David Fitzpatrick, of Guilford, tells his story of mental illness, in Sharp, a compelling new memoir

David Fitzpatrick

David Fitzpatrick had a regular, normal childhood, growing up in Guilford, where he loved sports and wanted to please his teachers and family members. But then things started to go terribly wrong–he was bullied by an older brother and tormented in college by his roommates–and by the time he graduated from college, he was finding release from his inner torment by cutting himself.

Then came 17 years of being a “professional mental patient.”

Today, Fitzpatrick is the author of Sharp,  the story of his journey and how writing and the care of some extraordinary people brought him back to himself. Publishers Weekly calls the book “a mesmeric, dire memoir of his agonizing journey through hell and back.”

“A combination of low self-esteem, social anxiety, and depression over a breakup with a girlfriend precipitated the first cutting incident, leading to the first of many incarcerations in the psychiatric wing of hospitals, shock treatments, “psychotropic cocktails” that increasingly bloated his body, intensive therapy with idiosyncratic doctors, and occasional tender acquaintances with young anorexic women patients. After nearly two decades of spiraling mental illness leading to self-injury, the author was finally able to “recapture his mind” with the help of targeted drugs, therapy, family support, and, perhaps most key, a mission (thanks to Wally Lamb’s encouragement) to write his dark, affecting human story for “the mentally ill voices who don’t ever get to speak, to shout and be heard.” (Publishers Weekly)

Fitzpatrick submitted an essay about his experiences to New Haven Review, where it was published and received lots of attention. He wrote most of the book while he was a student in the Fairfield University Master of Fine Arts program for non-fiction–and now it is here.

David will be reading from his book at R. J. Julia Booksellers at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, Aug. 29. Call (203) 245-3959 for reservations. *(see other readings below)

And now, it’s a pleasure to welcome David to Books New Haven.

Tell us about your book.

This is a tale about a man losing his mind for nearly two decades, and getting stuck in the sticky psychic tendrils of hospitalizations, shock, medication and inertia, only to be revived and reborn with the assistance of two very talented doctors, and a whole slew of broken people years later. Those broken souls – both family, fellow patients, and benevolent strangers – helped reshape me, and returned me to a stable and mostly damn good life.

How did you first know that you wanted to write this story? What were the factors that engaged you from the beginning?

 I wrote at all points in my life, so the writing came natural. But my agent – also my eighth grade basketball camp friend, Richard Abate–suggested I should do it when I first left the group home in New Haven. That was August, 2007, and it felt too raw then, but a year later, Fairfield University’s MFA program came along and started up, and I jumped on board. I’d always thought at a distance, “Jesus, this hospital stuff would not be believed,” when I was in the midst of it, but then I started writing for the program, I realized I really could tell this story. It had love, madness, hellish experience, anguish and suicidal rage, joy, sex and enough macabre moments to keep one up late at night. Mostly, though, writing was how I stayed attached to reality. For a few years I couldn’t read, couldn’t really engage anyone save my family, so I wrote. Feebly, badly, horribly at times, but it kept me tethered somehow to the world. And then when it started to get better, hope started knocking in my gut, and I followed that. Grasped onto it and felt it, used it as a guide as I climbed out of the mess.

How did you find writing memoir to be different from writing fiction? How was it similar?

I haven’t written much fiction, save for a few stories that were published in small online magazines. And I was in the creative nonfiction program at Fairfield, so I realized, at least right then, the closer I get to truth, the more my writing shines and improves. And then I got semi-obsessed with it, and realized I wanted to show the total collapse/disintegration of a young man, the full story, and then his rebuilding and rebirth.  I guess as much as fiction was fun, the parameters of truth, or at least, my truth, my memory and honest portrayal of it, attracted me more. I know two people can look at a shark in the water from exactly the same distance, and write totally different versions of their honest experience, but still, I know what I saw, what I felt, and I thought I want to capture the shark truthfully (is that too dramatic or goofy? Probably, but I thought I’d go for it.)

Were you ever frustrated by having to stick to the facts of the story?

I was. At one point in my story, Christmas of 1993, I traveled to Chicago to be in a month-long hospital program with seven women from around the country who struggled with self-injury, and I wanted to make a late night New Year’s Eve moment more perfect than it actually was. What happened was we sat around and danced off and on, to Auld Lang Syne and ate sugar-free cookies and drank diet-Coke. What I wanted to write was a scene where I dance with an equally troubled girl, shuffling and twisting and then somehow, a quick kiss and a disco ball is attached to the ceiling of this hospital room, and everyone starts dancing, or crying in the sparkling lights. It was nice and it worked beautifully, maybe one of the best scenes I ever wrote. But the problem was – I don’t think it was true, I think I wanted to add all that drama because it would’ve been perfect for the story. The kiss never took place. So I had to cut it.

There are so many more layers when you’re writing about people who really did exist. What sorts of feedback (and blowback) did you get after the book came out? Were there people whose reactions you particularly feared?

Well, the book came out three days ago, so…so far, so good! I have an older brother who was verbally and physically hostile to me (I don’t call it abuse, I want the reader to get to that on their own) and I changed his name. He had spoken to me a few years before when he heard I was writing a memoir, and though he was pissed off, he said something like, “The least thing you could do is change my name.” So I did. I also wrote about the hazing I experienced from college roommates, and so I spent about three hours on the phone with lawyers and the editor, changing their names and their appearances. Also, did the same for some patients I met along the way – I didn’t want to do it at first, but then I saw it made sense and showed restraint. Plus, I realized some of the patients might want to tell their story themselves.

Did this book come to you easily, or did you have to wrestle it to the ground once or twice? Did you ever give up on it?

I wrote the first draft – a draft I was ready to hand in to my agent — in about seven or eight months. And my agent took it and wouldn’t read it. He sat me down and said, “You’ve got to be kidding me, the book’s not due for another four and a half months and you want to hand it in? This isn’t MFA time, David,” he said. “This is big league stuff, you should go back to it and add the layers, add the emotion behind it, add the urgency, add the joy.”

Then when I went back to it, I realized I almost blew the whole book.  I had nearly handed in a pathetic excuse for a work. Just a shell of what Sharp is today. So, then I started really writing intensely, working scenes over, adding the depth and heft Rich suggested. And then I started feeling the book, really going back to the emotions, the urgency, and it became a totally different memoir. In the end I handed it in one month before it was due, and by then I knew I’d given it everything I had. I never gave up on it, but like I said, I almost handed in a half-ass story.

Do you have a writing process you could share with readers, a way you like to proceed when you’re writing a book?

I like to write in my office in front of a backyard of trees, but if I’m feeling particularly stuck and feel like the computer isn’t working for me, I pick up a yellow legal pad. Then I look around the room, or at a river or somewhere on a street where I pull over, and imagine the words pouring right from my belly. If it’s working well that way, I’ll just keep at it until I feel like I’ve gotten everything out of the legal pad for that time. Then I go back to the computer and get into a rhythm of copying over the prose, and then I feel like I can write well on the computer. It’s sort of like doing finger painting before moving to the brushes. It helps me access the belly, the gut feelings.

When did you first know you were a writer?

I don’t think I called myself a writer until I started at the MFA program. But I think I knew in middle school, or even earlier. Just liked to look at books, sentences – even though I’m not great with grammar, just the flow and the enjoyment of a poem or turn of phrase. Anything by Salinger, Cheever or Updike or now, Mary Gaitskill or Joy Williams makes me salivate.

If you weren’t a writer, what job would you like to do?

I’m not good at much so hopefully this writer-thing will keep me above water for the rest of my life. I was good at sports as a kid but then everybody grew and I could see that wasn’t going to take me to the bank, and my Dad is a car dealer but I’m lucky if I can find the gas tank, so that didn’t work. It was just a matter of time – writing really is all I’ve got.

What’s your process of revision? Do you have readers who give you advice? At what point do you enlist their aid?

My wife – the indomitable, strong, and good editor and writer, Amy – reads everything before anyone. We usually argue some but I like to hear her thoughts on it. I have some friends that I show the work to, and for Sharp, I workshopped a lot of the material as I came through the Fairfield University program. Now I wait until I feel something is really good before I send it to my agent.

Do you procrastinate? What’s your favorite mode of procrastination when you’re supposed to be writing?

I watch a lot of old Youtube videos, play some old jazz. I can’t write if the music I’m listening to has singing in it, so I use old jazz Cd’s. Facebook is a real time suck – I’ve only been doing it for five months but oh, my God, it takes up the time. Sometimes I tell myself I need to read some inspiring writing so I read passages by Paul Lisicky, his stuff is poetic prose, and always psychs me up. Sometimes I lay around. And then – something comes to me – and just like that I’m back with the legal pad or keyboard.

What about being a writer has made you truly happy?

Probably the grooves I get in when things are really rolling. Mostly it’s hard work and searching inside for the right phrase, but sometimes, I get in a zone, and time slips away and I feel unstoppable. Of course, then I go back to it the next day, and it looks awful, but usually there’s some writing that takes place in that zone, in that groove, that really is special. So that kind of feeling, the kind I felt when writing large swaths of Sharp, that makes me happy.

What do you tell people who want to be writers, too?

Give it a shot, try it out, start with a journal or a prompt but as Robert Olen Butler writes – and I’m paraphrasing – if you are the kind of soul who averts their eyes from a difficult moment or scene, it might not be the right thing for you. I would think you should want to dive in to the strange or macabre or uncomfortable, you have to the point where that stuff is in your wheelhouse.

Would you like to talk about what’s next for you?

I’ve started a novel about three friends who go crazy in their teens during a summer at the Cape, and a photo is taken of the three of them, and thirty-five years later, those iconic photos come to bite the protagonist in the ass. Only a quarter of the way through it but hopefully I can get it done, get it really rolling.

Read more about him, including some samples of his work, at his website, http://www.davidfitzpatrickbooks.com. 

Book signings and readings:

Sept. 6, 7 p.m.: Broadside Books in Northampton, MA

Sept. 12, 7:30-9 p.m.: Manjares Fine Pastry and Coffee, Westville. (sponsored by New Haven Review)

Sept. 13, 7-8:30 p.m.: Barnes & Noble, Blue Back Square, West Hartford.

Sept. 19, 7-8 p.m.: Guilford Public Library (with his agent and friend, Richard Abate)

Sept. 24, 7 p.m.: Barnes & Noble, 82nd & Broadway, New York, with Wally Lamb

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