Self-Acceptance: A Hard-Fought Battle for Writers

Virginia Woolf

There’s a cartoon on my bulletin board of two caterpillars creeping along, with a butterfly hovering above them. One caterpillar eyes the butterfly suspiciously, and says, “You’ll never catch me going up in one of those things!” Maybe it isn’t what the cartoonist intended, but I see it as a metaphor for the sad state of women’s self-esteem.

We’re destined to become glorious butterflies, yet we persist in perceiving ourselves as caterpillars, opting for crawling the safer but less exciting ground, instead of allowing ourselves to take flight.

It’s a tough task to attain the kind of self-acceptance that allows a writer to feel she deserves to own her talent and reap the rewards of hard work. Think of favorite classic authors such as Virginia Woolf, Edith Wharton, and Louisa May Alcott, with their distinct styles and personas. It’s hard to imagine that they didn’t burst forth with the kind of self-regard that would allow them to write and succeed gloriously. And yet—they didn’t.


vintage typewriter


Like most of us, writers who eventually succeeded struggled with self-acceptance for years, sometimes for decades. Consider:


Edith Wharton: A long road to self-confidence

Edith Wharton, a wealthy heiress, got nothing but disapproval from her snooty mother and society friends who looked down upon or ignored her literary pursuits. She tiptoed haltingly into the world of print, hampered by crippling insecurity. It took many small victories — published stories, books, and warm reviews — before Wharton believed she was worthy of success.

Finally, “The reception of my books gave me the self-confidence I had so long lacked…” It took the reinforcement of the public and her peers for her to acquire a new image of herself as a capable, talented author—one who, before very long, became the first female author to win the Pulitzer Prize for the Novel in 1921 for The Age of Innocence.

Edith Wharton at her desk


Virgina Woolf: A bottomless need for approval

Like Edith Wharton, Virginia Woolf’s need for the approval of others was vast, and she sought it from her husband, friends, publishers, and critics. But unlike Edith Wharton, those closest to her gave her just that. That didn’t allay her constant struggle with self-doubt, seeing herself as somehow “less than.”

Virginia Woolf and Pinka_ Vita Sackville-West & Pippen1933

Virginia, Vita, and their dogs

“I can assure you,” she wrote to her friend Vita Sackville-West, “all my novels were first-rate before I wrote them.” When her publishers or husband praised her efforts, it meant everything to her.

Woolf needed the reinforcement of others to build a foundation of self-acceptance, which in turn gave her courage to create works that were experimental and far ahead of their time. Though self-doubt never left her, it was a catalyst to do constantly do better, not a signal to stop growing.


Louisa May Alcott: Dismissive of her own talent

Louisa May Alcott was determined to make a living by writing, no small feat for a woman of her time. To support her family, she wrote thrillers, gothics, and “sensational tales” under pseudonyms. After years of toil, she took up her publisher’s request to try a “girls’ story,” and reluctantly cranked out Little Women. Always viewing herself as more of a workhorse than an artist, she thought little of it.

Though neither she nor her publisher thought highly of the results, the book became an immediate best-seller. When she learned of its embrace by the public, Alcott saw it in a new light, and changed her tune: “It reads better than I expected. Not a bit sensational, but simple and true…”

No longer going from one anonymous literary identity to another, self-acceptance came after the “simple and true” novel that emerged from the pen of its reluctant author met an enthusiastic audience. Her career blossomed, as did the fortune she had long craved.

Louisa May Alcott 1862


Once I learned of the universal struggles of authors like Wharton, Woolf, and Alcott while researching The Literary Ladies’ Guide to the Writing Life. I realized that I was behaving more like the two caterpillars in the cartoon than the butterfly. I’ve played it safe by accepting only a certain version of myself as a writer, one that’s occasionally at odds with the “real me.” I think that’s about to change!

Like the two caterpillars we met at the top of this post, the illusion of safety can get in the way of progress. After all, caterpillars are vulnerable to getting smooshed on the road. Sometimes acceptance of a new version of ourselves—as writers who have arrived, or are just on the cusp of doing so—lags behind what others have already perceived about us: we’re already aloft, like the butterfly; we just need the courage to lose sight of the ground below.

2 Responses to “Self-Acceptance: A Hard-Fought Battle for Writers”

  1. And it’s not just self-acceptance for authors but for women in general. I belong to a Commission for Women in the Worcester Diocese and we put on programs for women. We hosted a wonderful nun who spoke about the need for self-love and taking care of ourselves. It seems to be epidemic especially among older women, this lack of self-acceptance. I felt so sad hearing caring, wonderful women saying that they don’t “deserve” to take time for themselves, who find it an incredible struggle just to step aside and “do something for me.” It makes you wonder just what feminism has done for women when so many still feel this way.

    I appreciated how Edith Wharton overcame her insecurities and even saw her family’s disdain for her writing as a good thing because it made her tougher. Good attitude! Makes me want to read her works.

    I’ve been reading the section in your book about authors who are mothers and I’ve come to believe that these “distractions” in fact, make us better writers. We have to fight harder to get the time in but in the meantime, these distractions are living life, the best possible food for writers.

    • Thanks for this thoughtful comment, Susan. I wouldn’t blame feminism, though, but a culture in which male is still the “default gender” and women still have to fight for equality, whether in a blue collar job, in a boardroom, or in creative professions.

      It’s changing, but more slowly than one would expect given the rise of girls and young women over boys and young men in the school and college years. The “deserving” piece is a huge one, one I relate to, but still don’t fully understand. Especially why it’s so universal among women of all ages. One good step is to raise awareness of it, speak about it openly, and find ways to overcome it in our real and virtual communities of women.

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