One of the most essential qualities for any ambitious writer is simply staying in the game long enough to win it. It’s easy, even for veterans, to get discouraged by endless objections, rejections, and obstacles. But time and again, in my 30-year writing career – which includes staff reporting jobs at three major daily newspapers and publishing two non-fiction books of national reporting — persistence has won out.
In the summer of 2011, I attended a silent Buddhist eight-day retreat in Garrison, NY. (I’m not a Buddhist but my husband is; I went along reluctantly.)
The only time we were allowed to speak was when we met privately with a teacher or during our daily group teachings. One of the few female speakers, Mirabai Bush, was immediately intriguing – funny, warm, down-to-earth, white-haired. I requested a meeting with her to get to know her better. As a freelance writer, I survive financially by coming up with plenty of saleable story ideas and am always looking for more. Maybe she’d make a good profile?
Mirabai mentioned casually that she had been teaching meditation at Google. Hmmmm, that was a possible story. I tracked down the man teaching it at Google with her help, and the house soon to publish his book about it. They wanted a major article written about it, pegged to its publication.
I wanted a national exclusive. I’d found the story first! But that’s a very big ask when trying to create a publicity campaign for a major new book. What if the story fell through? What if the editors didn’t like my piece? Held it? Cut it? Killed it?
I had never met M, the PR person for the publisher but, after we spoke a few times by phone, we liked one another immediately. A lot. So we trusted one another, key to any successful negotiation.
I was also heading into the operating room in the middle of this, for full left hip replacement. I’d be too weary/drugged/in pain and distracted to do much more negotiating, without which this deal might fall through. Failure was not an option!
At this point, it had been eight months since I’d first heard about this story. That’s a long time to bird dog any piece, let alone one that still wasn’t in the bag or paying my bills.
By spring, my shiny new hip ready to easily negotiate San Francisco’s many hills, I flew out, all expenses paid by the Times, to Google corporate headquarters to report the story I had fought for so hard and so long.
It ran – a national exclusive later covered by Wired and other competing media – on April 28, 2012, on the front page of the Times’ Sunday business section. I don’t cover tech. I don’t live anywhere near Silicon Valley. But I’d scooped a bunch of other writers, even gaining a 12-staple scar along the way.
By the end, I had 150 emails in my inbox from my many exchanges with M, but I’d also bagged a big one.
If you have a lead on a terrific story, and one you know you can own, do not give up.
Caitlin Kelly, a National Magazine Award winning writer, is the author of “Malled: My Unintentional Career In Retail”, nominated for the Hillman Prize, given annually to journalists “who pursue investigative reporting and deep storytelling in service of the common good.”
The book combines her personal story of moving into low-wage customer service at 50 and a detailed, national analysis of this $4 trillion industry, the nation’s third-largest — and the largest source of new jobs.
A regular contributor to The New York Times since 1990, she has written for USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Marie Claire, Cosmopolitam, More, and other publications in Canada and Europe.
A former reporter for the New York Daily News, Toronto Globe and Mail and Montreal Gazette, she blogs at broadsideblog.wordpress.com and teaches writing and blogging at Pratt Institute.
If you like what you’ve read, please subscribe to this blog or sign up for my newsletter. Also check out my books: A Writer’s Guide to Persistence, Night Oracle, Make a Scene: Crafting a Powerful Story One Scene at a Time and, Forged in Grace.
Photo, “Reporter’s Notebook” by Roger H. Goun, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 International License.