessions and wanted to refine his drafts. The times when self-doubt threatened to overshadow his progress, Nancy “kept the wind in [my] sails,” he says.
Getting Down to the Granular
How does one transform an interesting but generalized thought into a published manuscript? It’s the question every author faces and an essential backbone of The Book Professor®’s curriculum. From the beginning, Clay found Nancy’s structure helpful. The BookMAP process organizes a manuscript chapter-by-chapter and ensures the book’s focus is clearly defined. Clay preferred approaching his story in the manner of an autobiographical memoir, so he and Nancy adjusted the BookMAP to suit his needs.
For example, Clay had a wealth of “mini-stories” he wrote and shared on Facebook over the years. Using the BookMAP allowed Clay to categorize that existing work and combine it with new material in advance of writing anything from scratch. Clay transferred some chapters almost wholesale from his Facebook and improved the prose as he continued drafting.
Developing his prose included granular details Clay never took into consideration before working with Nancy. She suggested he revise his tone from instructive (i.e., “you should do this”) to empathetic. Readers tend to balk when a book tells them how to behave. Even if the author is well-intentioned, a didactic tone isn’t an approachable, inclusive one.
Clay also learned the art of removing adverbs. Everyone’s tempted to overuse descriptors ending in “ing” or “ly,” and an overabundance weighs down the prose. No one taught Clay this before Nancy. One small yet vital change added tangible strength.
In addition to his scheduled time with Nancy, Clay participated in a small Executive Group Writing MASTERMIND cohort. Receiving personalized feedback proved validating, as Clay had always harbored personal insecurities. Whenever someone paid him a compliment, he was suspicious. Over time he conditioned himself to smile in response, but he always doubted their sincerity and their motivations. True affirmations boosted his self-esteem throughout this new writing journey and helped him deliver a polished final draft.
Putting the Pieces Together
Choosing a memorable title and an eye-catching cover is an essential marketing practice. Clay loved working with the Stonebrook Publishing team and describes the cover for God’s Plan, Our Circus as “outstanding.” His original concept was a mere circus tent, but he and the designer agreed something was missing. The designer added a pair of trapeze artists, and the full picture, as it was, clicked. After all, the circus Clay refers to was never a tent or a building; the circus represents Clay’s family. The final cover reflects the heart and totality of his life’s saga.
The title, however, proved more elusive. With a finished product in hand, Clay knew his working title idea no longer fit his book’s themes. After a day-long email chain with Nancy, the two decided that God’s Plan, Our Circus: A Family Odyssey through Autism, Death, and Reinvention was the perfect juxtaposition. God’s plan sounds solemn compared to the circus of existence, and many question God’s plan for their lives — once upon a time, Clay included.
Happiness is a Conscious Choice
A key quote from God’s Plan, Our Circus originated from a conversation about challenges. Everyone experiences hurdles in life; the differentiating factor between misery and joy is perspective. “Happiness is a conscious choice,” explains Clay, a man experienced in choosing to move forward through difficulty, trauma, and tragedy.
Clay admits choosing happiness is easier to say than do, but he hopes his readers walk away from his memoir with a sense of hope. Decades before he touched a laptop with authorial intent, friends told Clay his story was a goldmine of potential inspiration for others. When he was living in the midst of it, however, all Clay had the time and energy to see was chaos. Sometimes we need an outsider’s perspective to shake us free from our destructive thought patterns and prompt us to adopt new perspectives.
For Clay, choosing happiness means always looking for the positives. There are aspects of life that are fundamentally funny, after all. He included humor throughout God’s Plan, Our Circus to convey that truth, including the “joys of dating” in his mid-50s.
And there’s the obvious positive example: he published a book. Adding “author” to his list of credentials is an achievement he never imagined. With God’s Plan, Our Circus, he brought this period of his life and his advocacy full circle.
Everyone’s story is unique. Every life has a story. Do you feel called to share yours? Get in touch with The Book Professor® today.