The Tree of Me

Tree-of-MeOn a whim inspired by matroyshka dolls and Growing Old: A Journey of Self-Discovery by Danielle Quinodoz, I decided to make a sketch of my “layers.” I found a tabloid-sized sheet of blank newsprint, picked up a pencil, and within about five minutes this graphic emerged showing my life from beginning to now. For the purposes of sharing and further embellishing, I redrew it with color for the boundaries. It’s still rough, as you can see by the orange blotch in the core that didn’t work out quite as hoped. But that’s okay. This is a source of inspiration and insight, not destined for the living room wall.

I was surprised as could be to see it. I’ve thought for ages about a chronological map of stages of my life. I like this one ever so much better. It’s organic and representative. As Quinodoz points out, I hold all those previous layers within me, but redefine them and cover them with new growth as I go.

When I began, I had no sense of direction. I thought I might be making a graph of roles I play. This emerged on its own. I will still work with the role idea later, as creativity further instructs.

I especially value this form, because within the layers I have space to write thoughts about that era. Here I’ve included rudimentary memories of threads of activity and my emotions and state of mind at the time. The layer boundaries are especially bold and jagged for times of great turmoil and upheaval. My world shifted on its axis at these points. The colors aren’t significant. Note that the boundaries are uneven – like the rings in an actual tree. They serve to organize memory clusters to clarify my sense of them and provide inspiration when I write.

Perhaps I’ll develop this further, but for now it’s a super-rich source of writing prompts, and it basically comprises a life-long memoir-at-a-glance, at least for me. Those cryptic notes won’t mean a lot to anyone else. 

It does show chronology, because the rings expand year-by-year. I didn’t put dates on the ring boundaries, but I could. I could do a lot of things. So can you, if you give this a try. I suggest using even larger paper so you have more room to take your time and make more notes.  I predict that you’ll be pleasantly surprised at the patterns and insights.

Write now: Find a huge sheet of paper or piece of posterboard and make your own cross-section. You  might sketch it roughly in pencil first, then move to the full-size sheet. Add detail and make it rich. Then write about each layer.


towriteistowrite said...

Thanks for sharing this activity. Exercises like this can help us see so many things that working with just words wouldn't bring to the surface.

Linda Myers said...

I love the idea of a tree, but instead of the tall tree image and linear height, the rings of growth over time, a circular image. Great idea! In therapy we call it "Peeling the onion" to get to all the layers. And in memoir writing, we are always peeling back layers, so this is terrific! you are so creative!

Sharon Lippincott said...

If you're like me, you read about cool exercises, intend to try them, then forget about it. This one is worth the time! Besides, it's really FUN!

Sharon Lippincott said...

Yes, I've thought of the vertical tree, much like genealogy, but also other views. Truly, necessity is the mother of invention. I would not have thought of this if I hadn't needed an exercise to make this point with a group I'm working with. I must thank the muses -- or something.

SuziCate said...

I've often read articles that suggest doing this and yet I've never done this. I don't know why I haven't. It is really something I should have done before I started my story project. Now that the well has run dry, maybe I should try it...who knows, I might possibly find some new inspiration!

Sharon Lippincott said...

It's never too late. Interesting that you've read articles suggesting doing this. I haven't seen this particular angle, but it's so obvious I'd be surprised if I were the first to stumble upon it.

It takes far less time that I'd imagined. Finding a big sheet of paper is a bigger challenge than time. I suggest four sheets of letter-size taped together. That would give enough room to really get into it.

Sharon Lippincott said...

P.S. to Linda Joy,
This doesn't seem the same as peeling an onion. All the layers of an onion are formed "at birth" -- they just get bigger over time, at least as I understand it. Even tiny pearl onions and onion sets have a complete set of rings. Trees add rings year by year, and the rings of a tree reflect growing conditions during the year.

kathleen said...

This seems like a very useful exercise in identifying the layers and "growth rings" in our own lives. I have used Linda Joy's "turning points" and Jerry Waxler's "places I've lived" to sketch out my story so I think your tree exercise may be next. There are so many layers of details imbedded in my memory. Having tools like this help extract them. I think seeing a picture of the tree rings can help visualize patterns of growth and change. Besides, I love trees! Thanks for sharing.

Janet Beckwith Macy said...

I love this concept. I remember my grandfather showing me the rings of the tree stump. "here is where it was drought conditions so the tree didn't grow as it should"; "see here where the tree grew more than usual"; etc; etc.

It's the same with our experiences and our lives. How creative.

Thank you for this.

Sharon Lippincott said...

Each of the techniques has value. I'm working on a few more. Sometimes "pictures" like this help us step back and see the bigger picture, showing us how to position, focus and tie in our smaller stories.

Sharon Lippincott said...

Janet, how fascinating that your grandfather could connect history so specifically with those tree rings! What a terrific lesson, and now it has extra value. Thanks for taking time to comment!

Nanakoosa said...

I Love this!!!! As a both counselor and as a client in varying stages of life, I've found creative exercises like this to be the most evocative way to dig deep within ourselves and discover the gems we hold inside. As is often true, these therapeutic projects are also excellent tools for writing and storytelling.
Thank You for sharing this,

Sharon Lippincott said...

Nana, thanks for the affirmations. One of my greatest thrills is finding a bit of magic that appeals to so many others.

Anonymous said...

Great idea there! Comparing ones life to the trunk of a tree.

If the comparison holds water, there were good years when the rings are far apart, but the wood grew soft. When rings were close, the years were tough, and so was the wood.

Makes me think of an old Taylor Caldwell book "On growing up tough".