Narrative Timelines

Plunging into the Past

By Elizabeth Cutright

© 2012 The Daily Creative Writer


In addition to the morning pages – which I’ve talked about at length in previous posts – another writing tool suggested by Julia Cameron is the Narrative Timeline. The idea is to write out the story of your life, in five-year intervals, from birth to present. The task seems daunting, but the rewards are as valuable as they are unexpected. Not only will you get a sense of where you’ve been and where you’re headed; tying your past to a narrative thread can jolt your subconscious and unleash a tide of ideas.

I warn you – this exercise is not for the faint of heart. As you probably already suspect, the years you’ve left behind are a minefield, full of buried bombs that will be triggered by the slightest touch.  Some of those munitions are familiar to you – the year your parents’ divorced, that embarrassing incident at the school dance, the time your favorite pet was put to sleep – but there are others too…the ones that you’ve hidden well, forgotten but not disappeared. Those unexpected explosions might just emit a feeble spark, or they might bring down a whole wall, building, or fortress.

Forewarned is forearmed as far as I’m concerned. I don’t think you should ignore this treacherous landscape because treasures are scattered amidst the booby traps: snatches of plot, wild and intoxicating characters, dreams and visions you hardly knew existed but that have been shaping and shading your life view and personal philosophy for years…maybe even decades.

There are many ways to undertake this challenge, and my advice is to pick whatever is easiest for you. Choose a methodology that makes you feel safe and secure – you’re much more likely to be honest with yourself if you’re not on edge, always looking over your shoulder or anticipating sabotage.  It might make sense to write it all down freestyle in a notebook. Maybe you need to type it out on a computer, music blasting out you censors.  Maybe the ambient sound of a hustling coffee shop will make you feel buoyed, allowing you to float over the stormy waves of history. Try classical music and a mug of hot tea. Try pencil scratches on notecards, or Sharpies on recycled pieces of printer paper.  Throw it out once you’re done, or keep it close, revisiting and reshaping what you see.

There’s no right way or wrong way to accomplish this task. Just start. Move slowly. Take it one step at a time, one year at a time. Watch in amazement as the puzzle pieces of your life arrange themselves to reveal a narrative thread you never knew existed.

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