When You Live on a Island & Your Story Goes Viral…

Image credit: STJ Creative Photography
Noelle Hancock – Image credit: STJ Creative Photography

Last year, we told you all about a friend of ours, Noelle Hancock, who wrote a pretty amazing essay about how she quit her $90,000 a year job in New York City and moved to St. John where she scooped ice cream. The reception she received was pretty extraordinary, and her story quickly went viral. It was an amazing thing for us here on this tiny little island to watch, as Noelle was interviewed on all of the fancy morning shows.

What we’ve since learned is that it isn’t easy dealing with something that goes viral. Noelle just published a follow up to her first essay, and we wanted to share it with all of you.

I Wrote an Essay About Moving to an Island and Scooping Ice Cream. I Wasn’t Prepared for the Response.

I used to hide whenever I published anything, but that became impossible when my article went viral.​

By Noelle Hancock

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.

For those of you who missed Noelle’s original essay, please click here to read it. 

22 thoughts on “When You Live on a Island & Your Story Goes Viral…”

  1. I’ve always said “don’t let the assholes bring you down”, but I’ve never had to face what you went through. You’re an inspiration, and I hope you continue to write; you’ve got a great sense of humor!

  2. Thank you Noelle for writing an update and to News of St. John for sharing it. You are a very talented writer and should be proud of your accomplishments and your life decisions. I only wish I had the courage to take the leap that you did. Keep writing and enjoying that amazing island. Wishing you the best!

  3. It is appalling the number of mean people on this planet. Keep doing what you love Noelle, your happiness should be your goal, not the acceptance of others. And it sounds like you’ve attained your goal. Keep on keeping on!

  4. This is fabulous. Way to go Noelle. I usually don’t comment on anything but I could not resist on this article. You are a fantastic writer. Concise, humorous, engaging and totally delightful. Thank you so much for making my day. I am only a visitor to St. John, but have desired to move there for years. Bravo to you for following your dreams. Keep writing, it is one of your great gifts.

  5. Two thumbs up for BOTH articles. (No, the cap lock key was not stuck) A very successful person told me once, “Every successful person has overcome adversity to be come successful. I’ve had adversity in my life. I don’t usually talk about it because 90% of the people I talk to don’t care that I overcame adversity. The other 10% are glad that I had it!”

    Those loud-mouth jackasses are a part of your adversity. Continue to rise above it. I know that you will because you are already successful!

    I won’t ask you for advice or if I can come stay with you. I will, however, wish you well and hope to sit down with you and Jenn to have a drink and hear more of your stories.

  6. Noelle – I loved reading this, and your original essay. I love the sense of humor!
    The negativity is unfortunate, there is way too much ugly in the world.
    You are a fabulous writer and it’s wonderful this experience has helped so many, but most importantly how it has helped you and what you have learned about yourself. Keep your head up, you are an inspiration.

  7. Congratulations on two good articles, Noelle. Don’t worry about the negative people, including the other folks lucky enough to be n St John. Too bad the island spirit has not rubbed off on them. We took my mother in law there a few years ago and she asked every person working there who happened to be in their 20s if their mothers knew they were there. We got a lot of stories from them about peanut butter and crackers and dumpster diving for furniture. Most seemed happy with their decision. I confess to being envious. Good luck and don’t let anyone get you down.

  8. Excellent articles! You did what I continue to dream of where I dream of going. I’m not sure, at 50, I have the courage but your writings give me more hope! Thanks!

  9. Congrats Noelle! You have an extraordinary gift! I have been visiting the island for 30 years and finally bought Caribe Breeze last year. Sitting on my deck right now feeling wind, rain, sunshine on my face at the same time. There is the magical awe of nature here that liberates you from everything you ever thought important. You are nothing here, and that makes you feel lighter than air. St. John makes my soul come out.

  10. Read your book, followed articles that came later. Also met you at Woody`s a few years ago. My take is that if you are strong enough , you make the change that you hope will bring change. For you it was the way to re- invent and find contentment? The articles that followed opened you up to praise and ridicule. Being strong and separating the bad people from the good is not easy. Lots of degrees of crazy out there. Jealousy a big one. Anyway keeping everyone happy is less important than being happy yourself. As i mentioned before, keep writing ” you did not think it that good” but we like it. Best wishes Les Hancock

  11. Hi Noelle,

    My husband and I have been inspired by your story and are working on simplifying our lives and are attempting to move to St. John within the next couple of years.. Social media, unfortunately, has made it to where every person gets to be a critic of anything that is posted on the internet. If you read any article in sports, politics, etc…. you will see comments from everyday people, some constructive and some from there own personal reality of idiocracy. Stay strong, keep on doing what you love and enjoy and that is all you should have to worry about.

  12. I was told that the locals accept you as one of their own if you give back to the community. Your gift of being a great writer will allow you to do that. But also get involved in community work. Congratulations!

  13. I enjoyed your essays and St. John is an extraordinary place which Kris Robinson beautifully describes above the effect St. John has on our souls. We can either bless or curse others by our lives, words, and actions and I appreciate you sharing your gift of writing and humor with others. Writing requires courage that others can’t perceive, but I hope you will continue to do more of it. I look forward to reading your book. Many blessings to you.

  14. Noelle, I read your first article and thought it to be a wonderful piece. I was also extremely jealous at the same time. I love St John and have been going there for many years.

    I was sort of surprised that the St Johnians were such snobs, considering none (or almost none) of them were born on the Island, they are just ex pats like you.

    It’s a shame but not surprising that there are such ass holes out there that would say such hurtful and hateful things. But social media has paved the way for such people to hide behind their computer screens.

    Keep living your life and enjoying, don’t let the haters get you done.

    Well be down in March 2017, perhaps we can a scoop of ice cream or a drink from you. Until than tanks for the good read!

  15. Noelle, some people hate their lives so much that they need to criticize those that are living the dream. Hell, if it weren’t for grandkids, I’d probably be your neighbor.

  16. From my mentor Alan Wiess’ monthly newsletter “Balancing Act” ® that arrived today that may give you some perspective on those attacking you:

    “The human condition: Attack dog

    Sometimes I receive nice letters in response to one of my many columns or newsletters, suggesting that I have a fact or source wrong. These are not the crazed “typo-hunters,” but erudite readers who are seeking to find out if they are wrong or I made an error on an important point. For example, a quote I had attributed to Oscar Wilde was actually uttered by Bertrand Russell, and that was important to know and correct.

    Sometimes, however, much more rarely, the letter is irate. One person questioned my credentials as a consultant, and another called me a “liar.” Those are just two examples. I find these fascinating, because they are forms of emotional illness.

    Imagine arising in the morning eager to “attack”? Instead of finding something questionable to investigate or pursue in the newspapers, online, or on the air, you are instantly angered and choose to pursue the object of your wrath with scorn and slander! Metaphorically, your day is about frothing at the mouth and seeking some kind of perverted vengeance. You don’t want to help or construct, you want to destroy.

    We all know people like this. It is the foundation of polarization. If you’re not with me, you’re stupid or lying. (A woman whom I told had her fact wrong about global warming told me, “You’re just a ‘denier,’ why would I listen to you?”)

    These people are basically threatened. Their world is tightly strung, they will brook no exceptions to the order they want to create. However, just as anger against others is usually self-anger directed outwards, I’ve found that these “attack dogs” have mostly committed the sins they accuse others of committing. Their own motives were unscrupulous, so they blame others’, similar mistakes as being the result of those same motives.

    Undisciplined attack dogs are a menace. Fortunately, most of them are afraid to leave their own yards.”

  17. Interesting that Noelle mentioned Tippi Hedren who had been to St John back in the early 1980’s at least once to visit family as she’s the mother of an actress named Melanie , whose father lived on St John for over 20 years…..One evening Tippi joined us “youngsters”, at the time, for dancing at the bar known as “THE OUT” which encompassed essentially an open air porch with small enclosed kitchen/ bar back area and stood just above the road where the entrance to Mongoose Junction 2 is……….The owner/ operator of THE OUT was June Bell who also published the island newspaper…………Thanks for triggering good long time memories , Noelle…….

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