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.

My grand strategy

Today I turned 43. In these later years, I perceive a small but steadily growing pool of wisdom fueling a clear philosophical perspective on the increasingly complex calculus of my life.

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Today I turned 43.

The number doesn’t bother me. When I look back on my past accomplishments, both professional and academic, both modest and respectable, I’m comfortably reminded that I’ve always been a late bloomer. The great triumphs — comparatively great — always came right the end of each chapter of my life, just when the time came for me to move on and start over somewhere else. Perhaps for someone like me, with my ambitions, that’s the way it’s supposed to be. Every day begins with two thoughts: “There’s still a little time left. Relax.” and “Pretend this is your last day on earth because one day it will be. Work faster.” I stagger through the days wavering between those two sentiments.

At the end of 2014, I completed a master’s degree in U.S. history at the University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA), topped off with a 190-page thesis — the cherry on the sundae. I never had so much fun — ask the people who know me … “fun” is not a word they ever expect me to use. During that last half of 2014, I attracted the attention of UTSA’s Communications office, which sent a reporter to profile me, perhaps to hold me up as an example to others, perhaps to highlight the interesting and intelligent people enriching and enriched by the UTSA’s wonderful History Department. Perhaps it was just my turn. Nevertheless, I was flattered and honored. I shamelessly shared it throughout social media, as I am now. “We are all very proud of you,” one of my beloved professors wrote me. My heart burst with teary pride — the rarest of my few expressed emotions.

The best part of the article came right at the beginning. The first paragraph captured the grand strategy I set out for my life: “At an early age, [Ortiz] charted the life he wanted to lead: journalist, academic scholar and author.” At some point in my twenties — not sure when, exactly, but probably as I began to seriously study history and biography — I determined to approach life with a larger consideration: “How will I be remembered?” I knew enough to know that a great legacy was constructed with small pieces, carried one small step at a time, and sometimes at first only imperfectly constructed. I held close to my heart a few simple rules. Never turn away from a challenge. Never shrink away from leaping out of your comfort zone into unknown terrain. Never decline the opportunity to fail. Never fail to learn from those failures. All are easy to say and painfully difficult to follow.

In early 2015, I was honored when Dr. Catherine Clinton, a leading Civil War scholar, asked me to assist her with some special research for a few months. Just as that ended, I was honored yet again with an offer to actually teach U.S. history to college undergraduates at Northwest Vista College and then again at UTSA in 2016. Solitary research and writing — annotated bibliographies, briefing memos, etc. — is ideal for someone as shy as me. Teaching and discussing U.S. history with 70 to 80 young men and women is not. I stood in those classrooms and wondered how I could teach these young men and women. My comfort zone was nowhere in sight. Nevertheless, I knew when I accepted the challenge that I was undertaking the most difficult and the most important job of my life. Perhaps someday I might actually be good at it (though student applause is always reassuring). These are a few of those crucial pieces of the larger something I am trying to build, just as the men and women who came before me struggled to build their own lives, faced down their challenges and fears, and took one more step forward.

My Peruvian great-grandfather was prosperous fisherman who owned a fishing fleet. His son, my grandfather, was an Army general and special forces commander. His son, my father, is a physician. My father’s son — me — is … what? I was blessed with generous, loving, and supportive parents, who always pushed my brother and me to succeed. They trusted us to find our own way within their explicit expectations. It was assumed that we would become productive and honorable men as we kept in mind who built the comfortable world we inhabited. My interests guided me toward history, literature, and psychology. My mind naturally blossomed as historical concepts, literary theory, psychopathology, and the hourly drama of news cycles all caressed, molded, and ignited my growing intellect and imagination. But I realized that some kind of structure was needed. Simply wandering through my interests was not enough — it all had to amount to something in the end, something my descendants would look back on and admire … and perhaps emulate.

In some small way, this blog is an expression of that grand strategy. I’ve written about and shared with my readers my love of podcasts and photography, of the Civil War and fiction writing. I’ve shared with them a plethora of strange stories and documentaries, thoughts about Hemingway, rum cakes, books, and TR. They’ve experienced my passion for “Miami Vice”, Elvis, a Louisiana woman fleeing Union invasion during the Civil War, and a Cuban woman who disguised herself as a man and savored every moment of that same brutal war. Each piece fits into the larger plan.

In these later years, I perceive a small but steadily growing pool of wisdom fueling a clear philosophical perspective on the increasingly complex calculus of my life. Every failure becomes simply the moment when a fresh opportunity is revealed to me. Every hard-earned success merely offers a better vantage point on the harsh terrain ahead. As I move into this new year, from my new vantage point I can take in a horridly-jagged landscape stretching out before my eyes, seemingly endless, on into the horizon. But that far-off horizon is gleaming. The shimmering edges are only now in sight, the barely-perceptible glitter drawing me forward, igniting the ambition filling my heart, and steeling my spirit for the disappointments, setbacks, wrong turns, and frustrations darkening the journey.

My grand strategy, glowing in my soul, burned into my mind, never leaves me. The sweet promise of a final victory — a life well-lived — is my last thought as sleep and dreams wrap their arms around me and carry me away into the silent night.