Hang on! This is not about astrology or New Age philosophy. I’m working on my personal timeline – again. I made a table timeline years ago, and refer to it often. This one is graphical. I took a tabloid-sized sheet of paper and drew a line across the center lengthwise, placing it in the center vertically. I divided the line into seven decades, since I’m working on my seventh one now. My plan is to add “light” memories, happy ones, above the line, and darker, painful ones below.
As I began jotting memories in, I realized it isn’t always clear which side to put them on. Some, like winning the Distinguished Thesis Award, were clearly on top. Others, like being emotionally ambushed by classmates in a grad school class (I’ve forgotten the subject, but not the event) are clearly way down in the dark field.
Few are that clear. The majority are basically happy, but nuanced. Becoming engaged, for example. I was a freshman in college in Texas at the time, and my fiancé was in Cambridge, Mass. Although I was sincerely in love, thrilled at the elevation in my status, and relieved to have “landed my man” so easily and early, it wasn’t that perfect and simple. I was a bit sad about spending weekend evenings alone in my room studying or writing letters while most of the other girls in the dorm were out on dates. I did feel a bit of regret when a fellow I’d enjoyed dating earlier in the year asked me out again and I had to convince him I really was engaged. I sometimes wondered if I really knew what I was doing.
If I take the simple example of getting engaged, having that question popped and saying “Yes!”, or flashing that glittering stone, the memory goes high above the midline. If I take the entire cluster of memories, they scatter, with a fair number dipping below.
The implication for life story or memoir writing is that writing about a single event, like getting that ring, will be short and sweet, and, well, trite. The story will be far more interesting if I include the full cluster of memories with reflections on my doubts and moments of angst. The shadows set off the highlights and amplify their meaning. Highlights give perspective to the dark times.
Looking down my timeline I notice that some periods shine forth brightly, lit with concentrated happiness and success. Conversely a few times, thankfully not too many, dense thunderclouds nearly obscured the sun.
Noting these cycles brought me to the metaphor of the moon and its phases. The moon is so predictable. On some clear nights, especially during the leafless season, it shines so brightly that color is dimly visible. (Cones, the eye receptors enabling us to see in very low light, are not sensitive to color.) Two weeks later the night will be inky, with varying degrees of moonlight between.
These cycles, these contrasts, are what make for compelling stories. Using the timeline is an effective way to find this contrast. Note memories for the period you’re writing about, and place them above or below the line. When you have the least hesitation, pull that memory out and break it down into components, placing each above or below the line. You may find that it expands into the far distant future, or reaches way back into your past.
Adding these details, these shadows, give depth to stories. They make it throb with life, placing it in the natural cycles of moon phases, seasons, breathing in and out, and our hearts’ squeezing and releasing to pump blood.
The shorter the story, the less opportunity for variation, but every story has room for a bit of depth. Longer ones, memoir length, may go through several cycles within the larger arc.
Write now: plot out a key memory from your past. Select a complex one, breaking it down into components and chart their locations above and below the neutral line. Then write the story.
Image credit: Wikipedia, creative commons license