When I was 8, I pooed myself at my grandmother’s house, and I threw my panties into a bush. When I grew up and became a writer, that instinct remained with me. Whenever my articles are published, I have to suppress the urge to duck and hide. I prefer to hurl my writing into the ether and pretend nothing happened. Because, like a lot of neurotic, introverted writers, I think everything I write is shit.
The hiding becomes problematic when you write an article that goes viral. This happened to me a year ago with an article I wrote for Cosmopolitan.com about my decision to leave New York and move to a rustic island. The essay was shared nearly 600,000 times on social media. Within 12 hours of it being published, I was invited on to the Today show. It also caused a bit of a to-do on my island of 4,000 people who didn’t necessarily want the attention.
Being a focal point in a small town and on social media gives you a unique perspective on the human condition that no sociology class, book, or “expert” can ever teach you. You learn what it is to be a polarizing entity either loved or hated, like mayonnaise or country music.
What’s ironic is that I’d given up writing. After 10 years working as a writer in New York, the desire to write had flowed out of me as unceremoniously as water draining from a bathtub. That part of my life was over, I thought. Golfers lose their swing. Porn stars lose their youth. I lost my words. This was around the time I lost my desire to live in New York. So I moved to the Virgin Islands where I took a job scooping ice cream - and later, bartending - and wrote nothing for four years.
It’s hard to explain why I made such a drastic change except to say that I wanted my life to be the opposite of what it had been. I still loved - will always love - Manhattan, but one day, I woke up and everyone was on their phone. That last year in New York, it seemed I saw more screens - and the tops of people’s heads bent over those screens - than actual faces. And if you’re waking up with the sensation that there has to be more to life, then there is. I wanted to look out my window and see amiable palm trees, not defiant skyscrapers. Instead of being shoved through the air in elevators, I wanted to ease into the sea. I wanted to get out of my head and work with my hands.
Moving was easy because I was a single woman in my 30s with no husband or kids, and I did not own a home. It was difficult because I had little in the way of savings. This is not because I have expensive taste. I made a great living my last few years in New York, but my income never seemed to stretch far enough in Manhattan. Like a too-small bikini bottom, there was always barely enough to cover my ass. My first six weeks on the island, I rented half of a full-size bed, which I co-slept in with another person until I found my own place.
For a while, my only piece of furniture other than my bed was a strappy vinyl lounge chair I’d dragged in from the deck. That’s where I took my meals and carried out my sitting-related pursuits. I pretended I was at a pool party to which nobody showed up, including the pool. It was ridiculous, but I loved that chair, its out-of-placeness. Anything can happen, it said. You can still jump into the water with your clothes on.
After four years, I’d progressed to a moldy hand-me-down couch and a quavering Wi-Fi connection. I rarely checked my email. One day I did and there was a message from an editor I knew back in New York. “Hey, are you still living in the Caribbean?” the email began. “I’m over at Cosmopolitan.com now and we were thinking about doing an article about someone who moved somewhere to live a totally different life. Would you consider writing about moving to the Virgin Islands?”
My last effort at writing before leaving New York was a middling memoir about facing your fears that received rave reviews from several members of my own family. Still, I considered the email. I could use the money. And surely I could manage a first-person essay?
Or so I thought.
Trying to write again was to play a card game for the first time in years and realize you’d forgotten the rules. Words came clumsily when they came at all. Anyway, what was I supposed to write about? How I’d recently found a chicken in my bathroom while I was peeing? How I was happier scooping ice cream in my 30s than I was in my 20s getting well-paid to interview Tom Hanks on the red carpet? In the end, that’s exactly what I wrote. With apologies, I emailed it to my editor and hurled it out into the universe.
Incidentally, I was drunk when the article came out. My boyfriend and I had a rare day off together. We did not hit happy hour so much as happy hour hit us. I didn’t know the story was being published that day, but suddenly my phone began pinging with messages from family and friends who had come across it online. The large-lettered headline read: “Why I Gave Up a $95,000 Job to Move to an Island and Scoop Ice Cream.” Beneath the title was a snapshot a friend took of me on a nearby beach, in which I’m leaping across the sand wearing a bikini and a vast smile. My arms are flung wide, and I’m clutching a fedora that I’d gleefully whipped off my head at the last second. It is a moment of bright, unguarded happiness. It also looks like an ad for tampons. But I didn’t have many pictures of me on the island by myself. Maybe I’m alone on this, but I feel awkward breaking ranks from a group shot, saying, “Hey, can you get one of just me?”
That evening - right around the time the full, gale force of my hangover kicked in - I received an email from a producer on the Today show.
“Sweet Jesus,” I said.
“What?” My boyfriend peered over my shoulder.
“The Today show wants to interview me about the article over Skype - oh my god- tomorrow morning? With Matt Lauer. At 8 a.m.” I cast him a wild look.
“That’s fantastic! You’ll be great!” He’s ruthlessly cheerful, which is normally one of my favorite qualities about him.
But I hadn’t done TV in forever. I sat up on the couch, leaned toward my reflection in the nearby glass door, and regarded myself with a gimlet eye. Raisins have been more hydrated. My hair resembled Tippi Hedren’s after she’s attacked by the seagulls in The Birds. Not to mention that I have an ungainliness on camera that brings to mind one of those amusement park animatronic shows that hasn’t been oiled in years.
“I can’t,” I wrote back.
“Are you sure?” the producer pressed. “What about the following day?”
“Do it!” my boyfriend urged. “It could be fun!”
He was right. I should do it. To say no is unprofessional and insulting to the publication that hired you to write the story. No more ducking and hiding.
Soon I was sitting before my laptop, trying not to look like someone in an internet hostage video as I Skyped with Matt Lauer and Al Roker. It was over in two minutes. Order restored to the kingdom! Life would return to normal.
Or so I thought.
Hundreds of Facebook messages from strangers flooded my inbox. People asked for advice about making a major life change. People asked me to call them. People asked if they could come stay with me. Publications produced articles about my article. The Daily Mail’s site published a story about me, complete with a selfie of me with my tongue sticking out I took on a friend’s phone as a joke when she wasn’t looking. They’d found the photo on her Facebook page and published it without permission. Within 24 hours, a writer for Elle.com published a rebuttal titled “Sorry, I Don’t Want to Quit My Job and Move to an Island.” Then there’s that craven, lawless grotto known as The Comments Section.
A curious thing happened when the world moved online - suddenly everyone became a published writer, but everyone became a critic as well. Maybe that’s why I shrank away from writing? I couldn’t handle the new reality in which everything I created would be torn apart immediately by hundreds of people - and the tearing down also witnessed by hundreds of people.
“So what if people write about you?” my boyfriend asked.
“Because,” I sputtered, “the point of being a writer is that you get to have the last word!”
People wrote that my story was an example of first-world privilege. For others, it was a smug affront to their own life choices. Some commenters loved me, some hated me, some wanted me sent off into space via rockets. Many had an unhealthy attachment to the caps lock key. A small sampling of comments: “She looks annoying,” “dumbass,” “spoiled twat,” “princess bitch face.” More than a few reminded me that I was staring down the barrel of middle age and needed to get my life together. Another opined, “She missed her place in a red light district, stupid girl.” Then, this bit of poetry: “Please kill yourself.”
A part of you wants to say, “If I wanted your opinion, I’d call the nuthouse and ask to speak with you.” But being berated by strangers is so contrary to the normal social order that it takes your breath away. People write with such deranged intensity, you think, I wouldn’t want to come face to face with this person without bank window Lucite between us. Yet many of them post under their Facebook profile. To the left of their vitriol is their full name, place of work, and a picture of them incongruously snuggling an infant or beloved pet. You think, How can you say this while holding a Maltipoo?
Even more baffling is when the information is simply wrong. “She doesn’t even live on St. John anymore,” one person wrote. “I have it on good authority she’s moved back to New York.” One commenter pronounced me a “trust fund bitch,” which is not true (except the bitch part). There was little point in correcting them. They’d created in their head a narrative about the kind of person I am, not caring if it was the truth. People who are determined to be right cannot be reasoned with.
Still, I was surprised by the insults directed at my family. Maybe “surprised” is the wrong word. More, I wanted to plunge my hand through the computer screen and into the offender’s chest and pull out their still-beating heart ‘Temple of Doom"-style. Except they obviously didn’t have one. Commenters accused my mom and dad of being bad parents; sometimes they’d looked them up and referred to them by their first names. One person tracked down my father’s financial information and posted it in the comments section of my article. We’re all familiar with the vile behavior of the internet, but it’s arresting when it’s directed at you.
Also, I was not prepared for the reaction of the small town I love that had been inadvertently thrust into the spotlight. Many people enjoyed the article - or told me so anyway. But the local paper ran an editorial declaring that there was “grumbling” among residents that my article would “ruin what is actually great about the island.” Some islanders who settled here years before thought me a self-satisfied upstart. One local woman started a Facebook debate saying I hadn’t lived on St. John long enough to write about it. The thread garnered over a hundred comments. “She thinks she’s so special? I moved here with only $100 in my pocket!” someone groused. “GREAT! Now every asshole in the world is going to move here!” said someone else. To which I wanted to say, “No, I think we hit our quota with you, pal.” I was accused of exploiting the island for personal profit and I was told I should donate my “proceeds” (which amounted to less than I make during a normal bar shift) back to the community.
A St. Johnian woman I’ve never met sent a letter to the Today show producers asserting that they never should have interviewed me. Then she sent several aggressive messages to me. “When you actually have some real ‘time’ on this island, maybe we can talk,” she wrote. “Until then, you are a tourist, not a local … You are not to be paid attention to.”
Believe me, I don’t think I should be paid attention to either. I’m beside the point. The point is, if the article inspired even one person to live the happiest version of their life, that’s all that matters. The rest is not to be paid attention to.
It’s been over a year since the article came out. People still send me letters telling me I changed their life, updating me on their new journeys. But I can’t really take credit. I simply nudged someone to make a change that they, in their heart, had already made. It’s funny. Writing an essay that started with a chicken in my shower turned out to be the most meaningful accomplishment of my life. It’s unfathomable and humbling, having strangers say you inspired them to leave a job, relationship, or place they weren’t happy in - even when others told them it was a terrible idea.
I don’t anticipate this article going viral. But I hope it inspires at least one person to stop thoughtlessly heaving crap into the universe. As for myself, I think the lesson is the opposite. To stop thinking everything I write is crap because someone didn’t like it. Try as I might, not everyone is going to like my writing. Not everyone is going to agree with all my life choices, or yours.
All you can do is hope people find their own island of contentment - whatever it is. And wish them well on their journey.
Noelle Hancock is the author of My Year With Eleanor.