Courtships ripen into marriage and, sometimes, dissolve into divorce in as much time.
Babies are conceived, born, nurtured through infancy and toddlerhood and the first few years of formal schooling in that time. In my case, a second and third child—the Irish twins, as one friend calls them–were also born within that time frame.
Over the past seven years, wrinkles and my first white hair appeared (I confess, I plucked the latter out). I managed to maintain my health, if not my weight. I started—and decided not to finish—a PhD in Spanish. I lived in two countries besides the United States. I got to a place in my career where I could—for the most part—stop writing articles I didn’t really care about and say “Take this job and shove it” to an outlet where I’d been overworked, underpaid, and mistreated as an editor. In seven years, I defined and matured into my niche, covering Latin America and Latino communities in the United States for a variety of respectable outlets. I had two books published under my own name and several more to which I contributed, fact-checked, or helped edit. I traveled. A lot. I created and directed an editorial program in Central America. I wrote hundreds of articles and added some impressive bylines to my resume.
Sometimes, when you know you’ve got a solid story, when that inner voice urges you to hang on, listen.
But one thing I hadn’t done was find a home for an article about Juan Antonio Picasso, Cuba’s so-called “Black Picasso.”
I’d first heard about Juan Antonio Picasso in 2005, when my husband read an article about him in the Cuban newspaper, Granma. Long story short: He was related to Picasso. Yes, that Picasso. THE Picasso. And he was black, Afro-Cuban, addressing ideas of that cultural identity in his artwork. “You have to meet him the next time you go to Havana,” my husband said, and I did. It was the first of several encounters with Picasso, and over time, those visits included me observing him in his studio and walking with him around Old Havana, filming an extensive interview in which I asked him about his life, his work, and, of course, his famous relative.
Picasso’s story was amazing, a made-for-TV tale that was about race and love and sex and creativity. It was also, perhaps, a little too much, so incredible as to actually be un-believable. Each time I’d come back from a visit to Havana, I was sure that I’d finally be able to sell the story; nothing had been written about Picasso in the United States and besides, I had exclusive access. I even had several of his paintings. Editors, however, were unresponsive. It was as if, not having heard of him, he simply couldn’t be real.
When you live with a story for a long time, you become attached to it. It’s a lot like living with a person.
I pitched and queried, pitched and queried. There were never any bites. Finally, I stored l my notes and photos and video on an external hard drive and turned my attention to other stories, but I didn’t forget about this one. When you live with a story for a long time, you become attached to it. It’s a lot like living with a person. There’s an evolution, an ebb and flow. You’re committed to it, but there are phases where you’re cruising along, not fully present, kind of taking it for granted. Moments when you look up from the rest of your life and really try to give it your all, or moments when you draw into yourself, marshaling up the energy and emotional resources to return, refreshed, ready to try again.
For the most part, I let the story rest. I had other ideas, other assignments. But in my heart, I knew this story was good. It wasn’t about me or my ego; it was about getting a story that was overlooked into the world. When President Obama announced foreign policy changes toward Cuba in December 2014, the moment felt right to do dust off the pitch. Finally, I thought, editors might really be interested in stories with a Cuban connection. I reviewed the outlets where the Picasso story might work and sent out a pitch to the arts editor at The Guardian. He was immediately interested and assigned the story right away.
As writers, a lot of our work is invisible. Half-formed ideas sputter, and sometimes die out, on their way to full-formed execution. Articles we care about deeply don’t have the same kind of investment from editors. Assignments we’ve busted our asses to report, which we’ve begged off family obligations and spent up-all-night writing benders to finish, get killed by editors for a dozen reasons, among them, space considerations, a change in editorial vision, the elimination of a magazine section, the turnover of editors on a masthead. At times, it can be tempting to give up on a story. And sometimes, giving up is the right choice; only you, the writer, will know for sure, and when you do, you should trust your gut. But sometimes, when you know you’ve got a solid story, when that inner voice urges you to hang on, listen.
Even if it takes seven years for the rest of the world to hear it.
Julie Schweitert Collazo
Photo “Tram Ride” by Kuba Bozanowski. Creative Commons International License 2.0