Gems from Classic Women Authors’ Journals

A writer's diary by Virginia Woolf

Here are some passages from the journals of some of our most iconic women authors — Louisa May Alcott, L.M. Montgomery, Virginia Woolf, Anaïs Nin, and Sylvia Plath.

For many well-known authors, a personal journal was a constant companion and confidant. Into it they poured their dreams, goals and desires, as well as their fears and insecurities.

What’s striking about these entries is that they reveal a great deal of self-doubt. It goes to show that confidence is less important to success than perseverance.

Louisa May Alcott: Beginning “Little Women” reluctantly

Louisa May Alcott
Louisa May Alcott’s Advice to Aspiring Writers

May Mr. N. wants a girl’s story, and I begin “Little Women.” Marmee, Anna, and May all approve my plan. So I plod away, though I don’t enjoy this sort of thing. Never liked girls or knew many, except my sisters; but our queer plays and experiences may prove interesting, though I doubt it.

June Sent twelve chapters of “L.W.” to Mr. N. He thought it dull, and so do I. But work away and mean to try the experiment; for lively, simple books are very much needed for girls, and perhaps I can supply the need.

August Roberts Bros. made an offer for the story, but at the same time advised me to keep the copyright; so I shall. Proof of whole book came. It reads better than I expected.

Not a bit sensational, but simple and true, for we really lived most of it; and if it succeeds that will be the reason of it. Mr. N. likes it better now and says some girls who have read the manuscript say it is “splendid”! As it is for them, they are the best critics, so I should be satisfied.

Late August First edition gone and more called for. Expects to sell three or four thousand before the new year. Mr. N. wants a second volume for spring. Pleasant notices and letters arrive, and much interest in my little women, who seem to find friends by their truth to life, as I hoped. (Journals, 1868)


L.M. Montgomery: Seeking  a publisher for a first book

L.M. Montgomery in her 30s

How L.M. Montgomery Found a Home for Anne of Green Gables

I don’t know what kind of publisher I’ve got. I know absolutely nothing of the Page Co. They have given me a royalty of ten percent of the wholesale price, which is not generous even for a new writer, and they have bound me to give them all my books on the same terms for five years.

I didn’t altogether like this but I was afraid to protest, lest they might not take the book, and I am so anxious to get it before the public. It will be a start, even if it is no great success.

Well, I’ve written my book. The dream dreamed years ago in that old brown desk in school has come true after years of toil and struggle. And the realization is sweet—almost as sweet as the dream! (Journals, 1907)

To-day has been, as Anne herself would say, ‘an epoch in my life.’ My book came to-day … from the publishers. I candidly confess that it was to me a proud and wonderful and thrilling moment.

There, in my hand, lay the material realization of all the dreams and hopes and ambitions and struggles of my whole conscious existence—my first book. Not a great book, but mine, mine, mine, something which I have created. (Journals, 1908)


Anaïs Nin: “I write in a scattering fashion”

Anaïs Nin in Wrap

See also Anaïs Nin’s Diaries: From the Personal to the Universal

When I look down upon my work, it shrinks to almost nothing. One day I write poems and essays, and the next I tear and burn them, to begin again, and in the same manner I have done this for years. Nothing satisfies me.

The reading I do serves only to impress me with my inferiority of style and character. I writing in a scattering fashion, always with a purpose in mind and yet never capable of reaching it.

My work lacks “roundness,” concentration and clearness. I drift into vague visions and abstract forms and above all into superfluities. Although it is not so, it appears very much as if my mind wandered; when I most want to appear fixed upon my subject, I deviate and I miss my point. and above all what I cannot forgive myself is the unreliableness of my judgment because of my enthusiasm.

Against all these handicaps, I have only a few remedies. I know that I have application, a hard-headed kind of persistence. Where will all this lead me? Roundness, concentration and clearness can be acquired. Directness and the eloquent virtue of reserve equally so. I maintain they are the infirmities of my age, and I will not always be eighteen.

Probably in a year or so I will have exhausted these powers and a period of quiet will follow, a period of settled judgment, of moderate opinions, a more judicious reasoning, and instead of jumping to conclusions, I will arrive at them. . .

Nevertheless, I am resolved to write, write, and write. Nothing can turn me away from a path I have definitely set myself to follow. (The Early Diaries of Anaïs Nin, 1921)


Virginia Woolf: The agony and ecstasy of writing

virginia woolf
Virginia Woolf: The Most Self-Critical Author of All Time?

I wonder if anyone has ever suffered so much from a book as I have from The Years. Once out I will never look at it again. It’s like a long childbirth. Think of that summer, every morning a headache, and forcing myself into that room in my nightgown; and lying down after a page: and always with the certainty of failure.

Now that certainty is mercifully removed to some extent. But now I feel I don’t care what anyone says so long as I’m rid of it. And for some reason I feel I’m respected and liked. But this is only the haze dance of illusion, always changing.

Never write a long book again. Yet I feel I shall write more fiction—scenes will form. But I am tired this morning: too much strain and racing yesterday. (A Writer’s Diary, Nov. 9, 1936)

Did I say … that H. Brace wrote and said they were happy to find that The Years is the best-selling novel in America? This was confirmed by my place at the head of the list in the Herald Tribune. They have sold 25,000—my record, easily. Now I am dreaming of Three Guineas. (A Writer’s Diary, June 14, 1937)


Sylvia Plath: The loneliness of the soul 

Sylvia Plath

Sylvia Plath and Self-Doubt

“God, but life is loneliness, despite all the opiates, despite the shrill tinsel gaiety of ‘parties’ with no purpose, despite the false grinning faces we all wear. And when at last you find someone to whom you can pour out your soul, you stop in shock at the words you utter — they are so rusty, so ugly, so meaningless and feeble from being kept inside the small, cramped dark inside you so long.

Yes, there is joy, fulfillment and companionship — but the loneliness of the soul in its appalling self-consciousness is horrible and overpowering.”  

“And by the way, everything in life is writable about if you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise. The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.” (The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath)

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