In Palermo researching how much spleen I can fit in my mouth. Photo by Diana Delatorre.

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.


Whether for work or for holiday, going to Antalya’s historic quarter does not suck.

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.


Drinking moscato passito between moscato rows in Piedmont really really does not suck.

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!

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33 Comments:


  • Katie,

    Thanks for your blog efforts. Much appreciated. Coming to Rome for first time end of next week armed with your insights after becoming an avid reader. Coin is nice, but the value of your work is also measured by the many people you have enlightened and amused.

    Keep up the good work!


  • Dear Katie!!
    your story is so interesting and it’s a demonstration that projects and works done with passion and love turn always in great success!! Congrat!

    Your story it’s of great inspiration for me and for my spare time blog. Actually I write and explore Milan and its beauty only for fun: I don’t get paid for the review of the venues since I tried to be anonymous while trying the food and the service. It’s really a very happy hobby for me!! I wish it will turn into my job in the next year!!

    Probably Matt should start this work as an hobby first and then check whether he is truly interested in it!!

    Sorry for my English (I am italian) :D

    Hugs and kisses
    Silvia


  • A true inspiration Katie. You are also very funny, generous and have good taste in TV. We adore you!


  • Katie, this is an excellent article (and I am impressed with your emotional rambling). I could say the same thing praising the value of a blog for how my former blog incarnation, which was originally created in 2006, helped me to launch and build my own tourist rental accommodation business. It was THE most important key to building and marketing my business and led me into the fun world of Italian expat blogging back when it was just a few of us old timers musing on our adopted cities.
    Thanks for sharing this.
    (And now when you get those emails you can just link to this post. Heh heh.)
    You have done a good job organizing the Rome blogger scene, which has definitely exploded in the 3 years I was gone from Rome!


  • Katie, thank you so much for this post! So inspiring! I understand why aspiring writers want to work for peanuts (any editor just needs to use the magic word ‘exposure’), but the evil exploitation of freelancers that ensues saddens me. I love peanuts, but I cannot live off them!


  • A great and sincere post. I can feel your voice while I’m reading. Yours is a great honest advice.


  • Excellent advice, especially agree about not doing stuff for free!


  • Great post Katie. As a fellow New Jerseyan I’ve taken the liberty to expand on your title though: “How and Why Parla Food Exists: Jersey Girl Makes Good.” :)


  • Wonderful, Katie! Congratulations and good luck to you. Jersey Girl makes good, indeed. I love your writing style AND the knowledge behind it.


  • Katie-you’re my hero! I love what you’re doing and how you have worked hard to create this for yourself.


  • I am loving these recent posts, Katie – great advice (especially the bit about never writing for free!) and so great to hear how your story started. The blog is definitely what I love most about writing – I guess it’s like an online portfolio, where like any portfolio, you have to try to make it stand out above all the others: make it look good, you give it your voice and show off your expertise. But even then it may not get seen amongst the sea of other blogs. I don’t know about you, but I guess it’s also been a lot about sending LOTS of emails, resumes and such to the right people to also get noticed!


  • I think you should add one more quality to your list: an inane capacity to eat in unbelievably enormous amounts and willingness to try anything everything.

    And being a loveable person also helps.

    Great post.


  • what a great post. making copies for all the youth in our family. hope you inspire them all.


  • Heart felt blog Katie! Love your “emotional rambling”.

    And I’m pleased to be contributing a bit, financially, to your “travel and dining” fund while in Roma this Spring…

    Heidi


  • Thanks for sharing Katie, always inspirational!


  • Katie, I couldn’t agree with this post more. I always dreamed of being a travel writer, and the route there used to be “get a job at a travel magazine and some day, maybe, they’ll send you on all-expense-paid assignments!” But even if I’d had the patience for that (not), as you and I know, that route is simply no longer workable anyway… which is why my own travel writing career didn’t start until I QUIT my job as a professional journalist to move to Rome. It seems crazy to many people, but you’re 100% right: These days, that’s just how it goes. Even more so with the recession/general death throes of the print-and-mainstream media. So I think the real question for people who ask “How can I break in?” is… “How much of a risk are you willing to take?”

    Anyway, thanks for sharing.


  • P.S. And ditto on the “don’t write for free.” NOTHING bugs me more than Huffington Post and its ilk–rich companies getting richer off of the blood, sweat and tears of young writers who think they should just be thrilled to get their name in print, I mean, online. Just say no!


  • I hope you continue to write more emotional rambling posts.

    I think it’s difficult for people from the outside looking in to understand how NOT glamorous these jobs can be.


  • Think this is the first time I read a blogger writing ‘don’t do it for free’! Very good, in the long run the Big Guys(and Girls) will have problems. The best tips and most up to date tips are always found by the little guys&gals. Only &&$$##*@( problem with this blog is, I don’t live in Roma! ;-)


  • Thank you for this insider look at exactly what a lot of us fans have been wondering. I always love to hear that there is hard work and sacrifice behind success. I have plenty of my own blood, sweat & tears in my own profession and now I know that it’s everywhere–even eating pasta in Italy. (Um, yeah, if I could do anything in the world for a living, it would be that.) But you totally earned your way there, so brava! Keep it up, we love to live vicariously through you. Plus you do it better than we could anyway.


  • This was really enlightening. I love your advice about being authentic, and finding your niche. I think this is true in life as well as in blogging. Loving your work! Grazie!


  • you are an amazing writer, person, friend, woman. i loved this piece you wrote and your blog was an inspiration for mine when i first started. i wanted to be Katie Parla :) may you have many more years of success and may your career grow and grow exponentially (ok, i used every cliche in the book, but this comes from my heart). x s


  • Katie,
    You know my thoughts on what you do. I would like to take a moment and say that because of your efforts I personally know several of the other comment authors that have posted here. Emiko whom I have never met has one of the most beautiful blogs on the web and Joanie is a rising star of the Italian wine scene in America. Your work influences all of us who aspire to share our passions and lives with an audience. I sold a successful travel company in Puglia to follow a self designed path and your drive and passion was an example I used to convince myself to move forward. This post was outstanding. I know there is a great book in your future and I will be one of the first to read it.
    Cheers Amica!


  • EXCELLENT BLOG


  • excellent!

  • Katie

    Wow. ok feeling a bit overwhelmed here by the amazing outpouring of support. thank you! I am always really apprehensive about opening up and never quite sure where posts like this are going when i start them. im so forthcoming with my caloric intake (well, actually sometimes i hold things back so as not to totally alarm my parents) but talking openly about the years of work and rice and beans and sacrifice that got my career off the ground doesnt come quite as easily. im feeling super introspective lately so im pretty sure this emotional rambling will have a sequel. thanks for reading xo


  • Thank you Katie for all your great posts – I am bringing tons of info plus your app with me when we get to Rome on Monday. Our trip’s food choices were shaped by your blog. Grazie!!


  • Another ex-pat living in Umbria. Since it was pretty lonely in the early years (I’ve been here since the late ’70s), it’s exciting to realise how many of us there are “out there”.
    I agree, blog format lends itself to a more informal, conversational (intimate) writing style that makes the reader feel like they’re talking with a friend. (How many official guide books/leaflets have you run across written in “high falutin'” Italian and which don’t really give you the information you need and want?) Italian is a lovely, musical language and the Italians themselves are in love with the sound of it. But it makes life difficult for translators!
    My major objection: how do you eat so much great food and yet stay so slim?????


  • What a great story and it did not sound like you were rambling at all. You are very inspirational to the point that I have decided to start up my blog again and write about food places in Washington, D.C. and anywhere else my palate takes me.

    I came across your site after my mom (Anne) who I think knows your mom sent it to me. I am a huge foodie and currently working in journalism (just graduated in May) but my dream is to travel for a living.


  • [...] state of mind lately. What else is new, right? I’ve been on an emotional roller coaster since announcing my retirement from corporate guidebook writing, founding my own publishing company (might sound like a big deal [...]


  • That was inspiring! I have lived and travelled in many places, and even if Roman born, I have just moved here in Feb. 2013. – The question that kept haunting me was “what do I want to do when I grow up”?? I am only 41!!

    Since life gave me the opportunity to start again from scratch ( just separated) I kept thinking and thinking….then one hot summer afternoon lying on the beach in Fregene, trying to read with one eye and keeping my 11 year old under control with the other, it hit me!!!! I want to become a Food and Wine guide/expert/writer. I love eating, cooking, wine……. I speak 3 languages….. I seemed PERFECT!!! I just started my 1st level at the Associazione Italiana Sommelier, spent a fortune on books about history of Italian cuisine, writing articles for the blog I will eventually put up…. It’s a goal…. and I like it.


  • Dear Katie,
    Thank you for this post! It is quite inspiring to read! I am starting a blog on food and travel this year after deciding I had enough time in the fashion industry (20 years). A career change is scary but stories like yours is very encouraging, I know it won’t be easy but I am willing to work hard for my passions! Thank you so much!

  • Katie

    Hi Brenda! That’s fantastic and I wish you the best of luck. I look forward to following your blog!

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