Five Secrets to Writing an Enduring Memoir | Theo Pauline Nestor–Guest at National Association of Memoir Writers

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I’m so happy to have Theo Pauline Nestor join us on Friday, November 22 to talk about Five Secrets to Writing an Enduring Memoir


Theo’s new book Writing Is My Drink is an inspiring book about how she claimed herself as a writer—and a whole person who had a right to have a story—and to share it. You must read it! You will find a lot of terrific writing prompts and discover a renewed energy to write from reading her personal story of her life and her search for self. It’s a great book that will address the times you ever doubted yourself and looked for external validation—who hasn’t done that? And show you how she drew upon teachers, moments of silence, and the gifts of unexpected ahas to become a published writer and a great teacher.

Theo says, “Writing a memoir is a complex task that asks us to weave truth, story, craft, and our own vulnerability as writers.” I’m sure all of you who are working on your memoir will relate to this statement, and are familiar with juggling these aspects of writing. We are going to talk about the process of writing and how important it is to find your voice, to be vulnerable. To find ways to encourage that shy part of yourself who might prefer to stay silent—and yet you want to write! Writing is about finding voice, and getting support to be courageous in exploring and excavating your stories and yourself.

Everything that Theo writes about in her book I find parts of myself, from a sense of shame and shyness because of growing up in an unconventional family to feeling inadequate around everyone else who surely knew who they were and where they were going—those who exuded knowledge and coolness. But writers need to dig deep into their own secret stories to come up with the gold nuggets that reveal the truth. There are many truths and sure, we wish that the nuggets weren’t connected to deep emotions, shame, or fear, but they are. When we mine these dark places that we have tried to hide from ourselves and others, the brilliance of our truths, our authentic voices, and the real story comes shining through. Read more about how Theo sorts all this out.

If you are not a member yet, you can learn more at the National Association of Memoir Writers Member Benefits page and sign up. Join us!




Theo has created a great conference for January—a great way to start the year! With Anne Lamott as keynote speaker. If you have not listened to Anne Lamott, you owe it to yourself to have this special experience. Her book Bird by Bird has been the go-to book for writing process for writers for many years. The National Association of Memoir Writers is sponsoring this event! Come by and see me in person. We’d both love to meet you!


Here is Theo’s offer for a discounted ticket to the event with Anne Lamott

Get a $40 dollar discount off early bird tickets for Nestor’s event Bird by Bird & Beyond with Anne Lamott until midnight tomorrow (11/16) night when you enter the promotional code word mentor. Info and registration here

Bird by Bird & Beyond is a day devoted to the craft of personal narrative with classes and a rare opportunity to hear Lamott talk on the topic of writing with her keynote “Almost Every Single Thing I Know About Writing.”  1/18/14, Petaluma, CA.


Imagining Mother | An Imaginary Memoir

 My mother Josephine, age 10, with the dark hair. She had lived with her great-grandmother since she was 6.


All of humanity has something in common: we were born to a mother. We might not know who she is/was, or we might have been blessed to be bathed in her love–however she might have shown that love. Perhaps we were close to our mother, or yearned to be closer. Once she became a mother, she may have lost her original identity–what was her maiden name. Do you know what her life was before she had children–before you were relating to her as “mother?”

 Look at photographs of your mother–was she smiling? What was she wearing? Is there a familiar mood she exudes? Can you tell what she was feeling; do you know what she was doing just before or just after the photograph was taken? What do you imagine she felt/thought/did that day so long ago?

I’m often asked by people who are writing memoirs, “How can I write about my mother’s life? I don’t want to write fiction, but of course I wasn’t born yet for a lot of what she lived through. The stories I know are from others, from letters, from journals.”

 Here’s a great way to learn about your mother or grandmother:

1. Read about the era she lived in–clothes, furniture, food, holidays, schooling, expectations of those times. These can be found in history books, online, in diaries and in fictional stories set in that era.

2. Look at a photograph of your mother–is she smiling, posed or casual, what is her body language, what do you know about her at that age?

3. From what you know or imagine about your mother, write some pieces about her–from her point of view. Write a letter from her to her mother when she was 18 years old. What might she have said?

4. Write a diary entry about a secret your mother had, or might have had. See what comes out.

5. Write a diary entry she might have written on the day, or week, of your birth.

6. Create a scene where something in her life that was negative turned out to be positive. Rewrite her history.

7. Journal about your experiences as you create someone new in your imagination. Call it fiction, call it body knowledge or intuition. Who knows? But these exercises might tempt you to know more about her, or see her as separate from you–as a person with her own life, hopes, dreams, and disappointments.


It’s Muscatine Iowa, circa 1926.  Josephine is playing with another child in the family who lives with her great-grandmother, also called Josephine, the mother of Blanche.

The woman who became my mother was an abandoned child, like me. As a little girl she would wait and wait for her mother to visit, and melt into her arms for the few moments of ecstasy before having to face the “real” world, which later she would describe as dingy and depressing.

Muscatine was the home of several generations of her mother’s side of the family. Her father lived about 20 miles away with a new wife and their baby daughter. I see her feeling displaced, I can see the sadness in her eyes from the time she was very young. This photograph was given to me by a relative after she died. I stare at the photos of mother when she was young, and I can see her then, her small limbs, her dark wistful eyes.

Little Josephine used to walk up and down the sidewalk on Iowa street, glancing at the boats and barged that plied the Mississippi River just a few blocks away. The button factories, the alcohol plant, the industries along the wharf were more interesting to her than the women’s life at home, cooking, taking care of everyone.

She yearned for Chicago where her beautiful mother would come from on the train. She ached for the big city clothes and excitement. Her mother has planted hope in her heart. “Someday,” she says, brushing the dust off her smooth wool coat.

For now, Josephine must practice piano, study her lessons, and put up with farm people who have no dreams. She squeezes her eyes shut, and grits her teeth. One day, she will have her mother and all the finery and live in the big city. One day.





The What and Why of Memoir Writing


What is a Memoir?

A memoir is an a blend of real and imaginary, a story that reads like fiction but one that is real, based on real happenings, feelings, and people. Because a memoir is about “the truth,” it carries a certain weight. Your readers will throw themselves into the story in a powerful way because they identify with the real people that are the “characters” in a memoir. We identify with characters in fiction, too, and we also learn from them, but it’s not the same as it is in memoir. In a fictional story, we enter what John Gardner calls “The Fictive Dream,” where we are immersed totally in that world and don’t want to leave. Have you ever stayed up late reading a novel you couldn’t put down? That is being lost in the fictive dream! The same thing happens in a well-written memoir—we’re immersed in the world of the story and we don’t want to leave. We feel that we are learning from the author about aspects of life that are important lessons, a story about how we learn, stumble, make mistakes, and imperfectly grow and heal. Memoirs might be seen as present-day spiritual quests. Mark Matousek, author of Sex, Death, and Enlightenment and The Boy He Left Behind, says, “All memoirs are really a spiritual journey.”

Why Write a Memoir?

Beginning a memoir project is like being an explorer of new territory, an anthropologist, a psychologist, and a sky diver all at once—you take risks on the journey, but the journey is your challenge, a way to stretch yourself and to grow as a creative person. It gets your heart beating and draws upon your passion and the unique creative being that you are.

Writing a memoir—a story that is true—gives meaning to your life and connects you to the past and the present. It draws upon your dreams, imagination, and research skills. It hones your ability to use language and to express yourself. You might think of writing a memoir as a journey into self and soul, a means of change and transformation. Memoir writers express that they are changed by the experience for the better.

Let’s look at the reasons you might want to write a memoir, and how writing a memoir can change your life—for the better.

  • Writing a memoir—a story that is true—gives meaning to your life and connects you to the past and the present.
  • It draws upon your dreams, your imagination, and your research skills.
  • It hones your ability to use language and to express yourself.
  • Memoir gives more back to you than you put in—like magic, or like a garden.
  • Writing a memoir is a transformational and spiritual path.
  • Your story can change others’ lives . . . and your own.
  • Research proves that writing heals both body and mind.
  • Creating a narrative where you are the first-person narrator integrates the past and the present.
  • Remembering brings all parts of you together again.
  • Writing with your own voice is empowering, and it continues to empower, story by story.
  • Telling your truths frees you from shame and guilt. Why do you want to write your memoir?

What special knowledge do you have that you want to convey to others? Write a paragraph about this.

Who could benefit from what you know? List themes, audiences, and people you know who could learn from you.