You know you want to write a personal history, memoir, or autobiography -- someday -- but it's so overwhelming. Where do you start?
What most people do is to start writing about their birth, and continue writing chronologically until they get burned out about halfway through kindergarten.
So what if I told you there is an easier way? Here's a simple tool you can start using any time, even if you're not going to start writing for quite a while. (It's also quite fun to do.)
Chronological Life Timeline
Your life timeline is simply a place to capture random story ideas and memories as they come to you, so you can store them for later use. Our brains don't think chronologically; ideas fly at us seemingly at random and at the most awkward moments. But having a chronological framework in which to house these random memories is extremely helpful when you are ready to sit down and write. This chronological timeline is even important even if you are not writing your stories in chronological order, or if you are writing about a limited scope of time, because it provides a big-picture overview as well as context.
Jump start your timeline in twenty minutes
- First, decide what format your timeline will take. It could be a chart provided specifically for the purpose, such as the lifeline that comes in our How to Save Your Life - One Chapter at a Time kit. Or it could be a notebook with a year at the top of each page. Or an Excel spreadsheet or an Evernote notebook on your smartphone. Stack of index cards, anyone? (Although I love my devices and often capture random story ideas in Evernote, I use a giant paper timeline chart and transfer my ideas from Evernote to the paper. There's something about paper and pencil that awakens a less restrictive part of my brain.) Choose whatever method makes sense to you.
- At the top of your chart (notebook, cards, whatever), divide your life into chunks of time and give each epoch a name. Your divisions could be by year, by decade, or by life transitions. (I divided mine into places I've lived. I have a very visual memory and a strong sense of place, and so my memories come to me in visual "snapshots." Therefore I can tell when the event took place by what surrounds me in the snapshot.)
- Here's the fun part. Get comfortable and put your timeline device in front of you. (It helps to put on music from your younger days...) Set a timer for twenty minutes and just start jotting down whatever comes into your head under the appropriate chronological marker. At this point you are not writing stories; you are jotting short phrases such as "chased by bullies" and "moved to Boulder." Just enough to remind you of the story later.
- When the timer goes off, you can choose to continue until the flow starts to slow, or you can call it quits and come back for another session later. Just keep your timeline handy, because once you have "primed the pump," memories will continue to pop up in the coming days and weeks and you want to capture them before they disappear again.
- Memory trigger questions can be very helpful in bringing things to mind. There are a plethora of such questions on the internet. You can read some thought-provoking ones in this post.
- Your own photos can be terrific memory triggers. So blow the dust off that high school yearbook and get cracking.
- Look at a historical timeline that parallels your life. What historical events do you remember, and how did they affect your life?
- Don't edit or evaluate yet. When it comes to mind, jot it down. You will decide later whether to include it in your writing or not.
- Don't worry about "finishing" your timeline. It's a work in progress. Even after you finish a story project, you can still add items that you might want to use for a future project.
- Have fun with it!