A novelist comes alive in a memoir, or is it the other way around?

by Jerry Waxler

Rick Skwiot, author of “San Miguel de Allende, Mexico: Memoir of a Sensual Quest for Spiritual Healing,” also wrote several fiction books, making him a good resource to help me understand the relationship between these two apparently very different narrative forms. In the first parts of this interview I asked him about; his spiritual quest, turning notebooks into a memoir, and more about his life as a writer. In this fifth part of our interview, I ask him about fiction, fact, and finding an end.

Jerry Waxler: You have written several fiction books. Which did you learn first, memoir writing or fiction writing?  Have themes from your journey to Mexico infused your other writing? If so, how?

Rick Skwiot: Learning how to write fiction came first with me, long before I ever thought of writing a memoir, though “learning” it is a never-ending journey, perhaps like “learning” philosophy or learning wholeness. However, like fiction writing, memoir writing is creative writing, and all the tools and approaches that I learned as a novelist I applied to my two memoirs: how to organize my material for dramatic effect, develop interesting characters, modulate and pace the story, construct emotion-laden scenes, build taut and tense dialogue, keep the narration driving forward, etc.

Fiction writing also helped sharpen my imaginative powers, which certainly come in handy when writing a memoir. For example, in my childhood memoir I wrote a scene in which I imagined my widowed grandmother’s secret lover (whom I learned about 50 years after the fact) meandering North St. Louis streets after being chased from her flat prior to our Christmas morning arrival. Appropriate turf for a memoir, I think, the memoirist’s thoughts, feelings, and imagination.

As to themes from my Mexico journeys infusing my other writing, yes, they do, for they have become part of me. They show up quite plainly in my two early Mexican novels, particularly in Sleeping With Pancho Villa, though in an indirect and subtle way, I hope. The playwright Arthur Miller once said that all drama attempts to answer the question, “How does a man make for himself a home?” That can be said of novels and memoirs as well. I think the spiritual quest is central to that search for home. All men and women have something of Odysseus in them, and lives that parallel the Odyssey—we are all trying to find ourselves and our place in the world, to vanquish monsters and false suitors and navigate threatening seas to return home.

Jerry: How did writing a memoir help your fiction?

Rick: Writing a memoir helps put the author in touch with his or her deepest feelings. It is both, from time to time, a melancholy and an uplifting process. But digging into oneself and one’s past in an honest way helps a writer recognize what’s important—what resonates with you, what moves you, what frightens you. Those things are probably what should drive one’s fiction writing as well. Overall it helps you see yourself better and more honestly, which will make you stronger as a fiction writer and as a human being.

Jerry: How much help did you receive from other writers, say in critique groups. Did other writers help you gain perspective and create a clean, straightforward portrayal of your journey?

Rick: I got some valuable feedback on early drafts from writers and intelligent readers alike. Actually, the concept of starting the book at the time I broke my ankle came from a reader who is not a professional writer but a yoga instructor in Mexico. When he made the suggestion, it was like a curtain going up and I saw the rightness of it. (I’ve learned to trust my heart on fielding criticism, rejecting suggestions that don’t really resonate with me, and embracing those that feel like revelation or, conversely, sting.) Most writers benefit from good critiques, and it is very difficult to operate without them. However, it is not always easy to find. Fortunately I do have some friends who are novelists, and we read each other’s works-in-progress.

Jerry: What are you working on next?

Rick: I have just finished a “final” draft of a novel, Key West Story, in which a down-and-out writer in Key West, suffering from writer’s block, penury, and self-doubt, is visited by an angel—a young Ernest Hemingway reincarnate—sent down to get this worthy yet misguided soul back on track as a man and a writer. Together they set off to Cuba in Hemingway’s fishing boat, to attempt to smuggle out a Cuban Navy salvage diver, a Santeria priestess and maps to sunken Spanish galleons. Although it has certain autobiographical elements, probably best written as fiction, not a memoir.

Jerry: One last thing. I am very sensitive to downbeat endings. For one thing, my experience with the existential and nihilistic literature popular in the sixties depressed me profoundly. Once I overcame that depression, I have tended towards literature that lifts. From that point of view, your book challenged me. I found the pervasive death and poverty depressing. And yet, in the end, I felt uplifted, not by what you found in Mexico but what you found inside yourself. This theme of a young person trying to find himself is one of my favorite themes. But you had to finesse your personal rewards within the gritty reality around you. I can see a dynamic tension between these two opposing forces, your insistence to grow and the severe limitations that poverty placed on the people around you. How did you feel about portraying this tension?

Rick: I have spent my life trying to balance those opposing forces, the yin and yang, my melancholy and my exuberance—product, perhaps, of a mercurial Slavic soul. The world has always been a difficult and dismal place for our species, with threats and evil lurking, but also an enveloping home with great beauty and riches. Life is struggle, for everyone, and those who have the inner resources and high spirits to fight on in the face of great adversity are those we most admire. Like you, I want to hear their stories, not the stories of quitters, pessimists and whiners. The protagonists don’t have to succeed in reaching their goals, but they have to strive with great heart. When we read these stories, we see it is the struggle that ennobles us and the thing that matters most.

Click here for Part 1 of the interview with Rick Skwiot, Spiritual memoirs

Click here for Part 2 of the interview with Rick Skwiot, Journals and Notebooks

Click here for Part 3 of the interview with Rick Skwiot, Backstory of a memoir

Click here for Part 4 of the interview with Rick Skwiot, Tenacity of a Writer


Rick Skwiot’s Blog, “New Underground”

Rick Skwiot’s Home Page

More memoir writing resources

To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on Memory Writers Network, click here.

To order my step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.

Memoir Lessons: Buddies, Endings, and Beyond

by Jerry Waxler

Read how our collective interest in turning life into story is changing the world, one story at a time.

After you live for a few decades, you look back and find you have learned many lessons from your own School of Hard Knocks. When you read a memoir you have the privilege of attending someone else’s school, learning what they learned, gaining some of their wisdom. You can look back on their experience, too, and learn more from it in retrospect than you learned the first time.

In this post, I wrap up the last of the twenty lessons I found in Beth Kephart’s Slant of Sun. I have delved into this enjoyable, well-written book, a process I have grown accustomed to. After reading a memoir, I go back and consider it again. I hope you will do the same. By studying the lessons that other people learned in their School of Hard Knocks, you will gain the skill and courage to offer readers an insider look at your own.

Slant of Sun is a great example of a buddy book!

A mom loves her only son. They hang out together and share many, many hours. She is constantly trying to understand him. But this memoir is not a biography of him. It is about their relationship. He is important in relation to her and vice versa. They are buddies.

I notice certain, noteworthy features of books in which the protagonist is tightly focused on one other character. In addition to understanding each individual, you are also learning about the way they relate to each other. The relationship becomes a sort of third character. Look at how close these two are. He actually emerged from her body, and relies on her every minute, as intimate as a relationship can be. Slant of Sun focuses so tightly on this one other character, she subtitled the book One Child’s Courage.

Another example of a buddy book is Courage to Walk about Robert Waxler’s love and concern for his adult son. When I first read Courage to Walk I was surprised by the author’s attempt to get inside his son’s head. Now, after reading “Slant of Sun” I see the similarity. Obsessing on your child’s thoughts is part of being a parent.

Two more examples of buddy memoirs involve non-human friends: Alex and Me about Irene Pepperberg’s relationship with a parrot, and Marley and Me about John Grogan’s relationship with his dog.

Some relationship books show the dark side of interpersonal connections. Consider the destructive relationship between Leslie Morgan Steiner and her abusive husband in Crazy Love.

Writing Prompt
What individual in your life might make a strong character that would carry a chapter, or two, or an entire book? Try writing that person’s profile and a description of the relationship. What was your connection? How close were you? How did you treat each other? How much did you think about that person?


At the end of a story, the author’s job is to build a bridge to help the reader return from the world inside the book back out into the real world. This last segment is called the denouement. The end of memoirs can sometimes be a lesson learned, or a segue forward in time, taking the narrator from the younger life in the memoir out into the life of the memoir writer.

In Beth Kephart’s denouement, she shares her concern about the medical, family and community response to children in Jeremy’s situation, and the difficulties for a young mother of a child with special needs. Despite the fact that she isn’t an expert, I welcome her views. In my opinion, she has earned the right to speak authoritatively about the child mental health care system.

Many memoir authors take advantage of the denouement to offer lessons that have resulted from experience. At the beginning of the memoir, Here if You Need Me Kate Braestrup loses her husband in a freak auto accident. During the following years, she goes to school to become a minister, and then works for the Maine State Game Wardens, helping comfort survivors of deadly accidents and crimes. By the end of the book, Braestrup earns the right to draw conclusions about the most profound topics of good and evil, life and death.

In Three Little Words, Ashley Rhodes Courter describes her upbringing in the foster care system. By the end, she is speaking to groups to help raise awareness about improving the foster care system.

Writing Prompt
What conclusion have you drawn from the experiences in your memoir? Write a synopsis of these lessons, and consider if they might work at the end of your book, to share with readers things that they might be able to use. This “lessons learned” ending is especially relevant if you intend to give talks to audiences who might be interested in applying your experience in their own lives.

People age. Books don’t.

When I read Slant of Sun I was bonding with Beth and her son in an earlier time frame. Which is a strange bit of time travel, because it is 15 years later, and their lives have moved on. When I ask her questions about the book, in the interview which I will post next, I can feel her striving valiantly to return to that earlier time. Unlike a fiction writer, who can leave her characters behind, a memoir writer continues to live with her characters, forever.

Last year I read Zlata’s Diary by Zlata Filopovic. She was 11 when she was catapulted to fame by the diary she kept of her experience in the war in Sarajevo. Ten years later, when I read the book, she was in college. I reached out to ask her a few questions and she politely declined. She wanted to grow up.

Even though we aspiring memoir writers cannot see the future, and don’t know what it will feel like to publish a book that captures a part of ourselves, these are good questions to ask yourself. Once a memoir is out in the world, you will have to live with it for a long time. As another memoir author, Bill Strickland, (Ten Points) told me in an interview, that someone came up to him and started talking about his past. The first time it happened he was horrified by the intrusion. Then he remembered, “No wonder they know. I told them.”

Writing Prompt
Write an imaginative story about what it will feel like in ten years when a reader asks you about a passage in your ten year-old memoir.

You’re neither too old nor too young

You don’t have to be old to write a memoir. Beth Kephart was in her thirties when she wrote hers. Another of my favorite memoirs, Publish This Book was written by 24 year old, Stephen Markeley. And don’t worry about being too old, either. The Invisible Wall was written by 93 year-old Harry Bernstein. Forget your age. Write the story.

Here are links to all the parts of my multi-part review of Slant of Sun by Beth Kephart and an interview with the author:

Use this memoir as a study guide: lessons 1 to 3

Lessons 4-5 from Beth Kephart’s Memoir, Slant of Sun

Four More Writing Lessons from Reading a Memoir

Memoir Lessons: Mysteries of emerging consciousness

Memoir Lessons: Moms, Quirks, Choices

Lessons from Kephart: Labels, Definitions, Language

Memoir Lessons: Buddies, Endings, and Beyond

Interview with Beth Kephart

Visit Beth Kephart’s Blog
Amazon page for “A Slant of Sun: One Child’s Courage” by Beth Kephart

More memoir writing resources

To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on Memory Writers Network, click here.

To order my step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.