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Fear and Loathing in Iceland: How to Quit Your Job and Write Full-Time

I was skirting the edge of a glacier in the southern highlands of Iceland when the LSD began to kick in...

Photo by Erik Greene



Steam rose from pockets in the volcanic hillsides and an eggy funk pervaded the air. Real chthonic shit. And the path was getting steeper. Dust and gravel scuffling under boot treads. The sun beat down from the middle of its 20-hour arc and I pulled my hoodie up over my head like a cloak letting the arms dangle so I wouldn’t overheat.

Iceland was beautiful, a well-earned respite from the whirlwind past six months of opening and managing the cocktail program at an exciting new restaurant in Richmond, VA. I desperately needed a vacation so I took a few days off work and flew out to meet my core best friends all flying into Reykjavik from their four corners, and we settled into our Airbnb lakehouse for our tenth annual get-together.

I was here to lose myself in Iceland and with my friends, to shake loose from some unnameable melancholy that had begun to take root. Reset my psyche and return to Richmond refreshed, with new ideas for the bar. The acid was a gift from a fellow bartender who was leaving RVA to pursue her comedy dreams in New York.

Seeking the Holy Grail in the Heights of Landmannalauger

We ate the tabs in the busy gravel parking lot and started up the slope, five of us joining the clusters and knots of hikers braving the 15 km loop up and over the hunched vertebrae of this tortured moonscape. Groups began to space out as the hike rose more and more strenuous and hikers stopped to rest or turn back.

Behind us and far below was the canyon maze walled with broken blocks of dragonglass that guarded the approach to this steep path up the ridgeline and into a rich blue sky scantily laced with clouds. Ahead of us lay an alien realm the likes of which we’d never seen.

My friend started laughing and I caught up to him. What’s up? Nothing, he chuckled. Just…this… I know, right?

We lapsed into joyful silence and peeled off into our own deepening waves of the trip, periodically stopping and crouching to gaze at the weird striations of volcanic glaze decorating the flanks of this sleeping giant. I could stay here forever in this spot, I thought. Embracing this moment. Let it envelop me and take me all the way in…


Photo by Jarred Cranshaw


But we have to push on, I kept reminding myself. Maintain some kind of sensical pace lest we run out of daylight and fall prey to Loki’s wiles in the thin northern dark.

I stood up from petting and peering deeply into the soft dry moss saddling the backstrap of Landmannalaugar and surveyed the undulating spread of neon green — from gobbling up surplus sulphur — that carpeted the black magma slag. Magnificent.

Ahead of me and somewhat aflank were my two friends who’d also taken blotters. Wandering. Getting lost in the waves. Far up along the path trod my two friends who hadn’t. Talking. Photographing the incredible landscape.

No one else was around.

A mild anxiety gripped me and I realized I was thinking about my coworkers back home in Richmond, setting up the restaurant for a busy Friday service while here I was gallivanting in Iceland. What if they —

I have to quit.

It Struck Me Like A Voice From The Blue

It’s time to quit my cushy bartending job and take the plunge into fulltime freelance writing.


Photo by Erik Greene


Eyes wide I stood staring into the void as if it were a mirror. I heaved a sigh. Invisible talons loosed from my flesh and an enormous weight lifted from my shoulders. It all made so much sense. I had to quit. My heart wasn’t in it. I was just going through the motions.

I want to write. It’s time to write. It won’t happen unless I commit all the way. It’s time to quit. I’m quitting.

I skipped and floated through the rest of the hike, giggling and gazing in wonder at the colors and the shadows playing across the leeward landscape far below the crest of this ancient volcano. It was easy to see how early travelers here dreamt of giants.

Even as we rounded a bend and came upon a thin footpath curving down a steep slope of loose scree with a stunning view of the countryside far below — even as we had to coax my non-tripping friend who’s desperately afraid of heights to shuffle step by tremulous step — all I could think about was setting myself up as a fulltime freelance writer and telling my creative, good-paying, plateaued and dead-end job to go stuff itself.

Photo by Adam Heinlein

Who can say what twisted mental pathways led to the hard and fast decision? All I knew was the idea bloomed in my shadowed soul with a vigor I hadn’t felt in a long time. A long time.

Freelance Write Now: The Journey Begins


I returned home and started researching and joined several freelance bidding platforms — which turned out to waver wildly between auction-block misery and lawless frontiers of scam and villainy. Maybe my decision was wrong. Or premature. What if I can’t do this? What if it’s impossible? Maybe I shouldn’t quit just yet…

I hemmed and hawed and gobbled Medium articles about successful six-figure writing enterprises and the weeks went by and I kept getting older.


Like your champagne birthday or each turning of a decade, certain birthdays bear traditional significance; a symbolic ascension of sorts, a potential pivot point…if you choose to accept it. I was supposed to become a rockstar or die trying, but Forever 27 wasn’t my year — and neither was the Big Three Oh when I was supposed to become a real adult. I just kept puttering on.

But now I’m turning 33. This is my Jesus Year. It’s time to molt.

A couple pivotal events happened to 32-year-old me: The top Richmond cocktail bar that lifted me out of the darkness of a broken engagement sold to new owners, new concept, same old me. I’d become obsolete. Was going stagnant. Just waiting. Then my closest friend and his wife left Richmond and moved to Nigeria, bringing my de-facto goddaughter with them.

But more on that later. I’m a storyteller. Narrative is my lifeblood. Seems like it’s about damn time I turn that into a job. Face my fears.

Now—I’m no Jesus freak and I don’t care whether Jesus actually died at age 33 or whether he even existed as a real-life person at all, or just a character amalgam from a time of profound political revolt.

The point is, significance is a choice. Things matter because we decide they matter. This is the year I have to nail myself to the cross of myself. This is the year I become a writer.

Or more precisely:

This Is the Year I Start a Business that Sells My Writing

So just before the clock struck my birthday, I closed down the bar and poured two sturdy shots of Santa Maria al Monte — my boss’s favorite elixir — and told him it was time for me to pass the torch to my secondary and retire from bartending altogether.

He looked at me.

Okay.

No screeching, no anger…not even a frown. Where was the climactic clash? Where was drama?

Yeah, I have to start focusing on my writing career or it’s never gonna happen.

Okay. When?

I’m going on assignment to Atlanta next month, I told him. Covering a Tough Mudder race. So we have about a month to train a replacement and phase me out.

He nodded and left and I finished closing. My heart stopped pounding. The traffic-light flicked through its usual cycle. I turned off the lights and turned on the alarm and turned the key in the lock as I had a thousand times before.

But the difference was this time I’d taken the leap. I committed to the dream. It was official.

And now it’s time to start the show...

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