This has never been easy.
“I don’t want to be a writer,” Hunter blurted out from the backseat as we rolled down the gravel road. We’d just taken photographs at the confluence of the Mississippi and St. Francis Rivers; it was getting dark, the Great River Road at this point was just barely comfortable to drive, and I was looking forward to getting to the Edwardian Inn and crashing.
“It’s too much work,” she said as she turned her attention back to her Birds of Arkansas brochure. And for that moment, I knew she was absolutely right. I was doing my best getting us down the Great River Road during our annual break because that’s what we had set up to do, but I couldn’t see much of anything out of my right eye and the pain of whatever had scratched the cornea was really getting to me. We’d been on the road since Thursday morning, and here it was Monday evening, and we had another six days to go.
This… is my life. It bears no resemblance to what I encountered when I walked out of that newsroom ten years ago. There was no open road screaming in my ears, no drive to cover and share all the stories, no daughter in the car, no child at all actually, and my entire world was a different place.
Television was changing, and the news background I’d cultivated wasn’t going to help me much with those shifting sands. When I’d started at KAIT in Jonesboro in 1995, I was fresh out of college and had four years of radio experience under my belt. I didn’t know TV, but I had a news director who wanted a storyteller instead of someone who just wanted to “do TV.” I didn’t have confidence in myself on this, but Harvey Cox (God rest his soul) did, and he hired me as a television producer. I kept at that for almost three years.
This isn’t that story.
I could go into the myriad of reasons I left THV, but that’s also a story for another time. What I can definitively say is that I walked out the door September 7th of 2007, nine years and three days after leaving KAIT, to go pursue the next step of my life. I thought I’d end up in marketing like so many other producers out there, but life had other plans.
People asked me to write, and I did, and it was… so so at first. I wanted to write, don’t get me wrong – all those years of writing copy for a morning show left me wanting to keep my chops. I needed an outlet. I had a personal blog at the time, but that wasn’t what I wanted to do with it. I wanted to share stories, maybe sell an article or two, see where it lead me.
That’s where Tie Dye Travels came from. On September 10th, I came back from watching The Duttons perform at their theater in Branson, and I felt compelled to share my excitement. I wrote it on my new website. It felt like the most normal thing I had done – while at the same time being a little pointless. Frankly, I didn’t know where I’d go with it.
But another piece came – a chat I had with Violet Hensley at Silver Dollar City a few days later. Then another, and another. I found myself just writing about whatever ended up happening to me. For instance, my brother lost his job one afternoon in October 2007. He was blue. I was wanting to go write about a place I really liked from my childhood, so I asked him to tag along.
|Boston, January 2008|
I did have some money stuck back, sure – and a weird piece of advice a few months earlier from my mom paid off in a good way. The station was selling off its old vehicles. I put in bids of $110 on a car, a van and a live truck. I got the live truck and (I think it’s safe to say now), I ended up selling the antenna out of it for $10,000 on eBay. The vehicle went too. I honestly could not make that up if I tried.
It has never been easy.
Scary doesn’t even begin to cover it.
But an editor for one of our local publications encouraged me. Max Brantley, then managing editor of the Arkansas Times, asked me to take over the Eat Arkansas blog for the paper’s website. For the amazing pay of $125 a month, I could share the food stories I’d been writing about already with a larger audience. It was the start of something incredible. I’d written for several small local publications by that point, but this was the turning point that started a different ball rolling.
See, being a writer wasn’t as big a surprise for me as it could have been – I’d wanted to be a professional writer since I was a kid. I never intended to become Arkansas’s de facto food historian. But my coverage of the budding Arkavore local food movement, paired with the coincidental timing of beginning as a full time writer at the juxtaposition of three amazing Arkansas food milestones – the opening of Ashley’s at the Capital under Chef Lee Richardson; the founding of the Certified Arkansas Farmers’ Market by Jody Hardin and others, and the full establishment of the Arkansas Culinary School at Pulaski Technical College (now UAPTC) – lead to this incidental occurrence that became a THING.
Still, it was never easy.
Though I’d already earned a place in the Lonely Planet Blogsherpa program, Eat Arkansas lead to other things, such as Serious Eats. My place with that fantastic website was as its southern burger correspondent – I’d go places, eat a burger and report on it, whether it was Little Rock or Dallas or Mobile or Key West. That lead to Food Network Magazine, and to Forbes Travel Guide, and on and on.
Turns out, seven years later, I’m still feeding him, but that’s another story.
And it was never easy.
That’s part of the reason I applied with the Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism in the fall of 2011, and why I took the job as Communications Manager for Tourism there in January 2012. Sure, I’d picked up marketing work on the side with the inaugural Arkansas Cornbread Festival, and I had just come on board with Forbes Travel Guide’s Startle.com website, but this was a chance to work in a place I’d always dreamed about. And if that job had come open a few years earlier and I’d gone straight into it from TV, I might never have started Tie Dye Travels or experienced life on the road the way I have. ADPT meant security in a state job for me – which was essential. Within six months everything had changed again: I went through a divorce, I nearly lost Grav in a car wreck, and I was approached to start writing my first book.
I was with ADPT for two and a half years – an incredible education with a bevy of new experiences and a host of new friends – but it did not take me long to realize I didn’t belong behind a desk. I was meant to be on the road. That’s the main reason I left in August 2014.
It really has never been easy.
Though I never stopped writing, the atmosphere in food writing changed a lot while I was occupied with other things. Other writers moved in when I left, and I found myself in a battle to re-establish myself. There have been more rough patches than I can count, to be honest. There have been editors who promised steady work that didn't come through for a variety of reasons, and changes of other sorts. And there have been so many times I’ve wanted to throw in the towel.
But these days I feel driven. Of course, keeping a roof over our heads is a mission in itself, and I’m challenged to do so. My training as a journalist has lead me to turn down a fair number of opportunities that the blogging community has well taken advantage of – namely, advertiser dollars. My decision to not accept money from restaurants for my writing (commissioned photography is another deal altogether) has sometimes left me in dire circumstances. There have been times I’ve had to choose between covering a restaurant and buying groceries, and I’ve had to make the more logical choice. Freelancers aren’t paid for their experiences on the local level most of the time.
Sometimes those decisions hurt. There have been times I’ve wandered around the internet to find out the latest press party or event where just about every other local food writer is in attendance, while I’m picking at mac and cheese and trying to write about whatever assignment I’ve picked up. At those times, I do wonder what I’ve done.
Standards, though, are important to me. I can’t just drop them once – that’s a fence that can’t be repaired. I still have to remain fair, impartial, truthful and honest, no matter what.
It has never been easy.
Ten years ago, if you’d have told me I’d still be writing these stories, I might have had a hard time believing you. I’d also have a hard time understanding that more than 1000 of them continue to exist on this website today. I wouldn’t have realized how so many of them would have mattered to someone – a business owner, a patron of a local restaurant, a visitor seeking information, a relative wanting pieces to pull together on a family story.
I certainly wouldn’t have understood how these stories would affect me. See, all those years in the newsroom, I had a layer between myself and the outside world. I could share stories by interpreting video, interviews, wire copy and phone interviews. It wasn’t until I stepped foot out in the real world, worked without the net of security of a regular fulltime job that I really started to see what the world around me was like.
Today, life is very different. I do assignment work for Food Network. I work with communities in a blended marketing position where they bring me in and I find stories to write about and share. I'm a public speaker. I have three books published and three more just waiting for the next publisher to come along. And at this point in time I’m 2/3rds of the way through a show being produced by Emmy-winner Larry Foley called Make Room For Pie: A Delicious Slice of the Natural State with Kat Robinson.
I’m heavier (I blame the pie). I have an amazing eight-year-old daughter that can interview almost anyone. I have a photographer who has become my companion and sounding board. I speak at public functions, and other journalists come to me and count me as a reputable source on Arkansas food.
It has never been easy, and I still look for ways every day to improve what I’m doing – from continuing to develop my own photographic style with Grav’s instruction to finding new platforms for sharing my stories. MySpace may be something entirely different now, but I’m all over Facebook and Twitter and Pinterest and Instagram and Tumblr – and who knows what will be next.
I’ve been asked many years to give advice to others who want to follow my path. That’s the thing, though – this wasn’t a path. This was throwing spaghetti at the wall and making what stuck work for me. I don’t recommend it for anyone.
And really, I wouldn’t change a thing.