Cara Strickland: Writer, Storyteller, Student
Both Julia and I met Cara just over a year ago at a women’s writing event here in Spokane. Thanks to the wonders of social media, we’ve been able to follow along as she’s (deservedly) appeared in some prestigious publications. She kindly agreed to turn the tables and let me interview her about her self-designed freelance career. And though her specialty is writing, we’re noticing some pretty universal themes in how she approaches and tackles life as a creative freelancer. – Dena
Name: Cara Strickland
Where did you grow up: My family moved from San Diego when I was seven, so I grew up a little there, but mostly in Spokane.
Where do you live now: Spokane, WA
How do you take your coffee (or other preferred caffeinated/morning beverage)?: I’m a tea girl. I like black tea, preferably British, with milk and a little coconut sugar.
How do you like to make notes to yourself?: I always carry a little notebook in my purse. I have sticky notes near my bed and sometimes I use the note feature on my phone.
Favorite season in the PNW?: Fall, always and forever.
When you’re out, how do you protect yourself from the rain and deal with inclement weather?: I just sing and run.
Tell us about your career path: I went to a pretty conservative Christian school, kind of like Whitworth but in the middle of Indiana. I was an English major, and people were always asking me what I was going to do with it, which is, I think, a common question for those in the liberal arts. And, I would tell them was that I was going into the wine business.
The summer before I graduated, I was back home working in Spokane. There, I got a book on wine at the library called WineWise, which is put out by the Culinary Institute of America. It’s a fantastic wine primer for anybody who’s interested, and I drank my way through it. I just wrote down everything that looked and sounded interesting, and then I went and bought it and self-taught myself about wine. So then, my first job after college was at actually Arbor Crest Wine Cellars. I did a little bit of everything there, and I really enjoyed it.
Around that time, I met Kevin Finch, who was the Food Editor for Spokane Coeur d’Alene Living magazine. He said they’re always looking for people to do reviews, and that’s how I started as a food writer. Eventually, Kevin left to pursue his non-profit, Big Table, more fully, and then I became the food editor. For a while, I was doing food features, chef profiles…it wasn’t full-time, but it was something that I always did on the side. When I took a full time job and couldn’t keep doing the editorship, I still stayed on as a critic. It was my bread and butter there, and I did it for about five years.
What pushed me into freelancing full time was that I made this uncharacteristically romantic decision to move to Portland and see if I could make it work with a boyfriend. About twelve hours before I was supposed to move, he broke up with me. I’d already quit my job here in Spokane, not renewed my lease, all of that. So, it was probably the only thing that would have gotten me to take that leap to full-time freelancing, because I’m not actually a very risk-oriented person. My first national food byline was about what it was like to start drinking again after breaking up with an alcoholic. It was one way to take all of that had happened to me and turn it around and get paid for it and make something beautiful out of that awful, chaotic experience.
At some point, I think it was in the late summer, I was published in The Washington Post, with a piece about wanting a dog. And that felt like, “whoa, this is really cool.” And then, I had a couple pieces in Salon. It’s just been a little at a time. Some of them are glamorous and some of them, not as much. I also love writing locally because it keeps me involved with the community.
I’m also in grad school for an MFA in Creative Nonfiction. Right before I went freelance, I had the opportunity to do a week-long writing workshop with my favorite living author, Lauren Winner, who writes creative nonfiction about faith, and who does some academic writing. When this opportunity came up, I just jumped at the chance to meet her and have her read my work. Over the course of the week, she talked me into applying for the MFA program. I started in the summer of last year.
What’s a normal day like, if such a thing exists?: Well, it doesn’t really exist! What it usually looks like though, is that I try to start the day by reading, although often I’m sucked into emails. I do a yoga practice, then if I have anything local to do, like an interview or something like that, I’ll schedule that before businesses are closed. I try to write in the afternoon and evening since that’s when I feel the most on my game. And then usually, I’m reading again before I go to bed. I work a lot, but I really like what I’m doing so sometimes I have to remind myself not to be working sometimes.
What other passions do you have?: History’s another big passion of mine. I usually try to find a way to write about whatever captures my attention, so that’s kind of the sweet spot for me. I get curious, and I feel like I get to be curious for a living. For example, the article I’ve done that probably went the most viral, was about the history of Turkish Delight, for JSTOR Daily. It came about because I was at T.J. Maxx, and they happened to have a box. So I bought it, and then on my way home, I was thinking, “I wonder what the story of Turkish Delight is.” I grew up with The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe, and The Chronicles of Narnia thinking of the character of Edmund, and Turkish Delight. So I decided that I would be interested in writing about the history of the candy through the lens of this book that I loved as a kid.
I ended up getting to do all this research about confectionery rationing in post-war Britain, and why, maybe, C.S. Lewis would have been passionate this candy, and all of the different overtones going on in the story. I also looked into how it’s actually made, and how difficult it is to make, and how there’s still nobody outside of Turkey who makes it well. It was just a really fascinating deep-dive piece that made me realize how much I enjoy research and history, and it married together so many of my interests like, books and food and history and culture. And it also was their most popular post of the entire year. It was so cool. And that was just me, going to T.J. Maxx and being like, I’m curious about this. And instead of just figuring it all out on my own, I asked somebody to pay me to figure it out and write about it.
Where do you have to see your career in 5 years?: I’d like to finish my memoir, and get it published. It’s been an interesting journey; I thought at first it was just going to be about being a food writer who’s an anxious cook. While it has been about that in some ways, in the process of doing research for the book, I’ve also discovered that my great-great-grandfather was actually a famous chef. I didn’t even know, and I had already been a food writer for five years! And his son-in-law was a fire chief in LA, and he also did all the cooking for the firehouse. And then my grandfather was also hugely passionate about food. It’s this food lineage that I wasn’t aware that I had. For example, my grandfather’s favorite meal and my favorite meal are the same. It’s artichokes (mine dipped into butter, and his dipped into mayonnaise) with filet mignon.
So, I think the memoir is an important part of what I’d like to be doing. I’d also, honestly, like to be doing a lot of what I’m doing now. I feel like I could do this forever. I threw myself a little party for my first freelance-aversary, and I really thought, “I feel like I’ve been doing this for ten minutes.” I just love this. And I love all of the elements of it, even keeping records for taxes.
What advice do you have for an aspiring food writer?: One of the conversations that’s frequently had in food writing world right now is the idea that it’s not possible to make money as a food writer. I do think that if you walk into it with that idea, then that’s true. But I also think that you need to think a bit more creatively. If it concerns you at all that you wouldn’t have the same paycheck every month then get a job, even a part-time job, and write on the side. That anxiety eats away at your creativity. It doesn’t mean that you’re not a real writer, it doesn’t mean that you’re not believing in your goal. It means that you’re taking care of your emotional and physical well-being. Whatever gives you the freedom to be actually creative is going to be best.
I’m also not a big fan of writing for free, although I know that a lot of people feel like that’s what they need to do to get in the door. I just think, see if you can get paid! It’s work, even if it’s fun. And you should be advocating for yourself, because nobody else is going to. Although, I will say, I’m never going to get rich doing what I do. I make a living, though. I just want to make enough, and I want to be happy.
Again, it’s not right for everyone. Know yourself. Be really intentional about if you need to be in an office to be productive, or even in a co-working space. Do what works for you. Don’t think that you need to have somebody else’s life. Craft the life that works best for you.
What’s your favorite thing about the PNW?: Growing up originally in San Diego, we didn’t really have seasons, it’s the same weather all the time. So, even though I will never really get used to it being snowy, I love that you know what time of year it is just by going outside and sniffing the air. And I also love so much of the local food that exists here. We have really great access to lots of fish and lots of really great foraged vegetables and fruits. I mean, I’d never heard of huckleberries before I came here.
I’d also say, and this is more of a Spokane focused than PNW-focused thing…one of the things that kind of makes Spokane a Goldilocks size for me is that there have been so many opportunities that I’ve been able to have here. I mean, how often does a recent grad from college just suddenly get the option to write food criticism? If I hadn’t had that start, it would have been so much harder, I’m sure, to break into the national food scene. The more I look around at other people in my field, I realize that not everybody has the opportunities that I’ve had here. You don’t have to get lost. You can know the literary community here or you can know the food community here. It’s doable.