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Start with a timeline

Anyone who talks with me for five minutes knows that I am all about taking the large lives we’ve lived and breaking them into smaller, more manageable pieces, hence the name of my book, Eating an Elephant: Write Your Life One Bite at a Time. But I also believe that we gain great insight and give our stories depth by placing our life events within the context of United States and world history.

So how do you do this? Start with your personal timeline.

Make a list of significant events in your life—births, deaths, marriages, divorces, moves, illnesses, trips, jobs, awards, education, successes, failures, anything you consider important.  Organize your list in roughly chronological order. It does not have to be perfect. Leave a good bit of space between your entries, so you can insert items as you remember them.  Mark each entry on your personal time with a date—month/day/year if you have it. If you don’t know the day, include only the month and year.

If you dedicate time to creating a good personal history timeline, you will return to it over and over again for story ideas, to verify information, to view the big picture that is your life. Trust me.

The first personal timeline I completed was a series of six or seven sheets of lined, notebook paper that I taped together. With a pencil—I knew I’d make too many mistakes for ink—I drew a horizontal line across the page and started pinpointing events and their corresponding dates. I began with the births of my great-grandparents and continued to the present day. I still refer to that timeline on a regular basis because all the information I need is in that one document. As I remember something else, I squeeze it into the timeline.

Once you have a high level view of your life, let’s insert it into the broader context of time. No, you don’t have to move into the library and read thousands of history books to obtain the information you need. You have many reliable friends on the internet who have already done that work for you. Let’s look at a few of them.

Here’s an example of the OurTimeLines I created based on my birth year that also shows my age at each of these historical markers. Into this timeline, I can insert information from my timeline, and it blends both the historical and the personal. You can also print this document when you’re finished. Isn’t that fun?

A personal/general history timeline is a valuable tool. It creates a point of reference, and the historical markers bring back so many useful memories. With one look at a listing like this, you can find ten stories to write.

So, have you ever created a timeline? If so, how did you do it? Did you find it helpful? How have you used it to help write your life stories? Tell us about it, and let’s start a conversation.


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