Revisiting Rats With Islands

I wrote an essay fifteen years ago called “Rats with Islands,” and I thought of it again this weekend because I am basically optimistic about the mess we’re in now. Not stupidly optimistic: I am socked in at home with social distancing of a good twenty feet (my house is set back from the one-lane road I live on) and enough food for a good two weeks, and I plan on doing everything I’m told like a good girl. I’m not stupid. But I am hopeful because hope is better than despair and gets me through the bad times a hell of a lot better than giving up ever has. Not that I’ve ever given up. It doesn’t seem productive, so I avoid it.

Anyway, here’s the essay I wrote in 2005 about the insanity of publishing and why you should never give up even if you never get published. Or the virus.

Rats With Islands: How To Survive Your Publishing Career

Note: Describing your islands in the comments would be good. We all need examples to swim for.

29 thoughts on “Revisiting Rats With Islands

  1. I remember that essay! It’s a good one.
    I’m not sure what my island is at the moment, so I think that’s the hard thing. I am/was working as a part time ESL teacher, but I gave my one week notice on Saturday b/c I will have to home school my kids (I presume till the end of the school year). That doesn’t mean I can’t go back to it at some point, maybe tutor one on one or over FaceTime, but I just don’t even want to think about until our new home life is at a little bit more at equilibrium. That was my island and maybe it’s still there, just a little bit more distant than I thought. Teaching kids (especially my own kids!) would never be my choice, but I do think at least some of my teaching skills will transfer over so that’s a a good thing.
    I’ve always been more of a dabbler than someone who focuses (for better or worse), so I just keep trying to do all the things that helped me stay sane when I was a full time stay at home mom – yoga, running, reading, fanfic, journalling. writing letters to people I love. Phone calls with friends.
    I can bake cookies too, although I don’t have many people to share them with right now. So I’m putting a lot in the freezer for a future date. I feel a bit like Ingrid Bergman in “Casablanca” when she talks about a special blue dress she’s saving to wear again for when the Germans march out of Paris. I mean, that might sound super melodramatic (and it is!) but I’m always looking for an excuse to feel like Ingrid Bergman. 🙂

  2. I’m on my island, and it’s just the right size and type for me. I have the life I wanted–I’m an English professor, not a fiction writer, which is a choice I made a long time ago–and I still love and value it, lo these many years later, even if I’m online instead of in the classroom right now.

    But your essay still brought tears to my eyes (the good kind). Thank you so much for sharing.

  3. This was a great essay. I didn’t see it the first time.

    My island, ironically, is my writing career. About which I could tell you Stories of sticking with things despite all reality to the contrary. All I can say is if you really want it, never give up. I just had a island-less water-treading three years between my last fiction contract and the contract I just got for the cozies. Never say die. (And thank the gods for the nonfiction career.)

  4. I am not an optimist. I failed mindfulness. I am more of a “could be worse, could be raining.”. My dad was a Marine. It was our family religion. And he used to talk about the deadman float. It was a jellyfish float and you would lift your head up to breath. so if you had nowhere to swim to you didn’t waste energy while waiting to be rescued. The analogy falls apart of the water is cold and hypothermia is an issue. But it was pretty useful when thrown into deep water in Arizona. Also I am not a writer so. ..

    1. I’d forgotten the deadman float. I don’t know who taught it to me, but I remember just doing it because I was told to. Life as a kid.

  5. I was acting as a coach to someone doing a transformational course. A person in her life stopped communicating suddenly, and she couldn’t decide if this person had made an honorable choice, or had just been playing her. I asked “Say you got to the end of your life, and found out which one it was – would you rather have spent your life thinking you had been loved from a distance and finding out you were wrong, or spend your life thinking he didn’t care when he loved you all his life?” She voted for “might as well believe what makes you happy, not sad”. It was such a clear example, I actually listened to myself and always try to make that choice. Reality is overrated – especially when there is no real way to know what is “true”.

  6. There’s a reason I’m a reader, not a writer. That said, I’d love to see a chat between Lily and Nadia outside of the box-like clinic.

    And romance between Lily and someone else could be lovely!

  7. Mindfulness makes so much sense. Observing, not engaging or fueling the scary. But…

    I’m afraid I’m mostly an anxious, depressed person, not so optimistic. I agree it would be best to be an optimist, because why not be cheerful and accepting when things are largely out of our control.

    But I find it a very uphill swim to the island of Good Cheer.

    1. I told a hippie friend of mine that maintaining optimism for me is like trying to keep a soap bubble alive.

      Of course we’re having this conversation in her kitchen and guess what started floating around the room for a surprisingly long period of time….

  8. I’m stubbornly convinced I’m a creative – a writer, photographer and designer – despite not having written a novel, or made money as a photographer or designer. I’m still swimming; can’t conceive my island’s not there somewhere. It means I’ve always got projects on the go, and lots of hope that I’ll create more things I love.

    I do lose faith sometimes, but this is so fundamental to my story of myself that I’ve always bounced back fairly soon – like a wobbly-man toy that returns to its upright position.

    1. So actually you do have an island. Or you wouldn’t bounce back.
      The idea isn’t that you never doubt the island, it’s that you don’t quit swimming.

  9. I think my island is the feeling that I can definitely do some things merely because, given all the advantages I’ve had through my life, I should be able to do them. I mean, this feeling comes from having a WASPy, preppie background which is necessarily selfish, purely driven by fortune of birth, and limited to a tiny fraction of humans.

    So, I graduated with a BA in Medieval Studies and decided first that I could be a tech writer (I actually got one job because my new boss read “Medieval Studies” as “Medical Studies”), and, later, that I could be a teacher (then had to do a lot of figuring out, fast). I really didn’t know anything about kids (except that mine were going to talk grammatically correct English and be toilet trained by the time they hit their first birthdays) before having them. Women have been popping out babies for millenia, right? With my background, bringing up kids should be a cinch. When I quit teaching, I decided to write. As the mom of 3 of my students said, “Isn’t that what every retired English teacher does?”

    It’s weird because I’m actually shy, lack confidence, and have been a jack of all trades instead of particularly good at anything. But that island is always there when I say, “Sure, haven’t tried it before, but I’ll do that.”

  10. Good article, thanks so much for sharing. I’m glad you told us they rescued the rats after they sank!

    I don’t know that I have an island in the sense that you mean it. I just have an abiding curiosity about what tomorrow will bring that gets me through today.

    At the moment, I’m using it to ignore the coronavirus news and fantasize about what I will do when things finally calm down and I can embark on that long awaited trip to Australia & New Zealand. I admit to a secret desire to check out Hobbiton. Shh, don’t tell anyone!

  11. Islands…

    “Certainly the game is rigged. Don’t let that stop you; if you don’t bet you can’t win.” –Robert A. Heinlein in the character of Lazarus Long, “Time Enough for Love”

    “Trudge: The slow, weary, yet determined walk of one who has no alternative but to continue.” –Barbara Ninde Byfield, “The Glass Harmonica”

    I live inside a risk analysis engine. It’s who I am. I started laughing about a third of the way through the second paragraph of “Rats with Islands”, because I already knew the punchline. I hadn’t heard that one before, I just live there.

    I got serious about writing when I was 19. I made the decision while standing on the edge of a roof about a hundred feet above the ground at 2:00 AM. I figured the express exit would always be there.

    I learned that I can’t write to specification; if the pressure isn’t behind my fingertips, the world is better off if I don’t try. But I kept studying story craft, and anything else that seemed relevant (which, when you write fantasy and science fiction, is everything). I put years into incomplete novels, and then walked away from them when I stopped believing in them.

    In 2009 I took a writer’s creativity course. It was a good course. It convinced me to quit, but 35 years of thinking like a writer just don’t go away. I knew it was pointless, but by then it was just who I was.

    In 2018, at the age of 62, I completed a novel. It’s a weirdly formatted thing which doesn’t fit cleanly into a particular genre, that no sane publisher would touch (99% dialog, mostly between the ghost of a unicorn and a woman who is turning into a dragon), so I self-published.

    It’s been out there for a year; it sells about a copy a week. Total strangers have read it, and told me they liked it. I still don’t quite believe that it actually exists. And that brings me back to Heilein’s rigged game, and the rats in the bottomless tank. I still live in a world that is mostly horrible, that I can see more clearly than the vast majority of people. But because I see the world that way, I also know, with absolute certainty, that bad odds do sometimes pay off. And you have to keep putting one foot in front of the other.

    1. And that we make our own realities, so make yours the best you can, not the worst.
      But yeah, at the end of the day, you keep going because the alternative is so much worse.

  12. My current island is that the fanfiction that I’ve been writing on and off for (mumblemumble) years with a whole lot of factors stacked against it (nobody wants original characters in fandom, nobody’s still reading that fandom…) is going to make somebody happy. It’s making me happy, so I keep swimming with it.

  13. My tank is littered with islands. There’s a little one that says ‘sure you have time to do all these things before you leave the house, the lights will all be green, and you’ll get a park right outside’.

    And there’s a bigger one that says ‘humans are amazing, and inventive, and not always TDTL and so we’ll totally find a way to fix or adapt to climate change, so no, having kids wasn’t a mistake because of course they will have a world they can live in when they grow up’. Just keep swimming…

    And (since we’re officially in lockdown tomorrow), there’s a new one cropped up called ‘homeschooling while my partner and I both work from home is going to be a great experience for us all’. ha ha ha ha. So far (Day 0): Time spent writing their ‘plague diaries’: 0 minutes. Time spent on their iPads: 70 bazillion minutes. Time Xander (10) spent building a string laser maze in Niamh’s (12) room? Unknown.
    Time I spent untangling it so she could go to bed: Too long. Also if I keep eating like this, you’ll have to roll me out of the house in 4 weeks time.

    Just keep swimming…

    None of these are dreams I guess, just reality twisted to help me stay sane.

      1. Neeve (it’s Irish). Here’s 3 minutes of Lee Mack taking the piss out of Irish spellings.

        The laser maze was awesome. I just wish I’d remembered it was there before I sent her up to bed – you know that feeling when you go up to bed, and only at that point remember that you’d stripped the sheets? It was that feeling. I wish I’d taken a photo though.

          1. Thanks :). She rearranged the letters on her door one day to read I’m han. And when I told her I loved her, she said “I know”. Made my day.

        1. Oh, thank you for that. I howled it was so funny. An acquaintance named her daughter Suibhne which they pronounce Shiv-knee but can also be Sweeney when it’s a man’s name or a surname. There’s nothing like a Celtic name for a tongue twister.

  14. I may be too literal-minded, but I think my island is my job. It’s what lets me rest and not stress and simply accept that my writing is yet undiscovered. It’s what lets me spend a little money here and there on an ad, or a stock photo, or whatever. It’s what lets me write what I want to write, even if nobody ever buys a single book, because my rent payment isn’t riding on book sales.

    It’s no day at the beach, but I’m grateful for it, especially now.

  15. Love this essay.

    Our current island is the book DH wrote and I’m line-editing. It’s a lovely place to escape to.

  16. My island is the belief that if I keep doing what I do it will make a difference in other people’s lives. Also that nothing you do for a child is ever wasted.

    It’s a little depressing to realize how trite my islands sound but they truly are what have driven my life.

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