Q&A with Theo Pauline Nestor on Memoir Writing and Teaching

By Lily Angelle

The Writing Barn is very excited to welcome memoirist Theo Pauline Nestor March 26-29 for the Memoir Writers’ Intensive: Mastering the Art of Being Yourself on the Page. Nestor is an award-winning instructor who has authored two fantastic memoirs. Don’t miss out on a great chance meet Theo and be among other memoir enthusiasts. Register now! 

We had the opportunity to ask her a few questions on craft:



What’s been the biggest roadblock you’ve come across in memoir writing? 

 My biggest roadblock to writing has been my own self-doubt, which has become more manageable over the years but has never been fully eradicated. When I arrived at grad school 18 years ago, I realized that while I might have the ability to write some good sentences, I was missing the type of confidence in one’s own perception requisite to writing and to sustaining a writing career. I consider myself fortunate because I recognized this as a problem that had to be addressed. One way I initially addressed it was by emulating the mindset and habits of confident writers, a kind of “fake it till you make it” approach. This enabled me to write more–the step absolutely crucial to developing true confidence, as it is only through practice that one can develop the skills that will allow you to manifest your vision for your work on the page. After you begin to write work that feels at least close to what you’re hoping to create, you experience the sort of confidence in your own ideas that allows you to start to see stories and ideas everywhere and to invest in a few of those ideas enough to bring them into fruition.

You’re a great memoirist, advice-giver and blogger – do you find that the three parallel in any way? 

Well, first, thank you! That’s a very nice compliment. The connecting thread that runs through all these activities is my teaching. I see myself as a teacher as much as I see myself as a writer, and my experiences in the classroom have been an endless source of inspiration for me. Through working with hundreds of adult emerging writers, I’ve come to learn that many of the writing problems for which we blame ourselves (Why am I such a horrible procrastinator? etc) are actually difficulties endemic to the writing process. My students have taught me that my fear of speaking up is our fear of speaking up. My fear of going deeply into the work is a fear shared by many. These classroom insights fueled me to start the Writing Is My Drink blog, which eventually ended up in my writing my story of coming into myself as a writer in Writing Is My Drink, a book I think not only describes journey to overcoming self-doubt but also maps out how others can go from silence to expression.

Is there a particular success story that’s stood out from the people you’ve mentored, taught or inspired through your webinars, memoirs or blog posts? 

Many of my students have gone on to publish essays and full-length memoirs and I’m so proud of all of them, but the aspect of my teaching that has been the most rewarding has been those moments when I have witnessed what I call The Decision, that turning point when the emerging writer decides to really go for it, to work at her writing relentlessly and to do her very best to get it in front of readers. Wendy Staley Colbert is one of those writers who made just such a decision. When Wendy took my memoir certificate class at the University of Washington, she did her best to participate and keep up with her writing even though she was undergoing treatment for breast cancer at the time. But right after that—even before she’d finished her treatments—she made the decision that she was going to give her writing her all and that she was going to publish personal essays. She began meeting with me one on one and worked intensely on both her revisions and on submitting work to publications. And, boom, it started to happen. I’d get an email from her about an acceptance in a small journal, and then Salon, and then Salon again and then another publication somewhere else. Now, she’s pursuing an MFA in Nonfiction Writing and continuing to publish essays focusing on her very personal experiences of loss, including her experience with breast cancer, and is at work on a memoir.

How did you initially reach the decision to write memoir? 

If I look back over my reading interests over my life, the clues that I was compelled by personal narrative were always there. Even before memoir existed as a publishing genre, I was magnetized to the novels that felt autobiographical: Plath’s The Bell Jar, Kerouac’s On the Road, Ephron’s Heartburn, Jamowitz’s Slaves of New York. Then, in my fiction writing graduate program, I discovered that I had little skill or interest in making up events and characters, and so it began…

If you could impart but one nugget of writing advice to a new writer, what would it be?

Keep showing up anywhere you can to learn more about writing and in situations that require you to write. One of the hardest parts about being an emerging writer is that your writing isn’t as good as you want it to be yet and you need to write more in order to improve your writing. If you can create deadlines for yourself (by taking writing classes in which you’re required to share writing), it will likely force you to get some work finished. Do that enough times and your skills will seriously improve. They will. Really.