Step One In Creating Your Family History: Timeline

If you’ve seen the movie “Back To The Future,” you probably remember where Dr. Brown explains to Marty McFly how to time travel in the DeLorean-turned-time-machine by setting the clock to any point in history. Moments later, the car flashes out of sight leaving a trail of fire in its tracks.

For many, time travel has the appeal of seeing important moments in history, or even to relive an experience and alter future outcomes or consequences.

In the movie, we learn, however, that changing ANY event of the past has its pitfalls. One action causes a reaction, and either hilarity or disaster ensues. Think about it. Change just one thing, and the rest of your life could be completely different.

The great news is that you can travel back in time without the souped-up car, and relive your own memories without the hazard of disrupting them. By tapping into the power of your own stories, photos, and the conversations that bring it all back to the surface, you can relive the best of it all.

If you’re serious about telling your life or family stories, your personal timeline is an essential resource you’ll need. Think of it as the map to be able to plug a date in and arrive where you mean to.

The big stuff first: top-of-mind events and free flow

Step two is all about getting this timeline pieced together. Start by hammering out the major stuff, scribbling out a chronological list of key data and events:

  • When you were born

  • Where you’ve lived

  • Where you’ve received your education

  • Where you’ve worked

  • Who you’ve known and when

Take time to jot down these major events you recall most easily. Don’t sweat it if you can’t remember exact dates; more will come and help is on the way. And FYI, you don’t need to finish it all in one sitting.

Now go back and fill in more stuff—have fun and call on others to help you out 

Creating your timeline will be a great opportunity to reminisce and enjoy conversations with friends and family. When you reach the point where you think you can’t remember anymore, become a contestant on your own episode of the game, “Who Wants to be a Millionaire” and call your lifeline for help. Tell them why you’re doing this project, and that you’re creating your timeline and you’re stumped. Ask what they remember and when. These details can be added to your timeline. Keep at this for a day or two until you feel you’ve created a good overview of events.

Don’t underestimate the ease and power of linear 

You’re ready for the next step in crafting your life and family stories, but for fun (and perhaps more insight) consider some of these resources to help you turn that timeline into something digital with images and text. I’ve used Tiki-Toki and found it to be an easy-to-use interface for creating a dynamic timeline. There’s also another resource I stumbled onto called Knight Lab, affiliated with Northwestern University. You’ll probably see my efforts with this tool in future posts. 

Connecting dots: Enjoy the benefits of introspection

If you’re looking to write a personal or family history, then your timeline will be key. You’ll visit it often and add to it as you proceed. As you work on your timeline, you’ll probably notice the glimmers of reflection and memories surge up. Introspection from your bird’s-eye view can be exciting, humbling and even healing.

In Sara Uzer’s post 7 Ways Reflection and Introspection Will Give You a Happier Life, her first point about navigating negative patterns sums up the value of timeline so well. You can connect the dots of people, places, and work, not to mention your own choices, and see where patterns exist. It’s no small thing, and I elaborate on that here.

Create your timeline, enjoy the empowerment of looking your past squarely in the face; own it, learn from it, and sharpen your view a little of who you are and who you aspire to be—because, while your timeline is an important look back, you still have some life to live.