I’ve been meaning to write this post for a while now and it seems more apropos than ever considering Monday’s announcement. The wheels started turning last month when I got an email from a reader named Matt R., a college freshman and aspiring writer. He wrote, “You are doing exactly what I would love to do for a living one day–that is, travel around the world and write about food and culture. So I was hoping you might be able to tell me a little bit about how you ended up doing what you are doing, and if you had any advice for someone aspiring to that as well.”
Well, when you put it that way, Matt, it sounds so glamorous! But is it? It’s been a while since I have reflected on who I am, what I do, or how I got here. I fear my story and current existential crisis are not all that interesting, but I’ve written long, indulgent, and rambling posts before. Another couldn’t hurt…
When I came to Rome nine years ago, I had no intention of pursing a degree in food history (I didn’t even know that was a discipline!) or becoming a freelance writer (I hated writing!). I came here fresh out of college to study Antonine era funeral artwork and to learn Italian. When I discovered these weren’t particularly lucrative endeavors, I sent resumes to every guidebook company out there. Over the next several years, I would just get by, either teaching or guiding. If it weren’t for my dirt cheap rent in a dilapidated house on the Via Prenestina, I would have had to pack it in.
But then things started turning around. By 2006, I was making a good living giving tours. Occasionally I would get panicked emails from editors saying one of their contributors had flaked and they found my resume on file (back from 2003!), could I come up with a ridiculous amount of fact checking, edited copy, or new content in a week. Not being fond of sleep, I jumped at every opportunity and soon became a regular contibutor to Fodor’s, The Rough Guide, and Time Out. Not to mention those bastards DK, truly the worst company out there. Most recently, National Geographic came knocking (Walking Rome is my third book for the company and my first solo title) and I labored churning out copy, though I knew it was taking away energy from more lucrative work (ie tours) and sabotaging my social life (I toured by day and wrote and edited at night).
Now, before the pity party gets too extreme, I will concede that writing and editing books led me to travel to some outrageously interesting places: Palermo, Naples, the Langhe, Cappadocia, Antioch, Antalya. Granted, I didn’t have a dime of my fee left after researching these places, but I was cool with it for a while. Eventually, though, it all felt like dead end work that I was incapable of declining. In 2009, tired of the impersonal stylized copy of guidebooks, I launched Parla Food from the ashes of my defunct culture blog.
This is when things really started to take off. I made myself post several times a week and pretty soon, I had readers not related to me by blood or marriage. It was amazing to get and reply to comments and have an actual exchange with someone in the virtual realm. Still what I like the most about blogging is how personal it is, not in the sense of me sharing, which I am still not totally comfortable with (though today I am doing some emotional rambling for sure) but in the sense of connecting with people who you wouldn’t otherwise have had contact with. It still excites me.
In April, Parla Food will turn three and since it was founded, all but two freelance writing jobs have come to me as a result of the blog. On the one hand, this seems profoundly unfair to trained journalists who get the shaft because publications no longer have budgets to send writers on assignment. On the other hand, a local expert has a better grip on a city than a transient journalist. For people like Matt hoping to break into the biz, establishing yourself as a local expert or the maven of some niche subject is where it’s at. Start a blog, be authentic, generate great content, network, tweet, and, if possible, get some academic credentials in the subject you are covering.
Food and travel writing is in a tremendously exciting place of transition at the moment. Anyone and everyone dedicated to creating good content can break into the industry. It may not be as lucrative as it once was (my tours still finance my travel and dining, which give me fodder for freelancing gigs), but the potential to make income through new avenues such as self-published essays and app development seems endless. So while I don’t support myself writing, I am lucky enough to have a primary income that affords me the luxury of traveling and eating, which have gained me experience and a formidable palate. I’m afraid my path to food and travel writing was a long and dingy one, but I got there and it’s in large part in thanks to hard work, sleepless nights, and the ol’ blog.
So Matt, get that blog up and running. Find what you like to do, stay at it, educate yourself as much as possible and NEVER WRITE FOR A COMMERICAL PUBLICATION FOR FREE. I wasted years of my life with pointless resume building exercises that never led anywhere. Be creative, be yourself and you will be successful. In bocca al lupo!