An image of Eddy Hood for his essay titled, "I Write, Therefore I Am."

I Write, Therefore I Am

The French philosopher René Descartes wrote, “I think, therefore I am,” which translated in Latin is Cogito, ergo sum (28). Actually, he wrote “I am thinking, therefore I exist,” but the former is more catchy. He coined the term to create a foundation for his philosophy of reason. Descartes questioned everything from the existence of trees to the reality of himself. While he could feasibly doubt the foundation of all concepts, there was one thing he could not doubt – the fact that he was doubting. To Descartes, you must exist if you can doubt.

I’d like to modify Descartes’s famous line as the jumping off point for proving our existence. Let’s travel the distance between Cogito (I think) to the practice of Scribo (I write). The new translation would read, “I write, therefore I am.”

While I understand Descartes’s argument, I must ask the question, “Do we really exist if we haven’t questioned our beliefs?” If the thoughts in my head have been put there by my parents, church, and political affiliation, then perhaps I don’t exist – I’m simply a reflection of other beings.

If we’re to come into existence, we must examine our faith, question our state of mind, and put ourselves to the test. We must wade through the mental baggage placed upon us. Conscious thought alone is not able to do this. Our perceptions, memories, and perspectives change over time. We need a way to get these ideas out of our heads, look at them from all angles, and jab them with critical pokers. We need to write them down.

In this essay, I argue that confronting our beliefs on paper is necessary if we’re to think for ourselves, and thereby exist as unique entities.

How to Clarify Your THoughts

I’m struggling to write this essay, not because I’m bored with it, but because writing is hard. I’ve developed the concept for weeks, feeling confident in my plan, but now that I have to write, it feels like a mental root canal. When thoughts stay lodged in my brain, they’re private – it doesn’t matter if they’re weak or biased. The process of putting them on a computer screen makes them useful and concrete.

“Writing as an active and creative process is enabled by tools such as pen and paper or word processors. The written vehicles are then available for further manipulations such as restructuring, revising and re-drafting. Manipulating written vehicles is a kind of problem solving where a particular goal is aimed at: ‘how do I make this piece of writing clearer?'” (Menary 9).

Menary suggests that good writing leads to a goal: clarifying our thoughts. Putting our ideas on paper makes them open to objection, a terrifying but necessary step in thinking for ourselves.

American philosopher, Henry David Thoreau, pleaded with us in Walden to be a Columbus of our thoughts (284). He knew that every person must explore themselves, to get on the ship of our minds and go where the water takes us. The problem is that very few people scrutinize themselves. Descartes knew the value of this mental voyage, and believed that most of us will never set sail.

“For me to know what their opinions really were, I had to take note of what they did rather than what they said, not only because in the present corrupt state of our morals few people are willing to declare everything they believe, but also because some do not even know what they believe” (Descartes 21).

Show Your Work

Descartes published his work, despite abhorring the public eye, because he knew that letting other people see his papers would force him to be more rigorous in his thinking and output (54). We should embrace this scrutiny.

Another benefit to sharing our written ideas in public is that we’ll likely learn something along the way. As readers comment on our work, we may discover a new viewpoint we hadn’t considered. While we may have made a mistake in our original arguments, we have not failed as long as we research the suggestions with an open mind.

Austin Kleon’s best selling book Show Your Work tells us that the amateur must not be afraid of making mistakes or looking ridiculous in public. That we’re often doing work that others think is silly or just plain stupid and that’s a good thing(15).

I’m not suggesting that we must share our written ideas with others, just that the process of doing so will drive us to make them as clear as possible. Either way, writing them down will be a benefit. If getting our ideas out of our heads is valuable, sharing the written version is terrifyingly beneficial. Whatever we choose, the goal is to not live inside the unreliable mind.

Until we can prove that our thoughts are our own, we do not exist in this world. We are a mere copy of someone else. As Thoreau is famous for saying, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation” (7). I believe that’s because the mass of men are living by another person’s beliefs.

Now that I’ve shown the value of writing our ideas down, let’s examine why it’s hard to do.

The Horror and Reward of Writing

To question our beliefs feels like an attack on everything we love. In his essay, Self-Reliance, Ralph Waldo Emerson argued that we were being deceived by family and friends, and that we must cut ourselves free from their conversations. Yes, we will still love and nourish those important relationships, but we will not let them define who we are (154).

William Zinsser, Yale Professor and author of On Writing Well, stated that writing is hard, that what we intend to say never comes out right the first or even the third time (9).

This essay is proof of that. I’ve struggled with it, lost sleep over it, and rewritten it several times in order to get my ideas straight. Zinsser assets that when we write, our number one job is to ask, “What am I trying to say?” Most of the time, we won’t know what our point is, and once we’ve written the thing down, we’ll have to ask, “Have I said it?” Zinsser teaches that we’re full of fuzz, and that writing well is the process of removing that fuzz to become clearheaded (9).

The Process is Important

It’s the process of writing that is so important. To be honest, it’s hell. The quote, “I hate writing. I love having written,” comes to mind. While this is often attributed to author Dorthy Parker, its origin is up for debate. Either way, the sentiment is useful for this essay.

The process of clarifying our thoughts is painful. It takes time, emotional energy, and self-reflection. But once our ideas are on paper, we’ll be glad that they’re there. We’ll have made a declaration to the universe that we believe in something.

Kleon reminds us that the process of creation is valuable. He uses the metaphor of a painter, but the idea works well for critical thinkers as well.

“When a painter talks about her ‘work,’ she could be talking about two different things: There’s the artwork, the finished piece, framed and hung on a gallery wall, and there’s the art work, all the day-to-day stuff that goes on behind the scenes in her studio: looking for inspiration, getting an idea, applying oil to a canvas, etc. There’s ‘painting,’ the noun, and there’s ‘painting,’ the verb. As in all kinds of work, there is a distinction between the painter’s process, and the products of her process” (33).

It’s through the stages of writing, that our ideas are born. We begin with a rough draft and then beat them into submission through several rounds of revision and editing before they’re ready to share. Ernest Hemingway said, “The first draft of anything is shit.” I would agree, since most of our mental ideas are undeveloped.

Zinsser argues that rewriting is the essence of writing well: it’s where the game is won or lost (83). To rewrite is to analyze each paragraph, offer relevant sources, consider opposing claims, and ensure that we’re being logical – not emotional. That’s hard to do because we have emotional attachments to our ideas.

The secret to thinking for ourselves is to realize that our first drafts of thought will be ugly, messy, and require many drafts to get right. That’s a good thing. Let’s get them on paper and revel in their chaotic atrocity.

A System for Writing Ideas

Once we’ve committed to writing our ideas down, we need a system for avoiding confirmation bias. How can we know something is true, or even that it’s our own idea, if we’re attached to it? Emotions distort reality, and they encourage us to believe things on faith alone – a prospect that has led people to willingly follow heinous people like David Koresh or Adolf Hitler.

Descartes understood that he he could, and should, doubt everything presented to him. He knew that ideas weren’t factual just because they were popular. He despised the trends of his day which included alchemy, occultism, and magic. In the face of ungrounded thought, he wanted answers that would provide a real foundation for his thinking.

Here are the four ideas for analyzing knowledge that Descartes presents in a Discourse on the Method (17). Note how writing our ideas down forces us to go through many of these steps naturally:

(1) “Never accept anything as true that I did not incontrovertibly know to be so; that is to say, carefully to avoid both prejudice and premature conclusions.”

(2) “Divide all difficult ideas into as many parts as possible.”

(3) “Conduct my thoughts in a given order, beginning with the simplest and most easily understood objects, and gradually ascending to the knowledge of the most complex.”

(4) “Undertake great surveys on the topic to make sure I leave nothing out.”

By writing our ideas down, we’re encouraged to question our prejudices and premature conclusions. Do we really think and believe what we’re writing enough to stake our reputations on it? Could we publish that idea with confidence? We’ll have to break the concept into its parts, and we’ll have to present them from simplest to most complex. Finally, if we’re honest writers, we’ll have to make a survey of counter arguments to make sure we’ve written an educated piece before publishing it.

These four steps define the ideal writing experience, one in which we set aside our egos and consider all credible sources. Unfortunately, some aren’t willing to do this, and in those cases, writing an idea down can cause harm. Unsupported claims are easy to write, and credible organizations (such as the news or government publications) can even accept and spread that misinformation. For example, on August 20, 2022, a TikTok video was posted stating that Disneyland lowered the drinking age to 18. The video got millions of views at which point ABC10 News further spreading the misinformation (Brown).

Let’s look at four pitfalls to avoid if we’re going to write down our beliefs in a useful and credible way.

When Writing is a Problem

The first problem with writing is confirmation bias. We like to be correct. “People don’t like to admit they’re wrong. It’s a defense mechanism. It’s threatening to acknowledge that we believed something that is actually false. So we resolve that problem by clinging to our beliefs and ignoring the facts. We go out of our way to avoid facts that might put us in that uncomfortable situation” (Hall 123).

The second issue is ego. We want people to applaud our written efforts, so we put on airs, try to sound intelligent, and make the writing process a theatrical performance. We leave ourselves behind and put on a persona filled with jargon, one that we believe is more likable and credible.

“Never say anything in writing that you wouldn’t comfortably say in conversation. If you’re not a person who says “indeed” or “moreover,” or who calls someone an individual (“he’s a fine individual”), please don’t write it” (Zinsser 19).

Finally, writing can actually make the problem worse if we let emotions get in the way of critical thinking. If we question our religious upbringing (something I’ve had to do recently), it’s hard not to worry about the judgement of our parents and community. If we let these emotions take control, we may, inadvertently, add a layer of “blindness” that only reinforces incorrect conclusions.


Let’s assume that we decide to write down and question our beliefs and thoughts. Where will that lead us in one year’s time? Chances are, we’ll make some changes to the way we live. We may find that we’ve separated ourselves from the herd that Sigmund Freud found so fascinating. “To stand on our own is a terrifying thing. Opposition to the herd is as good as separation from it” (Freud 45).

We don’t like the idea of being separated from our social norms. They feel comfortable and safe, but again, do we really exist if we blindly follow their edicts?

Learning to think for ourselves can be painful, much like the prisoner in Plato’s cave analogy, who after years of being chained up in a dark cave, found a way to escape and stand in the light, taking all of the world in for himself. When he returned to the cave to tell his friends and family about the beauty he found, he was shunned because they didn’t understand (240).

I want to escape from the cave, even if it means being shunned. I want to know that my thoughts are my own. If you feel the same, there’s a simple prescription to begin questioning yourself.

Start by looking at something you’ve believed your whole life. Perhaps it’s the existence of God, the infallibility of your political party, or how you discipline your children. Now ask yourself how you came to those beliefs. Be honest, be exposed, be critical – because what you believe is the definition of you.

Once you’ve identified a core belief, be courageous and put it on paper. You don’t have to share it with the world, but you should share it with your conscious self. You deserve to cut the cords and push back on ideas that oppress you. Pull each belief apart until you can see it for what it really is. Only then can you choose to accept it.

Works Cited:

Brown, Elizabeth. LibGuides: Misinformation & Fake News: Case Studies & Examples. Accessed 10 Apr. 2024.

Conner, James E. “Cutting Edge: Writing the Natural Way: Finding Your Own Voice.” Journal of Developmental Education, vol. 13, no. 3, 1990, pp. 28–29.

Descartes, René, and Ian Maclean. A Discourse on the Method of Correctly Conducting One’s Reason and Seeking Truth in the Sciences. Oxford University Press, 2008.

Elbow, Peter. “Voice in Writing Again: Embracing Contraries.” College English, vol. 70, no. 2, 2007, pp. 168–88.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo, et al. The Portable Emerson. Rev. ed, Penguin, 1981.

Freud, Sigmund. Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego. Logos Books, 2018.

Hall, Trish. Writing to Persuade: How to Bring People over to Your Side. First edition, Liveright Publishing Corporation, a division of W.W. Norton & Company, 2019.

Kleon, Austin. Show Your Work! 10 Ways to Share Your Creativity and Get Discovered. Workman Publishing Company, 2014.

Menary, Richard. “Writing as Thinking.” Language Sciences, vol. 29, no. 5, Sept. 2007, pp. 621–32. (Crossref),

Plato, and Rachana Kamtekar. The Republic. Translated by H. D. P. Lee, Second edition, Penguin Books, 2007.

Thoreau, Henry David. Walden, or, Life in the Woods ; and Civil Disobedience. First Vintage Classics edition, Vintage Books, a division of Random House LLC, 2014.

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