When writing a story, the timeline is central. Stories consist of a beginning, a middle, and an end. Lisa Bickmore gives insight into the importance of this storytelling element, "When we, as readers, sit down to read a story, we expect certain things. One is a timeline that we can follow. Some stories use complex timelines, flashing ahead or flashing back. Some stories keep the timeline simple, starting with the earliest event, and moving ahead deliberately to the end, or final event. But no matter how the writer manages the timeline, in a story, a reader expects to be anchored explicitly in time, and to be able to orient him or herself in time…" Storytelling requires the writer to organize events along a timeline: what comes first, what follows, how does this event relate in time to that event; but what if the writer is also trying to anchor themselves in time and orient themselves in relation to the events of their story.
Many people know their personal timeline, the consistent narrative that flows within them. For survivors of sexual trauma, our timelines have been disrupted by cataclysmic events. These devastating ruptures can throw our timelines into chaos. Large chunks of time could be completely missing. It may feel as though your timeline begins at some other time other than the actual beginning. Some memories might float around aimlessly, not knowing where they fit. Other memories may be fuzzy and incomplete. Other past events can have such vivid intensity and detail they assert themselves unexpectedly in present. As a result, the whole timeline can feel unsteady. Bessel van der Kolk, inThe Body Keeps The Score, describes it this way, "Flashbacks and reliving are in some ways worse than the trauma itself. A traumatic event has a beginning and an end - at some point it is over. But for people with PTSD a flashback can occur at any time, whether they are awake or asleep. There is no way of knowing when it's going to occur again or how long it will last. People who suffer from flashbacks often organize their lives around trying to protect against them." He adds, "Constantly fighting unseen dangers is exhausting and leaves them fatigued, depressed, and weary."
Crafting a timeline is not about remembering everything, instead it is meant to help you organize your thoughts and regain control of you story. Gently investigating the memories you have allows you to orient yourself to their time and place. Timeline allows YOU to construct the narrative, grounding yourself in the events of your life and how they unfolded and laying a foundation for a strong sense of self.
Bickmore, L. (2016, August 1). The Narrative Effect: Story as the Forward Frame. Retrieved November 20, 2019, from https://bit.ly/2OtFo2t.
van der Kolk, B. A. (2015). The body keeps the score: brain, mind and body in the healing of trauma. New York: Penguin Books.
MAKING MEANING OF YOUR TIMELINE
For the timeline exercise of this workshop, you will be drawing a timeline of a story and writing about why this timeline has meaning. The timeline can represent one event or many events. The timeline will visually reflect your ups and downs, your steps forward and backward, the detours, the important people, colors, your victories, and more. When you have completed your visual timeline, you will spend time reflecting on and writing about what the timeline means to you. Remember you don't have to be an artist for this exercise to be meaningful. You just need to be you.
Below you will find videos that demonstrate this process step by step. You will need a blank piece of paper, a pencil, and the drawing supplies you prefer: markers, crayons, colored pencils, etc.
This exercise was adapted from "Circle of the 9 Muses: A Storytelling Field Guide for Innovators and Meaning Makers" by David Hutchens.
STEP 1: DRAW A LINE
Your blank piece of paper is the canvas for your story. Because you are in control of this story, you get to choose where the story begins and ends. Reflect on the story you want to tell, but try not to plan what you will draw. Let your intuition guide you and let the drawing reflect what you feel. The line could have ups and downs, have squiggles, have chunks missing, etc. The drawing doesn't need to be perfect to be real.
STEP 2: ADD PICTURES
Look over the line you have created. Although the line may be simple, this timeline is full of emotion and history. We are going to continue to add meaning to your timeline by adding drawings. Imagine someone you trust. Imagine they ask you what happened at different points along the line. "Why was this a low point?" or "Why was this a high point" or "Why is the line all squiggly here?" Add icons along the line to show more deeply what is happening in your story. You may refer to the "Icon Cheat Sheet" pictured here.
"Icon Cheat Sheet For Left Brainers" from the Circle of the 9 Muses: A Storytelling Field Guide for Innovators and Meaning Makers by David Hutchens
STEP 3: ADD LABELS
In this step, you will add a few words to deepen the meaning of what is happening on your timeline. What words come to mind as you look over your timeline? The words could be the names of events or feelings, or whatever words seem relevant to this experience.
STEP 4: STORY TITLE
The last step of this exercise is to give your timeline a title. What is the name of this story?
STEP 5: MEANING MAKING
Look over your timeline with the added labels and pictures and take in what you have created. Now beneath the visual representation of your story or on a separate piece of paper write a few short paragraphs about what this timeline means to you. Why did you choose this story? How has it impacted your life? How do you see yourself inside this story?