When I was accepted into the MFA program at the University of South Carolina, I was living in Florida, working as a copywriter, and applying to MFA programs because, in part, I felt stuck in Florida. I’d finished my MA and in that time had written my first novel and a good chunk of the stories that would become my first collection, God in Neon. I was tapped into the Orlando literary community and all of its wonderful events, but I still felt like I could be doing more. An MFA program—a chance to spend a couple years working on my writing, working on another novel—seemed like the best option.
By January, I’d found out I’d gotten in. I’d gotten into one other program and been waitlisted at a third. By March, I’d accepted my spot as one of the four in the incoming cohort. I began preparing for a life in Columbia, South Carolina, a city I’d been to exactly once in my life and knew nothing about beyond the facts that the university was there and it was the capital. I was told by my mentor, who had gone to the same MFA program, that it was a cool little Southern town. I believed him.
In May, I was looking around Craigslist for freelance writing gigs. I wanted a job writing about alcohol or food. As evidenced by other pieces I’ve written here on DEM, I’ve spent time in the service industry and food and booze were and are close to my heart (in the literal sense that I have a bottle of wine tattooed on the inside of my left bicep). Realizing that Florida wasn’t the market to be looking in, I clicked through the New York City CL and, lo and behold, I found a posting for a spirits writing gig. I applied. A few hours later, The Manual followed me on Twitter. Then I got an email from my now-boss. Then we chatted on the phone. In the span of about nine hours, I was hired.
At the beginning, as with any new job, it took a little time to build up steam. I started with a few pieces a month while learning how to make, maintain, and utilize contacts in the industry. I learned the power of working with PR firms and developing those relationships. I worked to define my palate even more. I wrote and drank and wrote about drinking. It was heartening seeing my pieces being shared not only by the magazine, but by readers that I didn’t know. I reveled when people left dumb comments and then shared the piece regardless. It was the first time I could really see that any press was good press. It bothered me less and less that some dude in LA didn’t agree with my thoughts on this scotch or that rum. If he wanted to say how dumb I was as he clicked the share button, whatever, bro. Go for it.
In October, I received an email that I had to read multiple times in order to even begin contemplating. It was an invitation to a private cocktail party of sorts. With Anthony Bourdain. The Anthony Bourdain. The one who, despite him being a bit of a jerk (or asshole or whatever name you’d prefer to call him), was one of my idols in my early college years. He wrote about food and drink and he was from the suburbs of Jersey, just like me. He had wit and he got to travel the world, indulging. I wanted that, I wanted to be him, and here I was with the chance to meet him. The problem was that, at this point, I was in Columbia, attempting to write parts of a novel while teaching and doing eight other things. I couldn’t get up to New York for the party, so I asked if we could do an interview some other way. It was granted and I got to spend eleven minutes and thirteen seconds talking on the phone to Tony (as the PR woman referred to him and, even now, saying that, I feel like I’m part of some club because I called him that). A few months later, I found myself on a plane to Las Vegas and that same night, tasting 75-year-old scotch, poured by the grandson of the man that made it.
These sorts of things kept happening with increasing frequency. I was making more contacts, getting deeper into the spirits world (considering I’d only been a “professional” for less than a year), and frankly, loving every fucking minute of it. It is the epitome of a dream job—I get to eat and drink delicious things and, more importantly, I get to talk to people who love what they do. I get to sit and chat with them about their passions and that is as good as any glass of bourbon.
Flash ahead and it is June. School’s over and I’m headed back to the NY/NJ area for some family stuff and to meet with some of the people I’d worked with via email for the past year. It’s Monday morning and I’m walking up out of Penn Station, a journey I’ve taken countless times in my life, but this time, it felt different. I’ve gotten nostalgic for other things—a meal here, a hug from a person there, etc.—but this was the first time I realized that I had missed the City. I’d spent a decade trying to escape from it (with stops in NC, MT, NH, FL, and SC), and this was the first time my brain was going, “No, you need to be here.” I walked the streets, the ones I’d gone up and down so many other times for plays or concerts or just to show visitors the sites, realizing now how much I’d missed them.
Over the next few days, I had my meetings, I drank my fancy cocktails, and I got stuff in line for articles. I did more in two or three days in person than I could’ve accomplished via e-mail in a week. It got me thinking about the viability of staying in South Carolina. In my year at USC, my output consisted of 85% spirits writing and 15% creative writing. I got paid for the spirits writing and it was, at the end of the day what I wanted to do. I’d missed out on any number of special events while in Columbia and, if I wanted to bring my spirits writing game to the next level, I needed to be at those events.
I spent the flight home thinking about this. I had signed up for three years. USC had chosen me out of however many to bring to their program to let me work on my craft. I’d carved out a life in Columbia. I had friends and a favorite bar and the place you could go on Thursdays to eat the best burgers in town while drinking Yeunglings for $1.25 each.
But, then there was the City. I could be living in and around one of the greatest cities in the world, writing about the topic that interests me the most. I already knew some great writers in the area, who would keep me in the loop on all things literary, and I had a place to stay while I got on my feet.
I went back and forth for the remainder of the flight back to Charlotte and then the drive to Columbia. My roommate was home when I got there and he asked how my week was.
“Weird,” I’d said, dropping my backpack on the ground unloading on him as I did, everything I had been thinking through.
“You’d be moving to New York to write,” he’d said. “Don’t be stupid.”
He and I both knew he was right. That I’d made my decision. How could I not follow through on that opportunity? Writing in New York is the dream for so many and I was about to pursue that. Yes, I’d made commitments, but if what about following your heart and your guts? What about when every fiber of your being is screaming that you need to do something? How are you supposed to ignore that? How are you supposed to settle the voices inside just because of an agreement? If I stayed in Columbia for the next two years, I’d have a foot out the door, I knew. I wouldn’t be thinking about my own work, wouldn’t be giving my friends’ work the attention it deserved, would care even less about teaching comp and rhetoric. I’d be thinking about the what-ifs, the what would’ve happeneds. Sure, the spirits writing gig would still be there in two years, but, I reasoned, if I’d been able to accomplish this much in a year, what about in the next year if I had the chance to really push it as much as I could?
The answer, in the end, was easy. I’d made plenty of other decisions in my life that went against my heart and gut. I stayed in relationships longer than was healthy. I chose to do things that went against my better judgment. Not this, time, though. No. Not this time.
And, finally, maybe this will come back to bite me in the ass. It wouldn’t be the first time by a long shot that that has happened. That’s okay, though, because if it does, I’ll figure it out. I’ll make another heart and guts decision, following what’s best for me at that point in my life.