I use the word timeline, but a more accurate word might be place-line, because I find that the easiest way for most people to look at their lives from a 10,000-foot view is by listing all the places they’ve lived and then tagging specific events to each address. There’s the place where they were born, where they went to school, where their earliest family memories were formed, where they played with childhood friends. There’s their college address: the dorm they lived in, the roommates and other relationships that went with college years, the classes that stimulated them or formed the basis of their late careers. There’s the barracks where they did military service, their first apartment from which they walked to their first job. There might be a newlywed address, a first home, a second home. Maybe a retirement home.
There might be temporary addresses along the way as well: summer camp, study-abroad quarters, a hospital or rehab center; the home of friends who put them up when they didn’t have a place of their own to live. And then there’s the address from which we are writing the memoir. For some of my clients, it’s a much-loved homestead where the raised their families, but for others it’s a recently acquired retirement condo or a nursing home.
Of course, a house is much more than an address. It’s a tangible repository of memories. Often the literal structure of a house, an apartment, a dorm, even a room becomes the metaphorical structure for the memories of what happened there. One client described for me the bedroom in her family’s summer house in which she napped as a very young child….and then recounted the time she licked her hands to make handprint stains all over the wallpaper. Another client recalled the uninsulated attic bedroom in which he and his two brothers slept as boys: the brick wall was cool in the summer and warm from the chimney in the winter, so the prized spot in their shared double bed was the one closest to the wall.
More recent memories emanate from addresses as well: a client who had recently moved to a retirement community described her joy when the activities director showed her the studio in which she could spend her days painting.
When I used to teach personal narrative classes, one of our first exercises was always “Write about your childhood bedroom.” People who didn’t know how to begin writing about their lives would immediately unblock when faced with the fun task of describing their small beds, the pictures on the walls, the books and toys on the bookshelf.
Feeling stuck with your memoir? Try a placeline instead of a timeline: a list of all the places you’ve thought of as home. Then start listing the key events that took place at which address. You’re on your way.
Need more help starting your memoir? Contact me and let’s talk about it!