Thursday, September 20, 2012

Of Rodeos, Trochees, and Western Novels

By Rod Miller

 Most writers of my acquaintance have been at it for a long time. They claim they wrote their first story at age nine or thereabouts and haven’t stopped writing since. Many say they “must” write, and suffer some sort of withdrawal when not tapping away at the keyboard.

Not me.

I spent the first 45 years of my life with no notion of writing a poem or a story or anything else we usually call creative writing. Other than the routine stuff in required English classes, I’ve never had any education or formal training in creative writing.

That said, I suppose I have been blessed with the ability to string words together. But it has always been with a purpose in mind—essay questions on tests, writing for school newspapers, and the like. And, since graduating from college with a degree in Journalism back in the mid-70s, the purpose has been business—writing advertising copy of all kinds. Other than a few essays for advertising trade magazines and such, that was pretty much it. 

Then, one day in the mid-90s (the decade, not my age—I’m not that old, yet) I wondered if I could write a poem. A cowboy poem to be specific. 

You see, I grew up in a cowboy family in a small town and spent a good part of my youth horseback, and a lot of time feeding, branding, and otherwise tending cattle. Cowboy stuff—real cowboy stuff, not that nonsense on TV and in movies—was a big part of life where I grew up. Like a lot of kids then and there, the rodeo bug bit me, and throughout high school and college and for a time afterward I spent most every spring and summer weekend straddling the bucking chutes at rodeo arenas around the West, climbing onto the backs of horses called broncs whose only function in life is to eat hay and buck off cowboys like me with the temerity to think they can’t.

  Well, they can.

 There may still be depressions the size and shape of my head in several rodeo arenas that attest to that fact. I tell you this only because the addled brain that resulted is responsible, more than anything else I can remember, for my (eventual) taking up of the pen to write for fun, rather than work.

As a lifelong member of the cowboy culture and longtime fan of cowboy poetry, it’s only natural, I suppose, that when I wondered if I could write a poem, that would be the kind of poetry I would attempt. And, given my appreciation for rodeo, it’s no surprise that a lot of the poems I wrote (and still write, on occasion) use rodeo life as their subject.

Not knowing any better, I assumed the reason one wrote poems was to get them published. There were, at the time, a couple of national and a few regional magazines edited for Western enthusiasts that published poetry either regularly or occasionally, so I started sending them poems. And, much to my surprise, they started publishing them. Other poems made their way into anthologies.

Which only spurred me on. I managed to get enough poems published to qualify for membership in Western Writers of America, where I met lots of real writers who knew what they were doing and were kind enough to offer advice and encouragement.

That, along with the same curiosity that led to me to write a poem (and the addled former-bronc-rider brain that allows such ill-considered notions to pass through unfiltered), made me wonder if I could write a short story. So I did, and several of my stories have been published in Western anthologies. I tried a novel and that was published. Then another, and that was published. A couple of nonfiction books got written and published. A collection and a chapbook of poetry. A bunch of magazine articles. Some book reviews. A series of essays on writing poetry for (in which I pretend to know how to write poetry). And so on. 

All in all, writing has been a pretty smooth ride, compared, at least, to riding broncs. I’ve been lucky. Most everything I’ve written has been published, by everybody from well-known New York imprints to unheard of art-house presses.

One of my short stories was even a Finalist for a Western Writers of America Spur Award back in 2006. A recent short story, “The Death of Delgado,” from the anthology The Traditional West, won a 2012 Spur Award for Best Western Short Fiction and was a Finalist for a Western Fictioneers Peacemaker Award (as was my novel, The Assassination of Governor Boggs). A 2012 Spur Award for Best Western Poem for a piece from my collection Things a Cowboy Sees and Other Poems also came my way, and the book won the Fred Olds Poetry Award from Westerners International.

Who knows what the future holds? I write for fun (and occasionally for profit), but do not feel compelled to do so and, thank goodness, don’t rely on the income to pay my bills (advertising still does that). So, I write whatever seems interesting and enjoyable at the time, then figure out who might want to apply ink to it. At the moment, I’m awaiting publication of a third novel (Cold as the Clay) that’s due out anytime now From High Hill Press/Cactus Country Books, and there’s a fourth  novel in the hands of a publisher awaiting rejection. A nonfiction pictorial about westward migration and settlement, Go West: The Risk & The Reward, is slated for October release.

And there are a few poems and stories, a novel, and a nonfiction book either in progress or awaiting attention. I’ll get to them, as soon as I find the time and the inclination.

Finally, while I came to writing late and took an unusual road, I like it here. It’s a whole lot easier than getting bucked off ornery broncs. And at least as much fun.

 Rod Miller is among the original members of Western Fictioneers. He is Membership chair and serves on the Executive Board of Western Writers of America. Visit for more information.


  1. Met Rod Miller at WWA in Albuquerque where he OKed the membership of my companion on the trip, Mr. Duke Hiroi, who is an expert on small arms, anything from cap-and-ball to modern automatic shoulder weapons. Now he is a proud member of WWA. He's not a fiction writer, so I can't introduce him to WF, but he's a western lover to the hilt, and he helps me keep love of westerns and western literature alive here in Japan. Thanks, Rod, and keep raking them spurs.

  2. Rod, I enjoyed reading about your bumpy journey to writing, and the smoother ride thereafter. Best of luck with your publications. I'll definitely be reading some of your stories.

  3. What a great post! I *LOVED* the Death of Delgado. Superb short story, Rod. :-D Keep up the great work!