I was looking through my camera roll the other day (as I do when my phone is on airplane mode but I’m craving stimulation), and noticed a common thread running through all the best periods of my life: I was consistently writing. My memories from these times are clearer. I was more in touch with myself, more alive, more present, and perhaps most significantly: I felt like it was me running my life, not anyone else.
Writing reveals you to yourself. As in: everything you don’t want to confront internally comes to light when you write. Writing is like looking in a makeup mirror for the mind—the kind that enlarges your face 5x while blasting an LED light on it. Writing, like a mirror, doesn’t discriminate between the good and the bad. While all of your blemishes get exposed, so do your best features that you rarely look closely at. And as you furrow your brows, squint, and examine, you begin to see your mind more clearly.
I think most internal problems could be solved, or at least prevented, by regular reflection. This is because problems only manifest tangibly after fermenting quietly for some time. It’s many decisions compounded that lead to noticeable changes—both positively and negatively. By clearing out your mind every day, those not-great-but-also-not-horrible things you do come to light, so you’re forced to face them before they irrefutably demand your attention.
It is painful to admit your own inadequacy. But if you do it enough, you’ll actually start to improve. You’ll say: today was trash because of x, y, and z, so when you want to do the same thing tomorrow (because we default to repetition), you might instead say: hey, what if I didn’t do x today? Since it made yesterday so shit? And that’s how it happens—change starts as a small, quiet voice that nudges you towards different decisions.
There are other ways to reflect, of course, like conversation. But writing is just conversing with ourselves, which is usually all we need to solve our problems. I like this idea from Ava that getting closure often just requires a conversation with ourselves:
This is true in many dimensions of our lives, not just as it relates to feeling ‘wronged’ by someone. To resolve feelings of unease, we need to (1) get comfortable being alone with our thoughts and (2) learn to process those thoughts independently.
At one point in college I was in a flow of writing every day, and realized I was getting way more out of conversations when I had already written about what we were discussing. By clarifying my own thinking, I could articulate myself coherently, and I innately knew what I needed, or did not need, to share. This became my default approach to processing emotions: write first, converse second. If my thoughts are a messy tangle of strings, writing gets out as many knots as possible so that I come to conversation focused only on working through the final few tangles.
I’m often amazed at how much I learn just sitting here, staring into my mental mirror (this screen) for 30 minutes. There’s that Paul Graham idea that you discover 80% of your thoughts after you start writing. From his essay Writing, Briefly:
“I think it's far more important to write well than most people realize. Writing doesn't just communicate ideas; it generates them. If you're bad at writing and don't like to do it, you'll miss out on most of the ideas writing would have generated.”
People often ask me: why do you write? The most honest answer is: I want to understand my mind, and streaming thoughts onto this screen is the most effective method I’ve found to do so. Conversation, reading, learning, thinking away from the keyboard help too, of course. But this is where the synthesis happens. This is where it all comes together, where I see how everything stems from a set of first principles, where the commonality that ties it all together reveals itself.
The crystallization happens in solitude, where I can shine light in new crevices, double click on thoughts I haven’t unpacked, and think at my own pace. There is a sticky slowness to writing. My stream of thoughts is throttled by how fast I can get words onto the page. It’s like being a fly caught in honey, forced to move carefully through the pot of sweetness to make any real progress. When I sat down to write this, I didn’t have all these words yet. But I’ve been swimming through the honey, and these thoughts bubbled up as I did. That’s another thing I love about writing: unexpected thoughts emerge as you approach your main question, like appetizers arriving before the entrée.
To address the main question though, this is a (non-exhaustive) list of why I write:
Agency: There’s that cliché quote “You are the captain of your own ship; don't let anyone else take the wheel.” Writing keeps your hands on wheel. It forces you to reflect on how you feel about your life, making it harder for your environment to cloud your views and control your choices.
Presence: Writing grounds you where you are, forcing you to think clearly. You cannot be anywhere but the present to write, otherwise nothing will come out.
Reflection: Frequent reflection shapes you into the person you want to become, partially because you want to evolve, but largely to avoid the self-loathing that accompanies facing your inadequacy every day if you don’t. It turns out hedging against hating yourself is quite a useful tool, actually.
Better memories: Writing brings you deeper into moments, teasing out what they FELT like. This translates into how you exist moment to moment: a constant loop of narration develops in your mind describing what you’re experiencing. Your attention snags on nuances you’d usually miss. Writing also lets you experience things twice—first in the moment, then when you write about it. This imprints memories more vividly in your mind. Hindsight also taints memories in a way that suits our present self, while writing captures a mental snapshot of what they felt like when they happened, making it the truest way to preserve moments.
Feeling seen (by myself and others): I show love by making others feel seen, and I feel loved when I feel seen. To write is to look at myself, so writing is an act of love towards myself. I write publicly to help others feel seen. Our lives are not that unique—we all have similar feelings in different contexts. Writing is a mirror for others to observe notice feelings while looking through the lens of my experience.
Clear thinking: Writing exposes the gaps in your thinking. You can’t write about something you only kind of understand. Well, you can, but you’ll quickly realize just how out of your element you are. So, if you ever want to find out how well you know a topic, try writing about it.
Writing is basically just a one-man Socratic dialogue. You vs. you in your mind, teasing out the knots. No one can understand your thoughts the way you can, because: (1) language is a fairly inefficient vehicle for understanding (I recognize the irony in this given that I’m attempting to build a life off of the efficient use of language), and (2) all of us are passing our experiences through the prism of our own minds. No one is free of bias—we are all tainted by ourselves. In one of my former professor’s Indian Philosophy course essays, he explains this:
“It is inevitable that whatever we perceive, we do so through the prism of our past knowledge and experience. All the impressions, feelings, thoughts and images have been stored up since our childhood and thus influence our experience. In his Inspired Talks, Swami Vivekananda writes, ‘We are what our thoughts have made us; so take care of what you think. Words are secondary. Thoughts live, they travel far. Each thought we think is tinged with our own character.’”
Each thought we think is tinged with our own character. This is, in part, how writing makes others feel seen. You, the reader, pass these words through your prism and overlay them onto your life experiences, and so they feel resonant (if I do a good job articulating myself, that is). They become tinged with your character. This projection is natural! We do it whenever anyone shares something with us, even when we try not to. Our mental models are unique to us, and have been developing since infancy. We don’t know how to be purely objective, or at least, it is extremely unnatural to be.
Others will reflect on your thoughts from a place of their sense of self, while writing illuminates your thoughts, untainted by the refraction of anyone’s prism. That inner-research cannot be matched by dialogue. And while it might be jarring to look squarely at your mental reflection if you haven’t done so in a while, it’s the only way to steer your life intentionally. And if you’re shying away from examining your thoughts closely, why should anyone else?
But hey, I’m just some girl who likes words, and this could all be a really eloquent way to justify my stationery addiction. Then again, if I’m willing to write 2,000 words to convince myself I need another fountain pen, maybe I do deserve it. Note: the danger of writing so much is that you get good at doing mental gymnastics over yourself, so be wary of your own mental tricks—in my case: an insatiable desire for writing utensils.
As for whether you should write, my answer to almost anyone who asks me this is: yes. If you have the inclination, it likely means something inside you wants to come out, whether for yourself or to share with others. You don’t need to know exactly what it is. It bubbles up by putting pen to paper, or hands to keyboard enough times (at least this is how it works for me). That’s another beautiful part of writing: it surprises you. It’s like sitting down for a date with someone you really like—you don’t know where the conversation will go, but you’re pretty sure it’s going to be good. And writing, like everything else, gets easier with practice. The more you do it, the smoother those thoughts will come out. So, take yourself out, buy a notebook, open your notes app, do what you need to do. Look in your mental mirror, do a little twirl. I mean: you’re the only person you’re definitely stuck with for life, so you might as well get to know yourself, right?
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PS — If you enjoyed this, say hi on Twitter! You also might want to read a related piece I wrote called intellectual malleability.
"That’s another beautiful part of writing: it surprises you. It’s like sitting down for a date with someone you really like—you don’t know where the conversation will go, but you’re pretty sure it’s going to be good"
Damn that made me smile. I resonate with that so deeply.
Words cannot express how much I enjoyed reading this, thank you
As someone who really like to write in a professional context, I really believe that writing helps to see through your own bullshit.
I think you are into something, I think I am scared to see my own personal bullshit. How did you get started? Are you going through the jugular from the get go by trying to answer the most important question in your mind? Are you using random prompt? Reflecting on your day?
I am curious to understand your approach.