David Fitzpatrick's Sharp is a memoir covering his 46-year-life, and his two-decade struggle with bipolar disorder and self-injury. Here, he writes about how he turned his experiences into a memoir.
Sharp isn't even close to what I imagined the shape would be when I got the contract. Initially, I thought the work I created during the two years getting my MFA from Fairfield University would be the place to start. I saw the project as a collection of fifteen essays on true voyages in and around the mental health realm, and then eventually, rejoining the world, emerging from the blackness. My wise agent took me aside at that point and informed me, as nicely as possible, that interconnected essays from a first-time author without a lot of credentials wasn’t going to fly with editors at publishing houses.
So I started from scratch, and sat down to write a memoir, a story with an arc that works for the reader, from beginning, middle to end. I knew I’d lose the audience if I began in the muck, in the stasis of sickness, so I tried to tell a love story, to show the light and love of an enchanted college kid and his “semi-perfect girl,” on a magical summer on Martha’s Vineyard. I knew if I followed the thread of romance all the way through - from first date, to kiss, then lust, and assorted sexual peccadillos, to fun moments, and the inevitable souring of the relationship a year and a half later – I could also trace my own psychic decline, drug use, and turning to cutting myself, and institutionalization. Then, just when the reader has seen enough darkness in the story, redemption comes in to save the day. Put simply, I used the love story as a template.
My advice to a writer who has good material and wants to express it on the page; don’t reinvent the wheel. It was a real lesson for me to start that humbly, to not overshoot the mark and try to outdo everyone who ever wrote a book. My memoir is a basic 368 pages of a broken man who finds a way to piece his existence back together, with assistance from a lot of broken people, some family, some strangers that became friends in hospitals, and some experts in the field. I filled up my story with each of those faces, and by doing that, a more substantial emotional story was set into motion.
I’d also highly recommend outlining. I had a stubborn, grumpy attitude with the practice initially. I had though my memoir would flow effortlessly from the gut onto the page, then edit it a handful of times, and then bang, the good reviews roll in. It didn’t work like that. I found outlining freed up so many more memories, dreams, and incidents that I thought were lost forever. They came flying back to me, and helped me add depth and heft to the tale.
The most important message is that people can do this – they can put their life down onto a page. With hard work, and some good critical eyes of writer friends or teachers, the story doesn’t have to stay in the bottom drawer. Push yourself and your novel, or memoir or collection of poems can emerge from within.