Using narrative timelines to find the pain points from your past can inform, and elevate your writing and heal your soul.
“I was much too far out all my life – And not waving but drowning.” Steve Smith
Telling stories transforms fear. By taking something shocking and foreign and turning it into a coherent narrative, we can gain a better understanding of what happened and how it relates to our overall life-trajectory. If we feel broken, wounded or lost, turning that experience into a story by creating a narrative timeline of our lives allows us to reclaim our sense of self by “making the unspeakable speakable.
A Framework for the Past
“Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” ― Søren Kierkegaard
We use stories to understand our circumstances and the world around us. Humans are programmed to organize their experiences, and for many of us, putting our past into a framework creates the central plotline of our lives. In fact, one of the most powerful ways to heal from trauma is to place the event within a narrative format. Telling the story of what happened – as scary and uncomfortable as that may be – triggers the healing process as you reconstruct the event or circumstance into something understandable.
When we experience a traumatic event, we can lose the thread that keeps us stitched together and helps define who we are. An unexpected event – whether it’s a natural disaster, a crime, an accident, the death of a loved one, or heartbreak – triggers disassociation and chaos. We become unmoored as we lose our attachment to the world. We feel disconnected from those around us as we struggle to catch our breath and make sense of what has happened.
“To construct a story of our lives is to make meaning of it,” writes psychotherapist May Benetar. “To compose memory, emotion and internal experience as well as autobiographical facts into a story helps us become who we are.”
Finding a Way Out ― The Narrative Timeline
“If you’re going through hell, keep going.”― Winston Churchill
So how do you begin to reframe your past as a story? You start with a Narrative Timeline. Write out the epoch of your life, in five-year intervals, from birth to present. You can use any methodology you choose ― year-by-year, location, era ― just organize the main events in a way that resembles a plot with a beginning, middle and end.
You can take a “just the facts ma’am” approach, but I encourage you to go a little bit deeper by setting the scene and identifying key characters. Describe your childhood bedroom and think back to why those posters on the wall meant so much and how you and your best friend used to while away those summer days. Allow yourself to smile at naive assumptions, embarrassing mistakes, and deranged outfits ― they are all a part of who you were and who you have become.
I know you will anticipate the worst moments of your life with gritted teeth and a racing heart ― fearing the emotions that will be dredged up. It’s not always pleasant to step into the past, so treat yourself kindly and gently. Only take on what you can. There will be many opportunities to revisit your narrative timeline in the future, and with age will come new perspectives, new coping mechanisms, and new opportunities to heal and grow.
The task seems overwhelming, but trust me – the reward is worth it. 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. As I wrote previously when first discussing narrative timelines, “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.”
The Healing Power of Your Narrative
“Every secret of a writer’s soul, every experience of his life, every quality of his mind, is written large in his works.” — Virginia Woolf
Growing up, my mother used to advise me that “we all have our tragedies.” The meaning behind her words was twofold: First everyone you meet has suffered, so have compassion, and second, everyone has suffered, so you are not special. I’d like to add a third option: everyone has suffered, so you are not alone.
Telling your story creates a powerful connection with your audience. As writers, we are lucky to have an enormous toolbox at our disposal. We can use fiction, poetry, screenplays – even taglines – to transform our personal tragedies into something grander and more meaningful than our individual experience.
” I want you to remember the power that comes from your own personal life story,” writes Dr. Deborah Serani,” “It not only describes you, it defines and shapes you. As you explore your narrative, embrace what the struggles have taught you and celebrate what your strengths have given you.”
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