It’s only the beginning of the intellectual journey

I don’t consider myself particularly wise or much of a role model, but I thought I had a few guiding principles that might be useful, if only because history, journalism and fiction are my passions too.

I was reviewing old emails the other day, and I came across a letter I wrote to a young college student who asked for my advice. He was considering joining his college newspaper. He also hoped to pursue an academic career as a historian and maybe dabble in writing historical fiction. He was worried he couldn’t do it all.

Now, I don’t consider myself particularly wise or much of a role model, but I thought I had a few guiding principles that might be useful, if only because history, journalism and fiction are my passions too.

Here’s shortened and edited version of what I said.

******

Thank you for reaching out. It sounds like you’re taking the right perspective and asking the right questions. My overall advice is this: Stick with journalism and see where it takes you. Does this mean you can’t be a historian? No. It will make you a better historian and academic writer. Does this mean you can’t be a fiction writer? Absolutely not. It will make you a clear thinker and writer.

I was always shy, but I realized early in life that I enjoyed expressing myself through the written word. When I was in my teens or early twenties, I read about Theodore Roosevelt and the many different passions he pursued throughout his life, and I decided I would be someone like that. I decided that my life would focus on three overall passions. I decided that I wanted to be remembered as a journalist, as a historian and as a historical novelist.

I started writing in college newspapers at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi (The Foghorn) and at the University of Texas at Austin (The Daily Texan). I wrote book reviews, reviewed theater performances and movies, and contributed op-ed pieces. I was already deeply interested in history, and I convinced the editors at the Texan to let me write an occasional column on history. Ironically, I wasn’t interested in straight reporting and was too shy to speak to strangers, so I never became a reporter. I worked as a proofreader — what they call a copy editor — and as a page designer.

After college, I eventually got a job at the Corpus Christi Caller-Times. No matter how accomplished you may be, always swallow your pride and start at the bottom — I started as a news assistant and junior copy editor — and work your way up. I did this even in college. Step by step. Prove yourself to your colleagues and to yourself. Learn everything you can from everyone — they all know something you don’t.

Figure out how each job and experience can help you move on to the next job and take on the challenge. The college newspaper jobs helped me get the Caller-Times job. The Caller-Times job led to a similar job at the San Antonio Express-News. That editing and writing experience was invaluable in graduate school at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi and at the University of Texas at San Antonio. After several years in academics, as you know, I’m now an editor at Texas Public Radio. …

I had always been interested in current events and foreign affairs. I always saw journalism and history as two halves of the same heart, the two ends of the same spectrum of civilization. I had an old-fashioned idea that all smart people — writers, scientists, athletes, anyone — should all spend at least a year working in some capacity at a newspaper. It’s a great place to learn how to write clearly and succinctly. Experience the constant flow of information all around you and through you. Understand the value of journalism in a democracy. I equated journalism to public service or military service — an enriching challenge that benefits everyone. That’s what motivated me to enter journalism and become an editor. I feel it is noble work, just as noble as being a teacher. You are really making a difference as a journalist. I wish more people would participate in the industry. I wish it was better funded.

Working in a newspaper taught me to pay close attention to details and maintain a consistent sense of what’s important and what isn’t. It strengthened my capacity to deal with all kinds of different people and personalities and deepened my sympathy for the less fortunate, those without a voice, those who need help. You can’t be afraid of a newsroom’s chaos, and you have to have faith that you can bring a semblance of order to it all. Always view problems and setbacks as opportunities. Always.

You’ve got your foot in the door at the student newspaper. Stay with it. Work for free. Work for the experience. Work at one job, then at another, then another. Build up a body of experience and a body of work. Work in different departments. Figure what you don’t like doing and what you really like to do. Write book reviews. Learn about the newspaper’s website. If you want to work at a professional newspaper or radio station, bring them a wide variety of examples of the work you’ve done in college. That will take time but it’s doable and worth every second of effort. Talk to journalism professors and to the leaders of the college newspaper or radio station. When you have time, see if professional newspapers/news web sites need help from a smart college journalist. That’s great experience too.

The great advantage of staying with journalism is this: The field has space for and needs all kinds of different, smart people to illustrate and explain the world for everyone else. Also, don’t assume that once you enter journalism you will be a journalist forever. Learn about science, literature, law, history, engineering, politics and other subjects. Let journalism be the foundation upon which you build a life filled with different experiences, different expertise and different ambitions. Becoming an effective journalist — editor, reporter, whatever — is only the beginning of your intellectual journey.

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8. Memories of Sexual Oppression
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9. Notorious: The Same Hunger
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10. The Legacy of WWI in the Balkans and Middle East
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3. A Man In Full
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4. More than 60,000 Mexicans have been ‘disappeared’ amid drug war, officials say
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5. The Racist History of Tipping
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8. One Year in Washington
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9. Violent Policing of the Texas Border
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10. Is your to-do list making you nuts? Start a to-don’t list instead
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5. I Still Kind of Love the New York Subway
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6. Could Boris Johnson Be the Last Prime Minister of the U.K. As We Know It?
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7. The worst takes of the 2010s
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7. New members of the editorial board
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8. Controlling the Chief
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9. Port Aransas Isn’t Giving Up
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10. Deep Space Nine Is TV’s Most Revolutionary Depiction of Black Fatherhood
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2. Cuba’s Revolutionary World
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3. Paul Ryan Sees His Wild Washington Journey Coming to An End
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4. Out of Control
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5. The 36 Questions That Lead to Love
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6. Below Deck
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7. The 4 Things That Helped Gary Oldman Disappear Into Winston Churchill
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8. A Journey Through Havana’s Clandestine Book World
By Ruben Gallo and Lisa Carter | Lit Hub | December 2017
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9. A Comprehensive List of How Texans Mispronounce Places With Spanish Names
By John Nova Lomax | Texas Monthly | November 2017
“From Amarila to Wad-a-loop to the Purda-nalleez River, we’ve taken some liberties when it comes to pronunciation.”

10. Dystopia is Realism: The Future Is Here if You Look Closely
By Christopher Brown | LitHub | July 2017
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Recommended reading / viewing / listening

This week: New GOP leaders? / Incredible Jessica Williams / The best albums from women / Mooch’s venting about Priebus / Priebus ousted from Trump White House

This week: New GOP leaders? / Incredible Jessica Williams / The best albums from women / Mooch’s venting about Priebus / Priebus freed from Trump White House

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1. Can McConnell and Ryan be repaired, or must they be repealed and replaced?
By Jennifer Rubin | Right Turn :: Washington Post | July 28
“Well, wait a minute. You cannot just remove them with no replacements in mind. Can anyone imagine Republicans in each body coalescing around a single replacement for each? I can’t either.”

2. Jessica Williams Is More Than Incredible
By Hunter Harris | Vulture | July 28
“To be a woman of color and a black woman, we are the product of the black women and men that came before us. We are their dreams. They fell on the sword a lot for us to be able to do what I’m doing, what you get to do. ”

3. The 150 Greatest Albums Made By Women
NPR and the Lincoln Center | July 2017
“This list, of the greatest albums made by women between 1964 and the present, is an intervention, a remedy, a correction of the historical record and hopefully the start of a new conversation. Compiled by nearly 50 women from across NPR and the public radio system and produced in partnership with Lincoln Center, it rethinks popular music to put women at the center.”

4. How Tattoos Might Affect Your Workout
By Gretchen Reynolds | The New York Times | July 26
“[T]he amount and saltiness of sweat change after skin has been dyed, a finding that might have implications for athletes who ink large swaths of their bodies and maybe even for those of us who sport one or two discreet tattoos. …”

5. Michiko Kakutani, the Legendary Book Critic and the Most Feared Woman in Publishing, Is Stepping Down from The New York Times
By Joe Pompeo | Vanity Fair | July 27
“Kakutani, who helped make the careers of writers from Foster Wallace to McEwan, and put fear in the hearts of Mailer and Vidal, will leave her post as one of the most formidable critics in the Times history.”
Also see: Pulitzer Prize-Winner James Risen Leaving The New York Times

6. Anthony Scaramucci Called Me to Unload About White House Leakers, Reince Priebus, and Steve Bannon
By Ryan Lizza | The New Yorker | July 27
“He started by threatening to fire the entire White House communications staff. It escalated from there.”
Also see: Reince Priebus Pushed Out After Rocky Tenure as Trump Chief of Staff

7. Charlize Theron Has Been Kicking Ass and Taking Names Her Entire Career
By Jake Kring-Schreifels | Esquire | July 27
“She’s a full-fledged action star with the super-charged Atomic Blonde, but she’s been playing tough, complicated women for two decades.”

8. Beheadings, Torture, and Bodies Stacked Like Cordwood in Mexico’s Gruesome Jail Wars
By Jeremy Kryt | The Daily Beast | July 2017
“Inmates in an overcrowded Acapulco facility were beaten to death and decapitated in a turf struggle between rival gangs earlier this month. And that’s not the worst we’ve seen.”

9. ‘Quite odd’: coral and fish thrive on Bikini Atoll 70 years after nuclear tests
By Eleanor Ainge Roy | The Guardian | July 2017
“Scientists say marine life has proved ‘remarkably resilient’ despite the Pacific island being declared a wasteland in the 1950s”

10. Don’t Make Yourself the Hero of Your Own Story
By Elena Lappin | Counterpoint Press :: LitHub | June 2017
“The biggest problem I encountered when writing about myself and the people in my life was the very tangible, palpable, sweat-inducing fear of hurting someone by telling my own truth.”