Diverse Paths, Yet an Unwavering Love of Writing
Issue   |   Fri, 11/11/2016 - 02:50
Dan Cluchey ’08
Before becoming a speech writer, Cluchey began working on his now published novel, “The Life of the World to Come.”

When I first spoke to Dan Cluchey ’08, I had just emerged from Organic Chemistry on the Friday of a tough week. I remember reading a short bio provided by Alumni and Parent Programs and thinking about how far off his life appeared. It was difficult to imagine life after graduation, and I couldn’t comprehend how Cluchey had managed to do so many incredible things in the eight years since he graduated. Among his many different paths, Cluchey earned a degree from Harvard Law, worked as a speechwriter for the Obama administration and published a novel this past summer.

Yet talking on the phone, Cluchey came across as humble and self-deprecating. He spoke about his various stories in a way that revealed a thoughtful character, and a passion for learning and place. Though he has occupied many different roles, the thing that winds its way through all of Cluchey’s adventures is a love for writing.

“Strange” Beginnings
Cluchey came to Amherst thinking he would only focus on political science. But after finishing the major requirements by the end of sophomore year, he realized he’d been missing out on the breadth of education that a liberal arts college has to offer. He started exploring classes in different majors, particularly enrolling in more music and English courses.

He always knew that he wanted to be a speechwriter, but his love for writing expressed itself in many different ways while at Amherst. He spoke highly of Professor of European Studies and Russian Stanley Rabinowitz, naming his class “Strange Russian Writers” as the best course he took at Amherst.

“He has always been a big inspiration,” Cluchey said. “At the time, he was really the first professor I’d had who had made me feel good about being sort of an … unorthodox writer. I thought of him really as a mentor in some ways. He might not be totally aware of that.”

Joining Mr. Gad’s was also a formative part of Cluchey’s Amherst experience. Performing improv was another way to explore creative forms of expression. “I am more of a ‘write-it-down’ first kind of person by nature so for me being able to perform in Gad’s — it helped me bring out that more external side of myself, whereas I think I’m a little more introverted by nature,” Cluchey said.

Gad’s gave Cluchey a family that spans generations of Amherst students. “What I love now is I live only about 90 minutes away from Amherst,” he said. “Any time I’m back there it’s like an instant connection through generations to people who are still doing it … When everyone gets together, it’s always a great time because people fall back into the ways that they banter with each other.”

He called his Gad’s family a lifesaver. “I had no idea what it was when I decided to try it out, and it ended up being such an emotional support system [and] social network,” he said. “It’s just like whatever you need it to be, which is great.”

Love for Learning
After Amherst, Cluchey was accepted to Harvard Law School and began his studies in the fall of 2009. He never worked as a lawyer and actually matriculated with this intention. As an aspiring speechwriter, he had looked at successful people in the field and observed that a lot of them had law degrees. “You look at people who get those positions because it’s not a career where you can just log in and go to a job bank or find an application,” Cluchey said. “You sort of have to chart your own path because it’s such a small, niche community.”

Attending law school with different end goals than his peers transformed his experience. “You’re not supposed to enjoy it, but I did — I actually really loved it,” Cluchey said. “ I think it’s precisely because I knew I wasn’t going to be competing for the same jobs as everyone else. That really took a lot of the heat off.”

He also spoke about how his love for learning at Amherst transferred over to his new environment, where he focused mostly on constitutional law and gender equality law. “In some ways, I took the same academic enjoyment from law school that I did from Amherst,” he said.

An Impromptu Project
Between graduating from law school and starting work as a speechwriter for the Obama administration, Cluchey had a four-month breather with no obligations. With a “huge chunk of time and no plan,” he took the opportunity to try out creative writing (after a week of “totally free living and no responsibilities”). What began as a private project eventually became the novel “The Life Of The World To Come,” which was published this past summer and follows a junior death row advocate as he tries to save a client and struggles with the question of mortality

Though starting the project was an impromptu decision, Cluchey said that “the emotional content of the book was definitely not spur of the moment — it was stuff that had been on my mind for the first 25 years of my life.”

Some of his literary inspiration, he said, is rooted in Amherst. “My all-time favorite writer is Vladimir Nabokov, and that I attribute entirely to Amherst because of Stanley Rabinowitz’s Russian literature class,” he said. “He’s a writer whose book I go back to over and over again … I love unreliable narrators, playing with readers and tricking the reader.” Describing his own writing experience with self-deprecating wit, Cluchey said, “For me it was like, ‘Wow, could I write like that too?’ And it turns out I can’t. But it made it a challenge.”

Life as a Speechwriter
While the book project was in the works, Cluchey began four years of work as a speechwriter for the Obama administration beginning in 2012. He worked for multiple people within the administration, including former Attorney General Eric Holder and former Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius, around the time the Affordable Care Act was being implemented.

Cluchey described his time as “everything I hoped it might be,” highlighting the unique experience of being surrounded by accomplished leaders at a young age, in part due to the nature of the speechwriting profession. “You end up at 24, 25 or whatever age you are in rooms or meetings hearing conversations that you would otherwise have no business being in, because you’re the speechwriter,” he said.

When talking about his work, Cluchey focused on the merit of the people around him. He spoke of the opportunity to write about “causes I cared about, which happen to be progressive causes, and work for a president who I really believed in very deeply.”

A Post-Amherst (but Amherst) Love
Cluchey later left the Obama administration to spend time with his wife, an Amherst alumna, Miriam Becker-Cohen ’11. They did not meet during their time at Amherst, though they overlapped by one year. Instead, they met for the first time driving up to homecoming in 2012. Cluchey’s college roommate, Chris Gillyard ’08, had two extra spots in his car, and put a note out on Facebook — she happened to respond.

Becker-Cohen is currently attending Yale Law, and the two live in New Haven together, but Cluchey says they eventually intend to head back to D.C. Cluchey hopes to continue speechwriting and Becker-Cohen hopes to pursue civil rights law. Cluchey joked, “It might be another last-hurrah for us to do crazy all-hours work on the causes we care about before we move back to the Pioneer Valley and get 10 dogs and work the land or whatever — we’ll see. We’re very much looking forward to retirement.”

The couple married this past year on Memorial Hill, with one of Cluchey’s roommates from his senior year officiating the ceremony. They had a band of Amherst grads and a cake topped with cider doughnuts from Atkins Farm, going for the “quintessential Amherst wedding experience.”

“What we need is here.”
What sticks with me is that Cluchey, half-laughing, said, “I would give anything to switch places with you. I’m not going to lie.” I suppose it wasn’t an unexpected comment — I think many students have listened to working adults reflect fondly on their college days. But this particular comment really resonated with me. Perhaps because it was a part of his story that truly reflected its whole.

It seems every part of Cluchey’s life has some thread that leads back to Amherst. Granted, I interviewed Cluchey as an Amherst student myself, so perhaps the context of our talk led to these responses. Regardless, his profound love of Amherst was evident even in his tone and diction. “This is slightly embarrassing — I don’t think I’ve ever missed a homecoming since I graduated,” he said. “I’m very into Amherst, not blind to its flaws, but I don’t know, there’s something about it that always gets me. I just breathe easier up there.”

While discussing his favorite writers, one poet that came up was Wendell Berry, who once closed a poem with the words, “What we need is here.” Hanging up the phone, I thought about how Cluchey feels like a person who embodies the spirit of that line. He’s someone who cherishes place, and has the ability to show that to others, even to an “other” over the phone.

“Maybe you’ll experience this, there’s sort of a weird period for a couple of years after you graduate where you’ll still know people there, and some of the same dynamics are still in play, and for me … when you come back and you don’t know anybody and it’s not about the people anymore it’s about the place, the feeling grew much stronger,” he said.