The Value of a Personal Timeline

Whether you plan to write random stories about your life, or write a chronological account, a timeline is one of the most useful tools you can create for yourself. Timelines are suggested in most of the basic books about writing memoir and lifestories. I’m personally more inclined to jump in and start working on a project first, and read the instructions when all else fails, or when I get bored and need fresh ideas. But in this case I followed the advice.

I began by making a table with one row per year. The table has only two columns, a narrow one to the left, identifying the year, and a much wider one on the right. In the right column I listed key events that happened during that year. I used a hanging indent paragraph style, because some events required more than one line of space, but you could also use a bullet list, or simply double-space between items.

Filling it in was easy at first as I put things like school grade, births of my siblings, children and grandchildren, marriages, deaths, moves to new houses, etc. Then memory fuzzed. What year did we go to Yellowstone? When did we do the backpacking trip in the Wallowas? Which year did I go to Japan? When was that awesome US Steel contract? Fortunately I’m enough of a packrat that I still had old calendars and documents I could use to nail these things to specific dates.

The other technique I used was to link memories to other crucial information that bore a mental time stamp. For example, we made a family road trip from Washington state down to California to visit my sister one summer. Which summer? Ah, yes. Our oldest son was learning to drive that summer and got a little highway experience, and also I was . . . so it had to be . . . .

Below you’ll find excerpts from a typical (fictitious) timeline constructed in this fashion (not in table form here, but this may be easier for you):

Jan — Moved to Kansas. Mrs. Schmitt my new teacher
Apr — Gram and Gramp came for Easter. Parasol for Easter Basket. Spilled beans.
Jul — Back to Iowa to visit. Old friends changing!
Sep — Begin third grade. Mrs. Young. Art Sojka enters my life.

Jun — Graduate from high school.
Aug — Begin freshman year at Arizona State, the PARTY school.

Jun — Graduate from ASU, begin job with Mountain States
Sep 13 — Marry Jack Jones

I’ve already mentioned reading the book White Gloves: How We Create Ourselves Through Memory, by John Kotre. As I read this book, I learned that it was natural to have so much trouble identifying dates. The human mind is not programmed to think in linear, chronological terms. We only link dates to vivid key memories that have significant meaning in our lives. Other memories follow thematic links, such as our son’s student driver status on the California trip, or my brother’s wedding to time stamp a move my parents made.

Now that I have my timeline in place, I update it. Now I don’t have to dig for calendars to date those old events — I just open my timeline. It’s amazingly handy for settling family arguments!
I’ve also used timelines in tracking family history, for example to follow the migrations of my Scottish coal miner ancestors who left Paisley, Scotland to immigrate to Braidwood, Illinois, down to New Mexico, up to Seattle and the Yukon, and so forth. The timeline provided a way of sorting miscellaneous birth and other dates and putting them in meaningful order. I made another one for a great-grandmother in another corner of the family.
What will I do with my timeline now that it’s in order and current? Most of my personal lifestory writing is in the form of miscellaneous vignettes. If I ever publish collections of these stories, I’ll put the timeline in the volume so readers can place the stories in the overall context of my life. If I finish a chronological overview of my life, which I plan to do “someday,” the timeline will be my outline. If I never do any of the above, my kids can use it to settle family arguments, building on the family information about their own early years to develop their own. They can also use it to put my scrap pile of stories in context for themselves.

Just remember, any lifestory I write, even if it’s never formally published, is going to be valuable to some descendants someday!


ShirleyHS said...

Sharon, thank you for this practical method of helping our brains to fill in the many gaps we have in memory. Even if you never write a memoir, you have the backbone of one in your timeline. And the beauty of spreadsheets and Google docs is that they are easy to access and update all through your life. Very helpful, as always.

Joyce said...

This is a fantastic idea, Sharon. I have also started something similar in recent years, while working on my genealogy which has great holes in it (because no one recorded much back then).

Mine started with memoir in mind, but you are so right in saying that it will also be useful for those family historians who come behind us. Thanks for sharing this idea. ~Joyce

Sharon Lippincott said...

You are so welcome Shirley. I made a complex timeline for my maternal g-grandmother and her parents. It's really complex, with highlighting and all sorts of stuff. Most useful for getting an overview of that entire branch of the family. Perhaps I'll post a screen shot of some of that one of these days.

Sharon Lippincott said...

Joyce, if you aren't already on the computer, or don't have yours neatly organized, the template can still be useful. I neglected to show this in the post, but I use bullet points within some of my years on my personal timeline. Fix it up any way that works for you.