Spiritual memoirs, interview with author Rick Skwiot
by Jerry Waxler
During the late 60s, when I was almost finished college, I wondered what life was going to be like out in the world. One source of inspiration came from books like Henry Miller’s sexy novels, Sexus, Nexus, and Plexus. Miller fled the United States to live in France, learning how to write and commune with the locals. W. Somerset Maugham wrote about a different type of expatriate adventure in Razor’s Edge, more of a spiritual quest than a drunken carousal. My own search for truth took me to California, which in the days of the hippies did sometimes feel like a foreign country.
Now decades later, I want to tell the story of my escape and self-discovery. To help me learn how to do that, I read memoirs. I recently finished an excellent one by Rick Skwiot who in the 80s went to Mexico to find a truer aspect of himself than he was able to find in corporate America. His quest was somewhere between the fast living of Henry Miller and the soul searching of Somerset Maugham, and contained some of the elements of my own travels. It’s too late to interview Maugham, Miller, or the other world travelers who haunted my imagination during my formative years. But Rick Skwiot is alive and willing to talk about the writing of “San Miguel Allende.”. Here is the first of several parts of an interview in which I ask him about writing the memoir.
Jerry Waxler: When did the story of your memoir, “San Miguel de Allende, Mexico: Memoir of a Sensual Quest for Spiritual Healing” take place?
Rick Skwiot: I first went to San Miguel in 1983. The book spans the next few years, when I was living in San Miguel and returning to St. Louis to do freelance work whenever I needed money–that is, whenever I was flat broke and had no choice. That lasted until 1989 or 1990.
Jerry: Your title is interesting. I’ve rarely seen memoirs with a place name in the title. Why was the place so important that it deserved to be the first part of your title?
Rick: When teaching fiction writing I tell students that setting determines character, and character in turn determines plot. I think the same often applies to memoir, and certainly in this case. The people and culture of San Miguel–both Mexican and gringo–had such a profound collective influence on this period of my life that I perceived the town as the major “character” in my memoir. While on the surface, my story appears to be about my own transformation, the agent of that change was the town and its people.
Jerry: Moving to another country combines the element of escape, that is, getting away from your regular life, with its opposite, that is trying to establish the patterns of a new life. I enjoyed the anxiety and difficulty of your settling into this new place. That theme of being a stranger in a new land is a fundamental aspect of the hero myth, and I recommend your book as an excellent model of that sense of trying to settle in and make sense of a new set of rules. Now that you have written about this experience of going forth into a foreign land and adapting to its rules, would you consider this model as useful for other books you have written or want to write?
Rick: It has been said that there are only two dramatic plots: 1) Someone takes a trip, and 2) A stranger comes to town. Some books, like my memoir, combine these two–as do my two previous novels and the one I’ve just completed. While that writing-workshop adage is somewhat tongue-in-cheek, there’s also some truth in it, if applied loosely. In good books, whether fiction or memoir, we encounter characters who take trips of one sort or another–physical, psychological, emotional, spiritual or whatever–and who arrive as strangers in new worlds. As readers we subconsciously and consciously look for character development, for change, for chaos made into order. In going to a foreign land where different values and modes of living exist, a character is forced to examine most everything about himself or herself, and there are built-in conflicts in culture, language, and more, which make for good drama. All to say, in answer to your questions, yes, this is a useful model, and it makes me feel somewhat embarrassed by how little overall imagination I’ve exhibited in regards to plot.
Jerry: The second part of your memoir’s title, “A Sensual Quest for Spiritual Healing,” is equally interesting. What made you believe that aspect of the trip was important enough to put in the title?
Rick: It was always a spiritual search for me–a quest to find my own soul. I was then reading Jung, who devoted his life–on his own behalf and ours–to such a search. That quest was the essence of my Mexican experience. At the time I was compelled to head to Mexico, I had become somewhat dead inside. Intuitively, I sensed that I had become overly cerebral and detached from nature–and as a result detached from my own soul. My rebirth came not by rethinking my ideas, but through reconnection with nature, both the nature out in the world as well my own human animal nature. And my connection came through the senses. Hard for me to put this in a few sentences, as it took me 200 pages to describe it in my memoir. But I believe the path to the soul must often pass through the senses.
Jerry: I have met many aspiring memoir writers who wish they could convey the spirituality of their lives. I think you have done an excellent job doing exactly that. But rather than defining spirituality, you show how it pervaded a number of your experiences, such as love and romance, letting go of rigid structures, folk religion, visiting a holy site, and an extraordinarily poignant, even chilling portrayal of a funeral. Your method of portraying spirituality as a pervasive essence makes an interesting model for how other writers could achieve the same goal. When you wrote your memoir, did you have an idea how you were going to write about spirituality? Or did you let the scenes speak for themselves, allowing spirituality to peek out from the edges?
Rick: I think your last comment comes closest to answering the question, How to convey spirituality in a story? Spirituality has to do with the unknowable mystery of life and, for a writer, thus can only be approached indirectly. As with emotions, you can’t really describe it as you would a physical object, or argue for it, or beg for it, but must use concrete objects, sensory details and action to do so, to represent it metaphorically. We are genetically hard-wired, I believe, to respond emotionally to well-wrought stories–we’ve been telling them for a million years or longer, from tales of the hunt around the campfire to today’s memoir and the story of search for meaning and self-actuation. The tried and true conventions of storytelling–conflict, the hero’s quest, dramatic irony, pointed dialogue, revelation, resolution, etc.–still apply and give us tools to transmit emotion of all sorts, including the spiritual variety. Those who wish to convey the emotion of a spiritual quest would be well served, I think, by studying the dramatic arts, which include fiction-writing techniques. When I write, whether it be memoir or fiction, I work to put the reader in the place of the story, so it becomes the reader’s experience as well, so the reader visits the scene in his or her imagination and feels the emotion. I want the words to disappear, for the reader to get beyond the intellectual surface of the page and into the imaginative world of the story. In the case of this memoir, I did not set out to write about spirituality per se, but to write about a pivotal time in my life where I went through a great transformation, part of which was opening myself up to the non-rational in life. To do that effectively and make people feel it, I had to use all my tricks as a creative writer.
Jerry: How has your sense of your spiritual quest changed and grown over the years?
Rick: It never ends. One strives to stay centered, balanced, but without always succeeding. When I get off base I try to return to the things I learned in Mexico: to appreciate small blessings, to acknowledge greater forces, to live inside my body and in the moment. I return to Jung and Zen writings, and to the gods and spirits of my childhood pantheon, which reside in nature, both animate and inanimate. Then comes the rebirth, if one is lucky, when the world again seems new, fecund and inviting.
Turning Journals and Notebooks Into a Memoir
by Jerry Waxler
When Rick Skwiot moved to Mexico in the 1980s, he had two goals. He wanted to find himself spiritually and also find his writing voice. Years later, he wrote about the trip in the memoir “San Miguel de Allende, Mexico: Memoir of a Sensual Quest for Spiritual Healing.”
In the first part of this interview I asked Rick to help me understand more about the spiritual aspects of his search. Now in this and following parts, I ask about his literary journey. The book explains that he wanted to be a writer. I wanted to learn more about how he fulfilled those dreams by turning his powerful life experience into a book that invites readers to relive it with him.
Jerry Waxler: You mentioned your writing journals quite a bit, since writing was one of the things you did to pass the time. Explain how you used your writing notebooks while you were in Mexico.
Rick Skwiot: My journals were crucial in my development as a writer. Not only did I record events of my life, but I also, as you suggest, wrote fictional scenes there, experimented with writing styles, penned criticism on the books I was reading, recorded my dreams and more. It was a mishmash of fact and fiction that would likely misinform and mislead any reader other than myself. My journals were a cauldron from which a writer emerged, finally. They also taught me the discipline of writing every day and thinking every day, examining my life and the world around me with a sense of writerly investigation. For a writer, most everything is research and potential material, which makes us such charming companions, half vulture, half snake-in-the-grass.
Jerry: As you were attempting to write the memoir, what help were your original contemporaneous notebooks? How did it feel reading that old material?
Rick: A curious thing occurred regarding the notebooks’ content. I had mined the notebooks/journals years earlier when writing my two novels set in Mexico, and had not revisited them in perhaps ten years. But when I did I found that the fictionalized versions of events, from my novels, had come to be my reality, how I remembered things. My contemporaneous reporting of events shocked me at times, for I had not remembered things that way at all. This showed how unreliable memory (and perhaps a memoir) can be, and alerted me to the power and truth of fiction. I was also surprised by how hungry I was back then. I was on a compulsive quest to find myself, and my journal notes underscore how serious and driven I was, how dead set on saving myself. It was somewhat frightening in retrospect, for I saw what peril I was in at the time, and found myself feeling sympathetic and paternalistic toward my former self.
Jerry: How have your habits and strategies with notebooks changed over the years? How do you use them now?
Rick: Nowadays I don’t keep a regular journal and only start doing so when I am beginning to work on a book. Then I use a notebook to sketch out plot, dialogue, scenes, characters, etc. So it is more of a workbook than a journal. Also, I think my life has become much more mundane–which is a mixed blessing–and doesn’t inspire journal entries. Also, I have come to trust my memory, which is a writer’s capital, his material. I know everything that has happened to me is in my mind, in my conscious or unconscious, and that it will surface in some form when I need it. I noted this in particular when writing my childhood memoir, Christmas at Long Lake. When I began writing a scene and put myself in that place emotionally and, through the imagination, physically, I began to see and remember–the sights, smells, words, feelings–from my childhood. It was in some ways a very moving experience, spending time again, in that way, with my late parents, when they were young and vital. Most bittersweet and affecting for me.
Jerry: Many aspiring memoir writers look at their pile of notes, their many memories, and feelings, and are daunted by the prospect of turning them into a story, with a beginning, middle, and end. What was that like for you, as you tried to find a theme or organization or thread of this book?
Rick: That’s always the most agonizing and daunting part of writing a book, organizing and structuring it. What I try to do, and what I advise my writing students to do, is to think in terms of scenes–as in theater, compressed, meaningful action that takes place in real time at one location with a few important characters, and dialogue that drives the narrative forward and reveals character. I will note down what scenes I feel are obligatory, scenes I know I want in the book, somewhere, or that need to be there. Then I start to organize them in some effective way–whether it’s chronologically, thematically, geographically or whatever. I often do use a schematic in doing this–I draw boxes that represent scenes–so I can see what needs to happen first, what relationships and interconnections there are between various incidents and characters, and so I can easily move things around. Once I arrive at a workable ordering of the scenes, I can write them (or often I write the scenes first and worry later about where they go.) The last thing then is to write the summary and transitions, the authorial intrusions, if any, and needed exposition. Of course this is a very messy and recursive process, and difficult and potentially heartbreaking. You can write the whole book and then see that one particular scene is out of place, so you have to tear the book all apart and do another organization and a lot more work. This was even more daunting in the pre-computer days, when each draft meant having to re-type the whole manuscript. But I was happy to do it, as I thought such rigors weeded out the dilettantes and other writers not as insanely committed as I.
Jerry: There was a rhythm to the way the book was set up, with your initial burst of enthusiasm, some rethinking, then a trip back to the states and the start of a second round. I liked the rise and fall and rise again. It felt organic and natural. This is especially important for writers because the middle of a book is supposed to be the hardest, keeping the energy moving during the “long middle.” It’s hard enough to get the overall structure. You have done an excellent job of finding internal structure too. Talk about how you worked through the material looking for the shape.
Rick: I am gratified that the book’s structure “felt organic and natural,” because it was arrived at after a lot of trial and error and anxiety. Yes, I did labor over it, and it changed shape drastically over the ten years of its gestation. At last–and this came after numerous drafts over the years–I settled on starting the book in the middle of things, at the pivotal and dramatic point when I broke my ankle playing basketball on the Mexican team. Then most of what happens in the first half of the book is told in flashback. This gave me the opportunity to order things thematically and control pacing. Part two, my return to Mexico, is told more chronologically. The key for writers is the get the story going right off the bat, to get and hold the reader’s interest and attention. Once you have some conflict or problem on the table that captivates the reader, then you can begin to layer in some of the needed exposition, in a judicious way. This applies to creative nonfiction as well as fiction. It is perhaps the most difficult thing about writing a book, keeping the narrative driving forward.
A Memoirist Talks About the Backstory of His Memoir
by Jerry Waxler
Writing a memoir is a journey. In addition to finding and writing material, we also strive to improve our skills, the same road taken by the authors of all those books that have entertained and informed us since the beginning of our lives. In addition to the lessons they have recorded between the covers of their books, many writers are also happy to teach. In this third part of my interview with Rick Skwiot, novelist, writing teacher, and author of the memoir “San Miguel de Allende, Mexico: Memoir of a Sensual Quest for Spiritual Healing,” I pry into his insights about writing.
Jerry Waxler: I was intrigued to see you immersed with these characters. You wanted deeply to learn from them about letting go and just living. And yet, you kept diving into your books. It was an interesting character portrayal of yourself, a guy who wanted to find himself in the culture and yet kept finding himself in books. I can relate! How self-conscious were you of this self-portrait? Did you have to work at the self-portrayal, or did this emerge naturally from events.
Rick Skwiot: I don’t think I consciously crafted a self-portrait here. I was just trying to report on this guy who went to Mexico and found himself, and how that came about. For most any memoirist, there are two first-person characters: the author/narrator who is writing it and the historical character who experienced the events in the book’s scenes. The author has some temporal distance from that other first-person character, in my case, the man I was some 25 years ago. I think I was able to write about him with some detachment because he isn’t me, but a character from my past who has no current existence. This was even more apparent to me when I previously wrote my childhood memoir, Christmas at Long Lake, which takes place on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day 1953, when I was six years old. In fact, in early drafts I used third person to describe the six-year-old Rickey, since he seemed another person to me. (My agent and the first few publishers who read the manuscript found this rather off-putting, and I subsequently agreed and changed it to first person.) Anyway, in writing San Miguel de Allende, Mexico I was able to draw from extensive journals I kept in those days, a day-by-day reporting of what I did, what I read, and what I thought. So I was able to recount fairly accurately who I was in those days, and to perceive the significance of events then thanks to the authorial distance of some decades.
Jerry: In your book you show scenes when you are reading great works of literature or working on your own writing. I enjoy this aspect of your book. You let me watch your literary coming of age, during which you drink in the literature that came before you so you can learn how to write your own. Could you say a bit about your choice to put your literary passions into the story of your stay in San Miguel Allende.
Rick: I think you’ve said it pretty well, Jerry. The great literature I was being exposed to then for the first time affected me deeply and altered me–it was an important part of my experience. And these were the giants I was, and am still, measuring myself against as a writer. I know there are all sorts of writers just as there are all sorts of people, but in my heart I never really wanted to be a commercial writer but a writer of literature. This was a great and difficult leap for me, to aspire to do that, as I came from a working-class environment where there were no writers, much less literary artists. Being a creative artist just wasn’t on the radar for me. But as I grew and developed and gained confidence, I kept raising my goals and expectations for myself. As I show in my memoir, at the time I first went to San Miguel de Allende I was still very unsure of myself as a writer and an artist–I had hopes, but that was it. But I also had some great mentors who pointed the way–Chekhov, Simenon, Cather, Hemingway, et al. These were my instructors and role models. They were pivotal in my development and important characters in my life, even though I had never met them. Thus they had to be characters in my book.
Jerry: Fascinating. That explains a lot. Your journey from a working class family to an young man who wanted to be a literary writer is an unspoken subtext to the memoir driving the protagonist. It’s like I am now seeing the backstory that makes the book work even though in the book you don’t show scenes from that childhood. I love it. Many memoir writers struggle with how much backstory to put into their memoir, and now I’m seeing that sometimes it’s okay to let the character’s personality speak for itself.
Rick: Exactly. The reader will get it if it is embedded honestly…I’m now writing a novel in which an angel from Writer’s Heaven, Ernest Hemingway, acts as a mentor to my protagonist, so I’ve been immersed in what the real-life Hemingway had to say about the craft of writing. I think his “Iceberg Theory” from Death in the Afternoon applies here: “If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of the iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. The writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing.” In San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, there would be no struggle, no story, if our protagonist had come from, say, a family of writers or artists or successful people who paved the way for him–or at least it would have been a different type of struggle. But I knew my working-class backstory (and the role it played in my struggle) and had previously written about it with affection in my childhood memoir Christmas at Long Lake. There you see that while I had no material class advantages to speak of, I was given one great gift, a hard love that granted me emotional security and kept me grounded–which ultimately enabled me to venture out spiritually, intellectually and artistically. As to my Mexican memoir, I sensed rightly, I think, that any extensive digression into my childhood or my frugal family background would interfere with the narrative drive and perhaps come off as self-indulgent.
How does it feel to write a book? Tenacity of a writer.
By Jerry Waxler
Aspiring memoir writers look forward to someday looking back on the publication of a book about that earlier period in their lives. What will that feel like? More importantly, what will it take to get there? In this part of my interview with Rick Skwiot, author of “San Miguel de Allende, Mexico: Memoir of a Sensual Quest for Spiritual Healing,” I ask both questions.
Jerry Waxler: So now, flash forward to when you were actually writing the book. What did it feel like to go back into those periods? Did you feel nostalgic, or reluctant to remember? What sorts of things did you learn from the writing that you had not noticed the first time?
Rick Skwiot: As I mentioned above, in most memoirs there are two first persons, two I’s–I the narrator and I the character at the time of the story. The early Greek philosopher Heraclitus of Ephesus wrote that no man steps in the same river twice, for it is not the same river and he is not the same man. My more mature self certainly felt nostalgic, but the strongest feeling was the sensation that I had left behind another unlived life–that there was another man there and then and another river, which he chose not to wade into. It makes one wonder about the roads not taken, a very bittersweet sensation, but also, for a writer, a great springboard for imagination and new stories, new fictional worlds. It makes you realize that the choices we make in life really matter, and that timing is everything. Luck matters too.
Jerry: Tell me about your persistence, your pressure, your long goals, and so on of taking so many years to turn the story into a publishable one that actually reached me. What sustains you through this long, tenacious, ambition to find readers?
Rick: What keeps me going is a brand of insanity. Certainly writing is an obsession with me, for I can’t stop, and a vice, for it gives me such pleasure. One has to be compelled to do this, for the work is daunting and endless and the rewards–by most standards–meager. I tell writing students and beginning writers, “If you don’t have to do this, if you can do something else, if you are not driven my some inner force that defies logic, then don’t waste your time. You’ll only make yourself and those around you miserable.” But for me it is a calling, like the priesthood, perhaps, though not with a vow of poverty but actual poverty. However, all those caveats are swept aside for me when the work goes well, when you have the joy of creation and feeling of being visited by the muses, and you find the best parts of yourself somehow, which end up on a printed page. At times, when I am questioning myself and having second thoughts about the whole enterprise and I go back and re-read my earlier published work, I am awestruck, wondering how I did it, where it came from, feeling as though it was not me that pulled it off but that I was just a mere vessel into which Calliope, say, poured some libation which I then spilled out on the page. Then I see I have taken the right road.
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.