We’re complicated creatures, made up of many different minds – both figuratively and literally – as well different facets, quite a few of which we’re completely unaware of. This makes the quest to ‘know thyself’ as the ancient Greeks told us to do far harder than anybody ever imagined (and nobody ever thought it would be easy). That said, we have to try at least. Because when we don’t know ourselves, then how can we understand what motivates us and why we do the things we do? And how can we know what will make us happy?

One of the ways to delve into yourself is through writing. Now I’m not going to say it’s the best way. I simply don’t know. I haven’t tried all the ways to reach inner understanding. And to pretend I know something I do not know is to not be true to myself.

So I won’t do that.

But it is the best way I’ve found. Because though psychology, philosophy, inner reflection and meditation (to name but a few) all offer glimpses of who you are, none offer what writing offers, which is the opportunity to contain all of us. Because by definition we cannot provide a complete concept of ourselves within ourselves, for that would create an infinite regress, of minds within minds, homunculi within homunculi, all the way down. And that is impossible.

Writing as a formulation and exploration of the self

Writing allows us to escape that trap because as writing is external rather than internal, there is no paradox and therefore nothing that says that who we are cannot be contained within the pages of what we’ve written. And though obviously it is only a snapshot, in that it cannot rewrite itself as we can, it can be accurate for that moment and contain every aspect of who we are then, which means it can offer us a picture of our soul.

What is more, there is even space for evolution in our writing and understanding and by extension we can turn that picture into a video. All we have to do is to continue to write, scrubbing out what was with what is and replacing what is with what will be.

Furthermore, where other ways of self-exploration can only view one dimension of who we are – be it through our emotions, our beliefs, our learning, or the perceptions of others – writing allows us to combine those facets and create a multi-dimensional whole that more accurately reflects us.

In that way it offers a way to process the different ways we’ve come to understand ourselves.

That is not to say that writing on its own can give us insight. We still need all those other methods that I’ve mentioned, as they are the tools – like the hammer, the measuring tape and the pencil – that we can use for self-discovery and without that toolbox, we would be forever adrift. Instead, writing serves as the overarching discipline to bring all those forms of self-exploration together.

It is, to continue the metaphor, the carpenter of our soul.

How to use it

The way to use writing to explore yourself is quite straightforward. It is to write without restraint. Don’t allow yourself to censor your thoughts, or your ideas, or what is inside you. It does not matter what comes out, what is important is that it comes out. Only once you’ve written it can you look back to it and begin to edit – and then only to bring it more in line with the truth, not because you are ashamed of what it says.

Yes, I’m saying you can edit, as there is always space in writing to write more clearly, especially as the movements of the soul are sometimes hard to define and you might need several attempts at it to get it right.

Do note, that I’m not saying that your writing has to be about you. I constantly write about other topics, but it’s the very fact that I’m writing that makes it that, in some way, it’s about me anyway. After all, you can’t but help leave an imprint of your character upon the things you create.

Obviously, if you do find something of yourself in your words, that is very personal, and I’m not sure you should share it with others. At the same time, it absolutely worth keeping around, as this kind of writing isn’t just useful now, to help you understand who you are, it will be equally useful in the years to come to help you understand who you were.

This is far more vital than you realize, as your recollection isn’t quite as good as you may believe it to be, in part because we have this annoying habit to constantly change our memories. That means that these snapshots of your true self may be the only record left of who you really are in the years to come.

And in that way what you have written, what you write today and what you write down the line can offer you a transition from past to present and on wards to future times. And that, as I said, gives you that very movement that allows you to capture the full breadth of who you are.

Written by Kerry Creaswood