As a child, athlete and activist Zion Clark—born without legs due to a rare medical condition—was bounced between foster parents and moved at the will of the system, often away from the adults who loved him and had his best interests in mind. Clark survived severe obstacles and eventually found faith and family with Kimberlli Hawkins, his final foster parent and adopted mother. In this memoir, Work with What You Got, Clark’s second book with James Hirsch (after Zion Unmatched), he speaks candidly of his time in foster care, and the mentors, personal strength, and ambitions that pushed him to become a successful wrestler, wheelchair racer, writer, and activist. PW spoke with Clark and Hirsch about the process of collaborative memoir writing, the similarities between writing, athletics, and advocacy, and what the authors hope readers take away from Clark’s life story.

Was there a particular inciting incident or moment that led you to want to write a memoir?

Zion Clark: I’ve done a lot, I’ve accomplished a lot, and I have suffered a lot—which is a testament to my success and how calm I am. The amount of pain somebody has experienced can lead them in one of two directions: to do something great with their life or suffer. After my first book, it was already in the plan with Candlewick to do a second one. I wasn’t sure what direction I wanted to take. So we felt it out for a couple of years. I did a lot of talking with the people I knew would be part of the book about how we can make this go down and I got a lot of positive feedback, so that’s what pushed me towards it.

What did you find was the most surprising aspect of working on this particular project?

Clark: When it came to digging up my past and finding people whom I haven’t spoken to or haven’t been around for 15-plus years, that was a bit of a challenge. To finally find them and ask them, “Can you open up about this?” Because some of the stuff I talked to people about was hard to dredge up. To my surprise, everybody saw that I was doing it for a good purpose, and they were able to share their insights. There are a lot of things that happened that I hadn’t talked about in interviews, that definitely aren’t in the Netflix thing [Body of Strength, a short biographical documentary from 2018], that put into perspective how dangerous it got for me in the system. To my surprise, people came together. The story isn’t just of me but the people around me.

What was important for you to highlight about your own history and experiences, and how did you go about making sure this story differed from previous narratives?

Clark: I had full control. That’s the difference. Honestly, in a lot of these other things I was young, I was stupid. I didn’t really know what was going on. I was kind of there for the ride. I’m only 25, but I’ve succeeded a lot more than people twice my age. I want to work and I want to be able to tell my side of the story from my memory, consult with my people who were around me to confirm everything that I’m saying. I was able to tell what happened, where, who did what, and why there are certain reactions I have today. Why I think certain changes need to be made to the foster care system, and what it’s really like to be part of the system. And then to show what you can do to get out, to have a mindset to get out.

What was rewarding about working on the project?

James Hirsh: The story is about Zion’s indomitable spirit in overcoming so many hardships, and Zion has been rightfully celebrated for his achievements. But he also has a small group of adults in his hometown of Massillon, Ohio, who believed in him when many others had given up hope. Particularly nowadays, when our country seems hopelessly divided, angry, and indifferent, Zion’s story confirms that our better angels do exist.

“There are a lot of things in life that we can use, that can either break us down or build us up.” —Zion Clark

What was it like writing a memoir in collaboration with James?

Clark: It was a rough start for me and James. But as time went on, I got to know him and trust him. The way I grew up, I really don’t trust anybody. My team and my set of people are are my set of people, and that’s as far as I go. So, bringing James in on the project made it interesting getting to work with a well-accomplished writer—one of the greats in my opinion. He took the time to travel with me across the country over a span of two, three years, and then I would send him to different places across the country to talk to certain people. He was very accepting of that. My life is busy. I don’t have time to stop the clock. I was working with James, or Jim, I call him Jim, and working with Jim was amazing. He’s an amazing person. I think this piece that we made together is wonderful. He was really able to get a clearer insight on my life.

You have worked with other athletes and public figures on collaborative memoirs before. What was it like writing a memoir in collaboration with Zion?

Hirsh: It’s really no different than writing a biography. Each genre requires a complete immersion into the life of another person. That requires extensive research—interviews, archival research, etc.—but it also requires empathy. A collaboration means that I am telling another person’s story from his point of view, but the journey to reach that destination is no different than the journey I take to write a biography.

Did you find any similarities between the work you’ve done with athletics and advocacy and the process of writing a book?

Clark: No, not really. My athletic brain is completely hardwired in a different way. I’m a fighter. My athletics is based on violence. So my brain is hardwired in a completely different way than to sit down and calmly write a book. My life is super fast-paced, so the book actually made me slow down and I had to meditate. Think about certain aspects, remember a lot of things, look through a lot of paperwork, and a lot of fact-checking to make sure this book is the cleanest piece of work I can put out.

What is the most important thing you would like readers to take away from Work with What You Got?

Clark: The mentality of what it takes to experience all that and still come out the other end with a smile on your face. There are a lot of things in life that we can use, that can either break us down or build us up. From this book, I want people to be inspired to look at themselves and be like, there’s more to me than what I see and I have more to offer to myself and to the world around me.

Hirsh: The book has many takeaways, honestly. But beyond the obvious about never giving up, I like what one of his friends told me—and I quote in the book: “If your dreams don’t scare you, you aren’t dreaming big enough.” Zion dreamed to live a life that no one could have imagined, and I think that message—dream big, even if scares you, and then pursue it—is a great message for all young people.

Throughout the book, there are bolded lines of encouragement. Do you have any other mantras that you live by?

Clark: I’m gonna be honest, I’m not some guy on a pedestal. I am living my life to the best of my ability. And making the most out of it. I live by “No Excuses,” which is tattooed on my back. I try to run it up every day I get the opportunity to breathe.

Work with What You Got: A Memoir by Zion Clark and James S. Hirsch. Candlewick, $18.99 Apr. ISBN 978-1-5362-2421-4