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.

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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.

Recommended reading / viewing / listening

This week: The Mexican War returns / Trump-era patriarchy / A writer’s advice for life / Bob Dylan’s thoughts / Marilyn Monroe and WWII ‘drones’

This week: The Mexican War returns / Trump-era patriarchy / A writer’s advice for life / Bob Dylan’s thoughts / Marilyn Monroe and WWII ‘drones’

Most of these great items come from my social media networks. Follow me on Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, LinkedIn, and Facebook for more fascinating videos, photos, articles, essays, and criticism.

1. Will Mexico Get Half of Its Territory Back?
By Enrique Krauze | The New York Times | April 6
“The United States invasion of Mexico in 1846 inflicted a painful wound that, in the 170 years that followed, turned into a scar. Donald Trump has torn it open again. Among the many lies that he has constructed, none is more ridiculous than his attempt to contradict history by presenting the United States as a victim of Mexico. …”

2. Hillary Clinton: misogyny ‘certainly’ played a role in 2016 election loss
By Amber Jamieson | The Guardian | April 6
“In first post-election interview, former Democratic presidential candidate calls for US intervention in Syria and a ‘patriotic’ investigation into Russia”

3. Trump’s Patriarchal Counter-Revolution
By Jeet Heer | The New Republic | April 3
“Sexism is making a comeback under the president and his heavily male administration, sparking a renewed war over gender equality.”

4. Life Advice From Adrienne Rich
By Emily Temple | LitHub | March 2017
“Responsibility to yourself means refusing to let others do your thinking, talking, and naming for you; it means learning to respect and use your own brains and instincts; hence, grappling with hard work. It means that you do not treat your body as a commodity with which to purchase superficial intimacy or economic security; for our bodies to be treated as objects, our minds are in mortal danger. It means insisting that those to whom you give your friendship and love are able to respect your mind. ”

5. Q&A with Bill Flanagan
By Bob Dylan and Bill Flanagan | BobDylan.com | March 2017
“These songs are some of the most heartbreaking stuff ever put on record and I wanted to do them justice. Now that I have lived them and lived through them I understand them better. They take you out of that mainstream grind where you’re trapped between differences which might seem different but are essentially the same. Modern music and songs are so institutionalized that you don’t realize it. These songs are cold and clear-sighted, there is a direct realism in them, faith in ordinary life just like in early rock and roll.”

6. These sex addicts can’t stop swiping right on Tinder
By Melkorka Licea | The New York Post | April 2
“Unsurprisingly, many of these hook-ups feel more like cold business transactions than meaningful connections with fellow humans. … But it’s the dependence on one-night-stands that can lead to obsessive behavior, depression, and issues maintaining real connections, therapists believe.”

7. Save All
By Jaeah Lee | The California Sunday Magazine | March 2017
“Archiving the Internet in the Trump Era”

8. The power thinker
By Colin Koopman | Aeon | March 15
“Original, painstaking, sometimes frustrating and often dazzling. Foucault’s work on power matters now more than ever.”

9. There is no such thing as western civilisation
By Kwame Anthony Appiah | The Guardian | November 2016
“The values of liberty, tolerance and rational inquiry are not the birthright of a single culture. In fact, the very notion of something called ‘western culture’ is a modern invention”

10. Marilyn Monroe’s World War II Drone Program
By Michael Beschloss | HistorySource :: The New York Times | June 2014
“Working 10 hours a day for $20 a week in a World War II defense plant 70 years ago was 18-year-old Norma Jeane Dougherty, wife of a young United States merchant seaman assigned overseas.”

Recommended reading / viewing / listening

Martin Sheen offers dad advice / Answering technology questions / The nation’s best small towns / Greening the soda can / Locating ‘Girls’ in New York

Most of these great items come from my Twitter feed or Facebook news feed. Follow me on Twitter and on Facebook for more fascinating videos, articles, essays and criticism.

1. Martin Sheen on fathering: Faith, love, no regrets
By Lynn Elber | Associated Press | June 15
“Go ahead, ask the perfect father of the perfect child for parenting tips. But since most of us fall short of flawless, how about considering Father’s Day advice from a dad who’s grappled with personal shortcomings, seen a son face his own struggles and still counts his blessings.”

2. ‘The Godfather’ Monopoly: Make Him an Offer He Can’t Refuse
By Tim Newcomb | Time | June 15
[T]wo of the six tokens are a gun and a cannoli. … The other four tokens include a detailed Genco olive oil tin, the Don’s limousine, a dead fish and, of course, a horse’s head.”

3. Your Tech Questions, Answered: Part 1
By Sam Grobart | Gadgetwise :: The New York Times | June 4
“I store a lot of video, so ideally the backup drive has plenty of capacity. (And while I’m making this request from my wish list can my iTunes library be stored on this device so it’s accessible from any computer?)”

4. Your Tech Questions, Answered: Part 2
By Sam Grobart | Gadgetwise :: The New York Times | June 4
“In this batch of questions, I answer questions about scheduling e-mail messages, setting up a Wi-Fi network with multiple access points, how to archive iTunes music files. …”

5. Your Tech Questions Answered, Part 3
By Sam Grobart | Gadgetwise :: The New York Times | June 4
“In this batch of questions, I answer questions about setting up wireless audio, remotely accessing a parent’s computer, choosing a streaming-video option. …”

6. Your Tech Questions, Answered: Part 4
By Sam Grobart | Gadgetwise :: The New York Times | June 5
“In this batch of questions, I answer questions about unlocking an iPhone; using a projector and laptop for all your video needs; the most cost-effective way to connect your computer to your stereo system. …”

7. Your Tech Questions Answered, Part 5
By Sam Grobart | Gadgetwise :: The New York Times | June 5
“In this batch, I answer questions about turning an old PC into a server of sorts; getting an HD signal through an antenna; contract-free mobile Wi-Fi. …”

8. Where to Find the ‘Girls’ in NYC
By Abbie Fentress Swanson | WNYC | June 11
“Help us map out where to find the ‘Girls’ in the city by sending in a spot you’ve seen in the series.”

9. The 20 Best Small Towns in America
By Susan Spano and Aviva Shen | Smithsonian | May 2012
“From the Berkshires to the Cascades, we’ve crunched the numbers and pulled a list some of the most interesting spots around the country.”

10. Toward a Greener Soda Can
By Matthew L. Wald | Green :: The New York Times | June 12
“Of all the materials that are commonly dropped in recycling bins, aluminum is by far the most valuable.”

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TUNES

My soundtrack for today included:
1. WHEN A MAN LOVES A WOMAN Percy Sledge
2. YUMMY YUMMY YUMMY Julie London
3. FLY ME TO THE MOON Julie London
4. I’LL FLY AWAY The Kossoy Sisters and Erick Darling
5. WHAT A DIFFERENCE A DAY MAKES Dinah Washington
6. TRAV’LIN’ LIGHT Billie Holiday
7. I COVER THE WATERFRONT Billie Holiday
8. DREAM A LITTLE DREAM OF ME The Mamas & The Papas
9. UNCLE SAM SAYS Josh White
10. IN THE MOOD Glenn Miller Orchestra

Recommended reading / viewing / listening

Meryl the Great / The OWS revolution / The tech election / Swallowed by a whale / Why we cry

Most of these great items come from my Twitter feed or Facebook news feed. Follow me on Twitter and on Facebook for more fascinating videos, articles, essays and criticism. Read past recommendations from this series here.

1. Deep Streep?
By Martin Filler | NYRBlog :: The New York Review of Books | Jan. 12
“Among the impenetrable mysteries of modern life is how Meryl Streep can be universally regarded as the greatest dramatic film actress of our time. In my opinion, Streep is easily at her best as a comedienne, not in the high-serious roles she has favored.”

2. Young women more involved in campaign coverage
By Ginger Gibson and Dylan Byers | Politico | Jan. 12
“As campaign ’embeds,’ they are the ones riding the candidates’ buses from state-to-state, event-to-event, recording every word out of the candidates’ mouths — good or gaffe — and filing endless daily stories about incremental developments.”

3. Revolution Number 99
By Max Chafkin | Vanity Fair | February 2012
“America was full of angry people in September 2011, when a few hundred citizens decided to make their anger count. V.F.’s oral history of Occupy Wall Street shows how the spark was lit in Zuccotti Park as a disparate, passionate mix of activists, celebrities, and accidental protesters changed the national conversation.”

4. Project Dreamcatcher
By Sasha Issenberg | Slate | Jan. 13
“How cutting-edge text analytics can help the Obama campaign determine voters’ hopes and fears.”

5. Swallowed by a whale — a true tale?
By Ben Shattuck | Salon | Jan. 15
“Everyone knows the story of Jonah. But my quest was to find evidence that man, gulped whole, had really survived”

6. My partner says I am too loud in bed
By Pamela Stephenson Connolly | Sexual Healing :: The Guardian | Jan. 15
“There’s nothing wrong with you, but you may want to explore some options that work for both of you”

7. The 2012 tech primary
By Kim Hart | Politico | Jan. 16
“The tech giants are offering candidates new ways to advertise — Mitt Romney has spots on YouTube and Rick Perry’s Facebook ads target Christian college kids in South Carolina — and hiring political consultants, sponsoring debates and poaching from each other’s ad sales teams to jockey for the top spot in political social media circles.”

8. Are Child Molesters Really the Most Hated People in Prison?
By Brian Palmer | Explainer :: Slate | November 2011
“They’re tied with snitches.”

9. This much I know: 50 Cent
By Luke Bainbridge | The Observer | December 2009
“The rapper, 34, in his own words”

10. This Vale of Tears
By C. Claiborne Ray | Q&A :: The New York Times | January 2011
“Is it true that women’s tears contain an enzyme that can be released only by crying, meaning they are quicker to cry under emotional stress?”

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TUNES

My soundtrack for today included:
1. SET ADRIFT ON MEMORY BLISS P.M. Dawn
2. SLOWMOTION Kinobe
3. MORE THAN THIS Charlie Hunter & Norah Jones
4. UNDERTOW Ivy
5. SUNLIGHT IN THE RAIN Kelli Ali
6. LETTING GO Nitin Sawhney
7. FUTURES Zero 7
8. CAN’T GET YOU OFF MY MIND Lenny Kravitz
9. SURE THING St. Germain
10. I’VE GOT A CAT Method

Recommended reading / viewing / listening

Snowflake secrets / Shirttail tips / Touch your true self / Viagra in a condom / 1998 embassy bombings

Most of these great items come from my Twitter feed or Facebook news feed. Follow me on Twitter and on Facebook for more fascinating videos, articles, essays and criticism. Read past recommendations from this series here.

1. An expert’s take on snowflakes
By Amina Khan | Los Angles Times | Dec. 23
“Each one is different, but Caltech physicist Kenneth Libbrecht explains why there’s even more variety than we might imagine.”

2. Style Q&A: How Long Should the Front be of an Untucked Button Up Shirt?
By Grant Harris | The Primer | December 2011
“The most versatile button up shirt can be worn both tucked in and untucked. But with different lengths and cuts, it can be hard to tell if a shirt fits untucked.”

3. The Four I’s
By Jeremy Sherman | Psychology Today | September 2010
“The idea of getting in touch with one’s true self has become a joke, mostly because people who pledged to do so back in the 1980s were too earnest, and, well, out of touch.”

4. Ranked: Every Saturday Night Live Cast Member Ever, From Worst to Best
By Phil Nugent | Nerve | Dec. 19
“A highly scientific survey that will surely lead to no disagreements.”

5. Durex’s new ‘Viagra in a condom’ helps put lead in your pencil
By Jeff Mills | Nerve | Dec. 8
“The gel, or ‘erectogenic compound,’ from U.K. drugmaker Futura, is based on the chemical nitroglycerin, and boosts blood flow in the penis (and hopefully bedroom spirits).”

6. Will China Dominate Solar Power Forever?
Big Think | Dec. 21
“China’s ability to scale solar power production, thanks to enormous factories and a streamlined process of approving their construction, has made it the world’s leading producer.”

7. A Charley Horse in Bed
By C. Claiborne Ray | Q&A :: The New York Times | June 2009
“Why does one get muscle cramps while sleeping or resting?”

8. Can You Get a Good Night’s Rest in Your Airplane Seat?
By Forrest Wickman | Explainer :: Slate | Nov. 23
“The science of sit-sleep”

9. The Polyamorous Transman Getting It On to the Glee Soundtrack
Daily Intel :: New York Magazine | March 14
“Once a week, Daily Intel takes a peek behind doors left slightly ajar. This week, the Polyamorous Transman Getting It On to the Glee Soundtrack: transman, 26, performance poet, Prospect Heights, in a polyamorous relationship with a primary partner.”

10. Al-Qaeda 1998 Embassy Bombings in Africa
Witness :: BBC News | May 3
“We remember the day in 1998 when al-Qaeda bombed America’s embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, and hear the harrowing testimony of a man who was blinded for life in one of the blasts.”

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TUNES

My soundtrack for today included:
1. PROTECTION Massive Attack
2. SLIP INTO SOMETHING MORE COMFORTABLE Kinobe
3. THE SWEETEST TABOO Sade
4. GOOD ENOUGH (The Freedom Sessions) Sarah McLachlan
5. CLIMBING UP THE WALLS Radiohead
6. ELSEWHERE Sarah McLachlan
7. ONLY LOVE Chris Coco
8. FEVER Peggy Lee
9. THE LOOK OF LOVE Susanna Hoffs
10. LOVER (Darkhorse remix) Sr Mandril