When you’re first learning how to write for magazines and websites, you follow a certain format to get started (if you’re like me, and learn things the slow and hard way, you don’t discover this format until years after you’re already working as a writer). Essentially, you ask yourself these questions:
o What happened?
o How did I handle it?
o What did I learn?
It took me years of writing essays to realize something that should have been obvious to me from the beginning: these were also the perfect questions for me to ask myself when dealing with my biggest issues.
See, I’m a firm believer in the idea that while we think we know exactly how we feel about something or someone, we are sure to make entirely new discoveries about it if we take proverbial pen to proverbial paper. I’m not talking keyboard either, people; I mean that thing people used to do where they put a writing instrument in their hand and then slide that over a piece of paper in order to form words.
I’ve been a journal-er since I could first write. I got my first diary when I was 10 and I wrote in it every day—about being mad at my mom or my P.E. teacher (yes, that was a real entry I remember) or boys I liked and my friends and all the normal stuff kids write about. (I also graded my days, which wasn’t as normal; for the record, any day that involved going to McDonald’s got an automatic A+.)
Essentially, I got accustomed to sussing out my feelings through writing and so, when I entered 12-step circles and was told to write an inventory of resentments, I was thrilled; as someone who’d excelled at gathering resentments, I felt like I’d been waiting my whole life for someone to ask me to make a list of all the people who’d wronged me. Now there was some poor sucker who was going to have to listen to me read it. Hallelujah!
Of course, as anyone who knows anything about a fourth step can attest, the whole point is that you write down the person you resent and how they (allegedly) wronged you and then you set to work looking at your part in it. My first fourth step was a revelation (actually every one I’ve done since has also been one; as I said, I learn the slow and hard way). I had about 200 resentments on my first fourth step and when I was finished writing, I discovered that except for in one case (my grandfather, who was a mean dude), I had played a massive part in the resentment—either by having overly high expectations, making up a story in my head about what someone thought about me and then reacting to this imaginary situation, taking something which was not personal personally or by acting outright rude because of being (unnecessarily) offended by someone. And even in the case of my grandfather, I played a part: I was holding onto a resentment toward a guy who’d been dead over a decade. My point is this: a fourth step really is just like asking yourself what happened, how you handled it and what you learned. It’s a way to confront yourself without inspiring the defensiveness that might exist if another person was confronting you.
So the next time you’re upset, I say it’s time to ask yourself those three questions and write out the answers. You may be amazed at what you find.
And who knows, it may even be publish-able.