By Lori DeBoer, BWW Founder and Director
Michelle Theall's memoir Teaching the Cat to Sit tells her story of growing up Catholic and gay in the Texas Bible Belt, focusing on issues of bullying, faith and family relationships.
She is the editor-in-chief of Alaska Magazine, and the founder and former editor-in-chief of Women's Adventure for which she won two Folio Awards. Her syndicated health and fitness column ran with McClatchy Tribune for several years. She has appeared on NBC Today, MSNB , The Travel Channel and the Fox Sports Network. Her essay All That's Left is God was nominated for a 2011 GLAAD Media Award.
Michelle owns and runs the Creative Conferences. Her staff, speakers, and faculty come from National Geographic, Outside, Men’s Journal, Travel & Leisure, Shape, Skiing, Entertainment Weekly, and The New York Times.
Boulder Writers' Workshop: Tell us a little bit about your memoir, Teaching the Cat to Sit.
Michelle Theall: Teaching the Cat to Sit is my story about growing up gay and Catholic in the Texas Bible belt, interwoven with a situation that happened in Boulder in 2010 when a priest tried to expel our four-year old son from his Catholic School because he has two moms.
BWW: Why do you think Teaching the Cat to Sit has resonated so deeply with readers?
MT: At its heart, it’s about finding out who you are and learning to accept it, despite the obstacles of society, culture, religion, and our parents’ wishes for us. That’s the universal message in it.
BWW: Your personal story intersects with issues on a national level that are very timely and important. What drove you to write your memoir? Were you, in part, hoping to contribute to the national discussion and personalize your struggles as a lesbian couple for civil rights and social acceptance?
MT: I’ve never been an activist and I’m not very political. The most gay thing my partner and I had ever done was watch Ellen. I wrote it because…like most writers…I had to let it out—I couldn’t “not” write it. And, it was great therapy for me to get some closure on my tense and explosive relationship with my mother. I think we all struggle to find ourselves, and even though I thought I was through with that process, when I wrote the book, I made even more headway.
BWW: What were some of the personal challenges in writing your story? How did you stay motivated?
MT: I knew I could lose my parents for good and that had to be a risk I was willing to take. Also, I am covering some controversial subject matter, and I knew not everyone would welcome my story wholeheartedly. I just kept writing. I continued to tell myself, even after the book was bought by Simon & Schuster and had a publication date, that I didn’t have to go through with it. I should just write it as if no one would ever see it in order not to censor myself.
BWW: Does your faith as a Catholic sustain you in your writing?
MT: I’m no longer Catholic (all that’s a little like saying I’m no longer Italian). I have very strong Christian and spiritual beliefs, but they aren’t anchored in religion. They have more to do with my own connection to God, who I believed created me to write and has given me the bug to get these stories out on paper.
BWW: You are sharing a very personal story with your readers? Was it difficult for you to share yourself with the world and how did you find that courage?
MT: At first, I felt so absolutely vulnerable and naked. Strangers and people who thought they knew me pretty well were reading about the most intimate details of my life. But then, a funny thing happened. After a while, I started to feel free. I have no secrets. They’re all out there. I can’t take them back. And, at the end of the day, those things made me who I am. Plus, no struggle or trauma is unique. We’re all connected by similar feelings and experiences. I’m not alone.
BWW: What are some of the decisions you needed to make about writing from real life? How do you honor both your relationships and the story?
MT: In disclosing personal facts about myself, friends, or family, I had to make sure that they were essential to the story, especially if they might hurt someone. The book shows my mom and me at our worst, it’s not our proudest moment. And, likely there wouldn’t have been a story there if our relationship had been a smooth one. I gave her the opportunity to read the manuscript prior to its publication, and she declined. I think that’s the fairest, hardest and most honest thing that you can do.
BWW: Has there been any fallout for you or your family since you’ve published this book? How have you dealt with that?
MT: I’ve only received one or two Facebook messages that were hate-mail. I’ve been humbled by the response from readers from all walks of life, taking the time to send me their own stories and letting me know how the book affected their lives in a positive way…and who they were planning to share it with next. That said, my mom read a blurb on Amazon that said she was “often depressed and volatile” and she cut off all contact with me for several months. As far as I know, she, my father and my sister haven’t and won’t read the book.
BWW: You’ve worked as a journalist for years before starting in on this book-length manuscript. What are some of the major differences, as a writer between writing in the short and long forms? What are the advantages and challenges inherent in each form?
MT: Magazine articles are great because they have a fairly clear word count and beginning and end that’s attainable within a week or day or month, depending on the story and how fast you write. You get paid after each issue, which means a more regular paycheck. And, you have quick closure. You write it. It’s published. People like it or don’t. You’re already onto your next story. But you don’t really have the space to dig in and explore a subject or character or setting and layer it. You can’t illuminate or create complex themes or narratives. Articles are more one-dimensional. Books allow you to live with your subjects and inhabit their world for a while. I like getting lost like that.
BWW: What are some of the things you’ve learned as a journalist that you were able to transfer to your work on your memoir?
MT: I write a lot of travel and adventure articles and I’m currently the editor-in-chief for Alaska Magazine, so that informed my descriptions of settings (Texas and the mountains of Colorado) and creating suspense and a sense of impending peril in particular passages. Through the travel writing, I learned to bring a place alive for a reader, and I think that served my book well. I also fact-checked myself through digging through stacks of letters, emails, photos and yearbook inscriptions. I never throw away anything, so it helped me recall events with truth.
BWW: How important is it for writers to network with each other either informally or in groups like the Boulder Writers’ Workshop? How can authors support each other?
MT: I used to be shy about sharing my work. Now I think it’s essential to have had the support and inspiration from other writers and from conferences and seminars. I don’t think you ever get through learning. Also, writing a memoir was like taking my diary out and having my writer’s group analyze it on a sentence level. That was painful, until I started to look at it that way too. Pieces of grammar can’t hurt me, even though the story as a whole might. At some point you become objective, and that’s very healing. Plus, my writing peers are so danged talented. They make me up my game.
BWW: How do you balance being a parent and a spouse with writing?
MT: Sometimes I go to coffee shops and sometimes I go out of town. I rarely carve out regular hours to work on my next book, because I’m busy being a parent and partner and editor for the magazine. It takes me years to finish a manuscript. I’d like to get better at it.
BWW: What drives you to write?
MT: I have stories that need to get out. As long as I have them, I suppose I’ll keep at it.
BWW: What does your writing process look like? Do you have a regular routine?
MT: I need a regular routine and always say I’m going to be like those writers who write for three hours every morning before going on to other things. It never happens. I make a goal to write a paragraph a day, or just to write “something” every day, and it never works. I’m not very structured. When my writing group gives me a deadline to turn something in for one of our meet-ups, I make it happen. Or, I go out of town and focus for a week or weekend or afternoon JUST on the book. That works for me.
BWW: How do you go about constructing your narrative arc and plot?
MT: I have in mind a beginning and end and the general story of how the people change and the universal theme. For plot, I think about what the character wants, her flaws, the things that get in her way (including herself) and how she will or won’t attain her goal in the end. Plot is what happens to test her and make her grow along the way. Keeping in mind the one thing the character wants more than anything else keeps me from going off on tangents and keeps the reader vested. In my own book, I wanted approval and a relationship with my mother more than anything else, and the readers want that to happen too…or they want me to realize that it’s not a health relationship and to let go for good. They are vested in the outcome, which is why they’ll laugh or cry at some of the insanity of my attempts to get what I so desperately want.
BWW: What are the final touches you put on in the revision process?
MT: I make sure the story hangs together, and that I’ve tied up all the loose ends. I don’t want the reader to have any unanswered questions that weren’t purposeful. I print out the entire thing and read it. I highlight any sentences, words or sections that are still bothering me in some way and hone them. When I’m done, I want to be proud of my work and not feel as though I’ve rushed it. I had a hard time letting go of it in the end. I could have probably toyed with it for another few years!
BWW: How important is it to get feedback on your work as it is in process? How do you sort through the feedback you receive?
MT: I like getting feedback and I’m fairly specific regarding what I’m looking for from the group, general impressions, plot feedback, line edits, structure. Early on in a draft, I’m looking for general impressions and encouragement. Later in the process, I weigh comments against my gut and may or may not revise. Typically, if several people in a group say the same thing to me, I pay very close attention.
BWW: What’s your biggest challenge as a writer?
MT: Keeping at it. It’s such a long process and every part of it is a roller coaster: writing it, working you’re your agent, selling it or not, revising it for a publisher, letting it go at some point, launching it, book tour, watching your Amazon rankings ebb and flow and ebb again, and then, waiting to see how the paperback version does. It’s easy to say that “if just one reader loves it, it will be worth it,” but secretly, we all want a best seller—and why shouldn’t we after years of anxiety and sweat.
BWW: What has been your road to publication? How did you go about landing your publisher?
MT: I had about 100 pages written and my friend Tracy Ross said, “Stop writing it. Do the book proposal. Get an agent.” So I spent about 4 months working on the book proposal and first three chapters. Then, I identified the agents I wanted to land (my A –list). I based that on books / authors whose memoirs I loved and the agents who represented them. Then I sent out email queries. Agents requested a read of the proposal. Three offered representation. I went with Andrea Barzvi with ICM who repped Kelly Corrigan ( The Middle Place, Glitter and Glue). She worked with me for a year on the proposal and then went to sell it. I had two smallish offers from two publishers and went with Gallery because they are part of Simon & Schuster. Then, I took almost a year to finish the actual manuscript along with revisions from my editor and my agent. From the time I decided to work on the proposal to get an agent to the time the book came out into the world, it was about 4 years.
BWW: How have you been going about getting publicity for your book? What strategies—social media, book signings, book reviews—have been most fruitful?
MT: Speaking gigs in front of people interested in your topic are the best. I’ve spoken at writing conferences, LGBTQ events, churches, etc. The book tour is just about dead, unless it’s in your hometown or you are a celebrity. Social media, Amazon Author Central, Goodreads, all of that is helpful, but at the end of the day, the book will have a life of its own and either people will evangelize it or they won’t. You have to let go. You really can’t force it.
BWW: Tell us a little bit about your new gig as editor-in-chief of Alaska Magazine.
MT: I love my role at the magazine. I get to do it based in Boulder because our readership is “me”—a person who loves Alaska and visiting it, but lives in the Lower 48. Alaskans read the newspaper. Our magazine is for people who don’t live there but want to stay connected to it through photos and stories. Every day, I’m looking at a photo of a bear or a glacier or an arctic fox. And I visit every other month or so. I’ve spent 20 years in adventure travel media and this is the icing on the cake.
BWW: Are you working with freelance writers at all? If so, what do you look for in a pitch?
MT: Yes. Looking for people to know the magazine (we have very specific departments) before they pitch. You don’t have to live there, but it helps to have visited. Great writing is paramount. It also helps to know if we’ve already covered your topic recently.
BWW: What is your best piece of writing advice?
MT: Don’t give up. Be persistent. Do the work (butt in chair typing). Dream big.
BWW: What project are you working on now?
MT: I’m writing a novel about a brother and sister separated in foster care after the sudden death of their parents. Part of it takes place in the Arctic. At it’s heart it’s about how we define family, which is a topic I come back to again and again.
Lori DeBoer is an author, freelance journalist and writing coach whose work has appeared in The Bellevue Literary Review, The New York Times, Pithead Chapel, Arizona Highways, Gloom Cupboard and more. She has contributed essays on writing to Mamaphonic: Balancing Motherhood and Other Creative Acts, Keep It Real: Everything You’ve Wanted to Know About Research and Writing Creative Nonfiction and A Million Little Choices: The ABCs of CNF. She founded the Boulder Writers’ Workshop, is a contributing editor for Short Story Writer and is a homeschooling mom. She and her husband Michael and son Max live in Boulder.
Learn more or sign up for coaching at http://www.lorideboer.net.