Interview with Theo Nestor

Theo Nestor, author of the upcoming memoir WRITING IS MY DRINK.

Theo Nestor, author of the upcoming memoir, WRITING IS MY DRINK, available for pre-order at

I’ve had a good time getting to know Theo Nestor by taking her memoir writing workshop. She’s a wonderful teacher, person and writer. She’s the author of Writing Is My Drink: A Writer’s Story of Finding Her Voice (And a Guide to How You Can Too) (Simon & Schuster, 2013) and How to Sleep Alone in a King-Size Bed: A Memoir of Starting Over (Crown, 2008), which was selected by Kirkus Reviews as a 2008 Top Pick for Reading Groups and as a Target “Breakout Book.” An award-winning instructor, Nestor has taught the memoir certificate course for the University of Washington’s Professional & Continuing Education program since 2006.  Nestor also produces events for writers such as the Wild Mountain Memoir Retreat and the Black Mesa Writers’ Intensive, featuring talks by literary leaders such as Cheryl Strayed, Julia Cameron and Natalie Goldberg.

In the The Situation and Story, Vivian Gornick defines memoir as “neither testament nor fable nor analytic transcription. A memoir is a work of sustained narrative prose controlled by an idea of the self under obligation to lift from the raw material of life a tale that will shape experience, transform event, deliver wisdom.” How do you like to define what a memoir is?

Theo Pauline Nestor: I love The Situation and The Story!  I think what Gornick is doing in that passage is not only defining memoir but more prescriptively, she’s stating what she believes memoir should be.  Essentially, she’s saying effective memoir goes beyond a mere recitation of the facts, what editor Rachel Klayman calls “a forced march through the person’s life,” to supply some insight into the writer’s particular experience that inevitably offers wisdom into the lives of others.  You don’t just give an account, of, say, night after night of having too much to drink.  You explore—as Caroline Knapp does in Drinking: A Love Story— why you drank, why others drink, what addiction feels like, what recovery feels like, and when you answer or even attempt to answer these questions, you inevitably begin to answer the questions all readers of memoir come to the page with:  How do I survive loss?  What does love require? How am I to live?

What’s the secret to creating a narrative voice that goes beyond whining, venting or simply recounting narrative events? How does a writer shift into a more reflective, insightful perspective? When does this occur? Before you sit down to write or while you write?

I think in order for your voice to show up as reflective and insightful on the page, one has to be reflective and insightful.  I hate to say this, but, um, not everyone is. Being insightful is a gift and as with all gifts, it isn’t evenly distributed.  The cast of Jersey Shore doesn’t offer the wisdom of the Dalai Lama.

However, one can become more insightful and wise by feeding on wisdom.  Read the essays and letters of Martin Luther King Jr. or the writings of Thich Nhat Han, Joseph Campbell, or Vivian Gornick. Read the poetry of Pablo Neruda, William Blake, Mary Oliver, and Adrienne Rich. Read memoirs that offer insight and do more than give an account of events to see how it’s done (You might start with Kathryn Harrison’s The Kiss or Cheryl Strayed’s Wild or Richard Rodriguez’s The Hunger of Memory). Now that you’re reading all these great, insightful works, you barely have time to read those memoirs that offer a mere recitation of events or even to watch much TV. Now when you come to the page, you sometimes startle yourself with how—at least in flashes here and there—you’re able to go deeper, you’re able to go beyond your own circumstance to offer readers something enduring and universal.

In a recent article “How Jeanette Walls Spins Good Stories Out of Bad Memories” Walls says, “We all have our baggage and I think the trick is not resisting it but accepting it, understanding that the worst experience has a valuable gift inside if you’re willing to receive it.” When you wrote How To Sleep In A King Size Bed Alone, how did you transform your painful, challenging experiences into narrative art?

I think the answer to not resisting our pain/loss/baggage as both people and writers is to realize that our pain is not unique or special. I don’t mean by that that our suffering should be denied.  Our losses are terrible, sometimes horrific, sometimes almost unbearable.  Sometimes, they are less terrible, but to each of us, losing something or someone we love (which, by the way, is the genesis of almost every conceivable story) is no good.  Yet, the key to sharing our exquisite pain is to understand just how very common our very private, very individual pain is.  In How to Sleep Alone in a King-Size Bed, I talk about how as a newly divorced person, I felt like I’d become a member of something like the Veterans of Foreign Wars, and one of the steps I took in writing the book was to make a list of all the nearly universal experiences of divorce (returning to the work force, awkward conversations, financial loss, moving…)  to include in the book. Even if I had not personally experienced that aspect of divorce, I tried to find a way to work it into the story, often by including briefly another person’s divorce experience.

What is the best way to narrow down the subject of a memoir?

When Claire Dederer, author or Poser: My Life in Twenty-Three Yoga Poses, came to visit my memoir class last year, she gave a great insight from Twyla Tharp (The Creative Habit) which I’ll paraphrase here:  You don’t have a great idea until you have two ideas.  To illustrate this, Dederer talked about how when she had the idea for writing a book about yoga, she knew that she was onto something but it wasn’t quite particular enough.  Then somehow (I think her husband might have suggested it), she realized she could combine her yoga story with her own “coming into herself” story which had much to do with her already established obsession with 1970s Feminism and her family of origin’s breakup, which is exactly what Poser became, and exactly why it is a much deeper and more interesting book than “I was a new mother and I got into yoga!”

So if you have an idea for a big-topic memoir (alcoholism, divorce, etc), ask yourself what could you pair it with?  What else deeply and passionately consumes you?  Are these two topics somehow related and if so what is the relationship?

This is pretty much the process I went through when I came up with the idea for my blog Writing Is My Drink which then evolved into the book with the same title.  I wanted to do a blog about writing, but I knew that was too big.  At that time I was watching a lot of Mad Men and going to Al-Anon meetings, which led me to the idea that my passion for writing and my need to find my own voice was a direct and very positive result of the presence of addiction in my family.

What are some common mistakes writers make when crafting a memoir?

Believing that if something horrible or amazing happened to you, that is enough to write a book.

How long did it take you to write your first memoir? 

My first memoir was never published.  It took about two years to write and was called Light Sleeper: The Making of an Unlikely Mother.  Can I have my two years back, please?  Kidding.  During those two years, I learned how to write a memoir.  I used that experience to write King Size, which took—depending on how you count it—about two years.

What piece of advice sustained you through your writing process?

I owe all my ability to sustain to my writing community and the purpose and passion of other writers, especially those writers I met during my apprenticeship period: Frank McCourt, David Shields, Terry Tempest Williams.

What is your writing routine?

My routine has varied wildly over the years.  But when I’m really in a groove, I walk to a café straight up a hill behind my house and work longhand there on a yellow legal pad with a black fine tip Sharpie for an hour and a half.  Then I come and transcribe what I have into the computer, making many revisions and additions. Then lunch, goofing around online, maybe a nap, maybe a walk, maybe call a friend. Then maybe another hour of work on the computer.

Doesn’t sound like that much writing, but if I do that consistently day after day, I write a book.

Tell me about your latest book and event.

WIMD 34Writing Is My Drink tells my story of coming into myself as a writer and a person and chronicles my progress from being unable to give my own take on the world to claiming my own experience and sharing it as a memoirist and as a teacher.  Writing Is My Drink reads much like a story-driven memoir but also includes writing advice and writing activities that are designed to help the reader to find his/her voice.

Besides writing and teaching, I also produce events for writers such as the Wild Mountain Memoir Retreat and the upcoming Black Mesa Writers’ Intensive.  Here’s the scoop on Black Mesa:

Black Mesa Writers’ Intensive is a one-day exploration into the craft and possibilities of personal narrative at Bishop’s Lodge in Santa Fe, NM on Dec. 6th. Faculty: Julia Cameron (The Artist’s Way), Natalie Goldberg (Writing Down the Bones), Tanya Taylor Rubinstein, Candace Walsh, and Theo Pauline Nestor.  Early bird tickets available for $245 until October 1st.  Regular price tickets: $275. $325 at the door. See full schedule of events and register at Bishop’s Lodge is extending participants a rate of $99 a night.  Follow us on Facebook:





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