Self-Acceptance: A Hard-Fought Battle for Writers
By Nava Atlas | On | Comments (2)
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.
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.
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, 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.
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.