My Advice to Aspiring Young Writers

I often get letters from young Native Americans whose mothers and fathers were reading my newspapers before they were born. Makes one wonder where time has gone.

They write me to ask about a career in journalism. Since I am this old relic of a newspaperman that has been around (at least the minds of these youngsters) since the invention of the printing press, they believe I am the ideal person from whom to seek advice.

Most of them have never heard of Henry Louis Mencken, the curmudgeon newspaperman of the old Baltimore Sun, but I usually give them one of his famous quotes to consider. Mencken said, ". . . As I look back over a misspent life, I find myself more and more convinced that I had more fun doing news reporting than any other enterprise. It is really the life of kings." I couldn't have said it better because these are my exact sentiments. News reporting really is the "life of kings."

I would never discourage them from pursuing a career in journalism, but would do my utmost to encourage them. I tell them that one of the caveats of writing is that they will get to meet many famous people. The list of greats I have met through my newspapers goes from Allen Neuharth, the founder of USA Today to Wilma Mankiller, the former leader of the Cherokee Nation.

I tell them that when they put their byline on an article they have written they have to assume the responsibility for the words they have penned. If they have to write a negative story about any individual, I tell them to get the other side of the story from the person they are writing about. This is a part of the ethics of becoming a news reporter.

For those who would choose to write an opinion piece, or column, as we call them, they must be prepared to lay themselves wide open at times. Over the 30 years I have been writing I have opened myself up by writing about my mother, father, my children and the many friends I have known over the years. I have written about many personal experiences and I have written columns critical of tribes, tribal leaders and politicians. If they choose to become column writers they leave themselves wide open for the worst kind of criticism.

I told one young Lakota lady column writer after she asked me for advice a simple saying I often repeat to myself. She cut it out and posted it on her refrigerator door. It goes, "A turtle cannot move forward unless it sticks its neck out." And that is a part of writing a weekly column; you often have to stick your neck out.

And I tell them that there will be those who would choose to try and chop that neck off. There is this modern thing called the Internet and bloggers can write anything they want about you whether it be true or not. They can write lie after lie and there is really nothing you can do about it except keep repeating to yourself that old adage you heard as a child: "Stick and stones may break my bones, but words will never harm me."

I tell them that words will hurt for a little while, but just suck it up and move on. If the things you write about help to educate, change minds, or bring about change, then those are the things that should demand your focus.

There will be critics that will try to destroy your credibility as writers with vicious lies and there will be stalkers that read everything you write about with a fine tooth comb looking for errors. I assure them that this is alright because these critics will make you into a much better writer because you will always be looking over your shoulder wondering if something you have written will draw their caustic comments.

I recall writing a column about how the old Lakota Times got its start 28 years ago in a renovated beauty parlor in Pine Ridge Village on the Pine Ridge Reservation. Shortly thereafter an attack against me on the web said that I used to be a beautician before I started a newspaper. This has caused me to tell those young and aspiring Indian journalists that some readers will only take what they want from what you write and ignore the rest, and worse, will twist what you have written to fit their own version of things.

Finally I tell them to know themselves. You know who you are and what you have accomplished in your lifetime. No matter how vicious the attacks upon what you write or upon you as a person, remain true to yourselves. You and the many friends you have made over the years know the truth and that is all that matters.

But do not let anyone discourage you from pursuing a career in journalism because as H. L Mencken said many years ago, "It is really the life of kings."

Tim Giago, an Oglala Lakota, was born, raised and educated on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. He was the founder and first president of the Native American Journalists Association and the founder and publisher of Indian Country Today, the Lakota Times, and the Dakota/Lakota Journal. He was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard in the Class of 1991. He can be reached at