Like Riding an Ostrich at the Rodeo: My Writing Process Blog Tour

Many thanks to Marie-Helene Bertino for inviting me to participate in the MY WRITING PROCESS BLOG TOUR, a path linking writers’ blogs in a discussion about approaches to fiction and non-fiction. Bertino’s debut novel 2 A.M. AT THE CAT’S PAJAMAS, a Barnes & Noble Fall ’14 Discover Great New Writers pick, will be published in August, 2014 by Crown Publishing. Her collection of short stories SAFE AS HOUSES received The 2012 Iowa Short Fiction Award and was published in October of 2012. You can find her answers to the MY WRITING PROCESS BLOG TOUR questions here.

Here are my answers: 

1. What are you working on?

I’m in the groping early stages of a YA noir novel, finishing a short story, and working on a personal essay. I’m also outlining and researching a novel for adults that I hope to be drafting before too long. My kid just started summer camp, so I’m feeling ambitious.

2. How does your work differ from other writers of your g enre?

The Brokenhearted series is a mix of dystopia, sci-fi, and action-adventure, with a big dose of classic superhero origin story mixed in. Much like their bionic protagonist, the books are hybrids and don’t fit neatly into any one category. But I drew inspiration from the work of many genre writers to create them. Immersing myself in the work of Octavia Butler, Tahereh Mafi, Suzanne Collins, Phillip K Dick, and Julianna Baggott helped me make sense of how to craft Bedlam City, the alternate high-stakes world where the story is set.

3. Why do you write what you do?

Fiction is all about choices. Why does the character do this thing instead of that, react to this problem in this way, not that? And where the big choices in my actual life often confound me with their complications, I love the rush of making decisions on the page. Writing action-packed YA books gives me a portal I can walk through where the consequences of each choice are clear, swift, and pyrotechnic. There’s a satisfaction in that.

4. How does your writing process work?

A couple of years ago, my husband and I went with our then-four-year-old son and my parents to the Ojai County Date Festival, a county fair in a dry, dusty town not far from Palm Springs, CA. It’s hard to remember why we went, but my mother is a great lover of dates and we probably thought it would be a good activity for my son and my father, both of whom needed the entertainment.

Well, it exceeded our (admittedly low) expectations. There was a tent with rocks and minerals that I could have lived in for several days, caressing each of the thousands of polished stones of every size and shade in an earth-mother sort of trance. There were several agricultural tents with the usual pens full of pigs, sheep, goats, and cows. There was also a creepy booth where the US border patrol seemed to be engaged in PR, glad-handing and passing out lollipops to the many Latino families who had come to the Date Festival. I also recall eating dates.

But what none of us will ever forget about that day was the insane rodeo. We were on our way to the festival’s exit when a barker beckoned us into a stadium, shouting that a camel race extravaganza was about to begin. How weird, we said to one another. We had never heard of camel races. It sounded disturbing, we all agreed. But my then-four-year-old begged to go inside and see, so God help us, we went. And it turned out the camel races were almost ho-hum compared with the warm-up act, which none of us will ever be able to forget as long as we live, I’m afraid.

They were wrong in every way, and cruel, but the ostrich races made an impression. First, several short, trim men in cowboy hats and satin pants strutted into view. We soon realized these were the jockeys. Before too long, a group of saddled ostriches were shooed into a pen from a side door in the stadium. Mounting the birds was awkward enough that several of the jockeys fell off repeatedly before the race even began, but the announcer in his white sequined suit assured us that racing an ostrich was just like racing a horse, it just took a little more practice. Though this was an obvious lie, it was clear they planned to ride these wild animals and that a race was imminent. My family grew quiet with horror and awe. Not even my then-four-year-old spoke.

At last a bell rang, and the birds were set loose to race around the dusty track. Most of the jockeys fell off within a few seconds, either because they weren’t great jockeys, or, more likely, because ostriches are not meant for riding. Free of their burdens, the saddled birds veered immediately off the track, weaving on their huge pink legs, looking for an out. A few of the spryer jockeys were able to chase their birds and jump back into the saddle, and I wondered how much insurance the rodeo people had taken out since there was bound to be a deadly kick to a head eventually. By this time, the vibe in the bleachers was uproarious laughter and dwindling concern.

The “winner” of the ostrich race was chosen through dubious methods. Technically he was the jockey who stayed on the longest, but he’d done it by clinging to the bird’s neck with his elbows, his body out of the saddle, legs bicycling alongside the bird in the dust.

For me, the writing process is like trying to ride an ostrich. It’s close to impossible, and you’d get yourself a horse and join a proper rodeo if only you could, but for whatever reason that’s not your fate and so there you are, absurdly mounting a flightless bird that zigzags and squawks as it runs. And yet there are occasional moments in the saddle, after your rodeo-issued cowboy hat has flown off and been trampled and the wind is in your hair and you haven’t fallen off yet due to a series of small miracles beyond your comprehension, where you realize with great surprise and no small amount of joy: I’m actually doing it, I am riding this ungainly galloping creature all the way to the finish line.

Next week you'll hear from the amazing Helen Phillips, the author of the inter-genre book And Yet They Were Happy (Leapfrog Press, 2011). Her debut novel, The Beautiful Bureaucrat, is forthcoming from Henry Holt in 2015. Her short story collection Some Possible Solutions will follow from Holt soon after. She is also the author of Here Where the Sunbeams Are Green (Random House Children’s Division/Delacorte Press, 2012), a children’s adventure novel. Check out her blog for her answers.