Hadassah-Brandeis Institute

"A Selfish, Egocentric, Jealous and Unimaginative Female:" Self-Doubt Among Geniuses of the 20th Century

Nov. 1, 2022

By Lauren Hakimi

Editor's note: Opinions expressed are those of writer Lauren Hakimi.

Grace Paley thought no one would read her stories. Sylvia Plath "felt sick" when she read back her work. Had I never visited the Smith College archives as part of the 2022 Gilda Slifka Internship Program, I might not have known about the widespread self-doubt among some of the geniuses of the 20th century.

After visiting the Jewish Feminist Archives at Brandeis, all the HBI interns were excited to visit the Smith College archives. The day my fellow intern Miranda Hellmold Stone, a Smith student, suggested the idea, I went home and looked through the library website. I found a Grace Paley interview I could read, partly because it seemed interesting but also because I sensed that identifying a source for my summer project on Paley would bolster our argument when we pitched the Smith trip to our supervisor. I was equally excited, if not more so, about seeing the documents of Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf and Gloria Steinem.

Our time in the archives was limited to a couple of hours. Still, what I managed to read demonstrated the uphill battle faced by women who would turn out to be some of the best writers of the 20th century. The insecurity these women felt about their work is blatantly tied to their gender, and to discrimination against it.

"I put off writing in a way, because when I thought of stories, I thought of stories about women," Paley, who began writing in the 1950s, said in the interview transcription I read at Smith. "But it seemed to me that nobody would read it. I thought, women’s stuff, they’re not going to read women's stuff."

The Bell JarIn a journal entry she wrote in 1951, at age 18, Plath wrote, in all capital letters, “CAN A SELFISH EGOCENTRIC JEALOUS AND UNIMAGINATIVE FEMALE WRITE A DAMN THING WORTH WHILE?” As she wrote in the third person and used "female" as a noun, her wording suggests a misogynistic voice that has embedded itself in her head. Her early diaries are full of passages like this.

Plath compared her mind to "a wastebasket full of waste paper; bits of hair, and rotting apple cores" — surprising, since, at the time, mindlessly scrolling down Instagram until you desperately have to use the bathroom had not yet been invented.

At one point, she even questioned the value of her existence at all, writing, "I think I am worthwhile just because I have optical nerves and can try to put down what they perceive. What a fool!"

(I found these quotes in Plath's published journals, not the Smith archives, but the Smith archives have a vast collection of her writings where she surely expresses similar sentiments.)

Of course, both Paley and Plath were geniuses, and despite their concerns, many people would read their work. Paley, for her part, influenced the short story, writing semi-autobiographical and extremely funny stories where, critics would complain, nothing actually happened. And Plath wrote "The Bell Jar," one of the greatest novels in the history of American literature. Why were they so insecure? To what extent did that insecurity hinder them, and to what extent was it necessary to their success?

I believe self-doubt can be a good thing; while general doubt is the basis for scientific advancement, perhaps self-doubt is the basis for personal growth or the growth of a writer. Thus the saying that a good writer is someone never satisfied with their work.

But self-doubt can also be crippling, as Paley described. It takes a certain ego for someone to take up space with her words. Plath, despite all her hair bits and apple cores, certainly had such an ego. Writers are notorious for this — for being both insecure and egocentric at the same time. This combination — possibly the result of extremely high standards rooted in the basic knowledge that one really can be a great writer — must be why writers have a reputation as being so annoying to work with or have as friends.

Surely, no insecurity could have stopped women like this — forces of nature — from putting pen to paper. When somebody was the kind of writer they were, the words must have almost forced themselves out, no matter what risk they posed to the person speaking them. Writing is the means and ends of life, patriarchy or not. But then, if that were true, no great writer would commit suicide — as Plath did.

As multiple interns had expressed interest in Plath, Maureen Cresci Callahan, an archivist at Smith, who guided our exploration of the archives, brought out the typewriter the author had used as a college student.

Courtesy of the Sylvia Plath Collection, Smith CollegeI’d never written on a typewriter before. Two of my fingertips grazed its buttons, half-fearing that touching them might lead to the spontaneous combustion of all the world’s paper. Overcoming that fear, I tried typing a few words on it, but for some reason, whatever I wrote failed to materialize into an era-defining novel translated into at least 32 languages.

The typewriter had all the same letters as my own keyboard at home. I was surprised, as if I'd expected Plath to have access to some secret bonus letters that brought her thoughts to life. She had no such thing. No magic wand, no invisibility cloak, no secret telephone where God could reach her and whisper the words into her ear. She really just had this boring old typewriter. The boring old typewriter, and her mind.

One of the pieces of advice Paley gave aspiring writers in 1970 was that they didn't have to be writers. She quoted a poem by Paul Goodman in which a man needs a new ship but says he is too tired to work for it. The shipbuilder responds:

"No one asks you, either," he patiently replied, "to venture/ forth./Whither? why? maybe just forget it."

No one asked Plath to venture forth; no one asked Paley. In the end, we are all just unimaginative females sitting alone before a blank page. It is up to us to drag the truth from out of our hearts and shape it into art. A little bit of selfishness and egocentrism can only help with this noble cause.

Lauren HakimiLauren Hakimi is a writer and journalist with bylines in JTA, The New York Jewish Week, The Forward, Lilith magazine and more. She was a 2022 HBI Gilda Slifka Intern and is now the associate editor of New Voices magazine. Find her on Twitter @lauren_hakimi.