“Learning to have a “lower standard” for myself as a writer has helped me to write more and probably, in the long run, to write better.”
—Theo Pauline Nestor
Theo Pauline Nestor is the author of the memoir How to Sleep Alone in a King-Size Bed: A Memoir of Starting Over (Crown), which was a Kirkus Review Top Pick for Reading Groups and a Target Breakout Book. Theo’s essays were also included in the collections Modern Love: Fifty True and Extraordinary Tales of Desire, Deceit and Devotion and Ask Me About My Divorce: Women Open Up About Moving On.
Meredith: How do you balance writing for you and writing for an audience. How do you find the sweet spot?
THEO: When I was writing How to Sleep Alone in a King-Size Bed, I think I found the balance between myself and the audience through separating the needs of the audience from my own in the writing process. The first kernels of the book—rough and raw sentences written in a tiny notebook jotted in the attorney’s office or in my car at stoplights—were strictly for me. I had no intention of writing a book at that point. I was in the early grief of divorce and taking notes was my way of getting through the day. Two years later when I was writing the proposal for the book, I sat down and thought of all the things I thought someone going through divorce would want to know about—getting through the legal aspect, surviving telling acquaintances in the grocery store, helping kids cope, falling in love again—and then I wrote about each of those topics in the book, whether I “wanted to” or not. Some of the topics were either so personal or painful that I did not enjoy writing about them at all, but I already had decided that those were the topics important to my audience and so I needed to stick to my commitment to helping them with my story and write.
However, once I’m in the writing process itself, I’m not thinking too much about the audience. Obviously, I want the story to be interesting and enjoyable to readers, but I’m taking for granted that that will happen if I throw myself into the process.
Meredith: What was the single most debilitating self-imposed rule you had to abandon in yourself—the rule that you thought made you feel safe and in control but actually didn’t—before you could really accept (and put) yourself on the page?
THEO: I guess one thing that has stopped me a lot is the belief that everything I write has to be extraordinary and gorgeous. I had to get over the idea of myself as an artiste. This might work if you’re firing off the occasional haiku but if you’re writing a full-length manuscript, there are going to be parts that are not gorgeous, especially in the first draft and they may never be gorgeous and extraordinary. Some parts will be ordinary. Learning to have a “lower standard” for myself as a writer has helped me to write more and probably, in the long run, to write better.
Meredith: When you’re in love with a particular idea so much, how do you know when enough is enough—for example, words in a sentence, a line in an essay–a chapter in a book (memoir!)?
THEO: I think when I like how it sounds I think I’m done, but then there’s usually a great deal more work when it goes through the editor’s hands. The version of King-Size that I thought was “done” was much rougher than the final product.
Meredith: When you write, do you keep your eyes on your own paper, so to speak? In other words, have you mastered the art of non-comparison (to other writers)?
THEO: I’m happy to report that I think I am over most of my compulsion to compare on the page. (Mind you, I still compare myself like crazy to other people off the page in the areas of cooking, accumulation of wealth, and looking good in a two-piece bathing suit). Maybe that’s why I like to write because I accept my writing style and I like it. It’s a little island of self-acceptance in a sea of wanting more, more, more.
Meredith: What does truth in writing mean–to you?
THEO: Truth in writing to me means emotional truth. I don’t make up scenes or people, but I’m not too worried if the bird I said was a sparrow might actually have been a robin. I think memoir writers need to leave fretting over technical accuracy to court reporters and journalists. Our job is to tell a good story based on our own experience.
Theo teaches memoir writing for the University of Washington’s Extension Program. Visit Theo’s awesome blog Writing Is My Drink [about, guess what?!] Her new book, Writing Is My Drink: A Field Guide to Finding Your Own Voice is forthcoming from Simon and Schuster. Visit her website Theo Pauline Nestor.com