“Where do I start?”
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That’s the first question I hear from people when they’ve decided to record their life story. And it’s no wonder, considering that the raw material for a life story book consists of a lifetime of memories—all those people and places and experiences we want to share with our family and friends. How do we wrastle it all onto the paper?
Just because something happened doesn’t mean we should write about it.
This may seem like a contradiction to what we talked about in the last episode. That's when we talked about gathering all the random fragments of memory. But not all of those will lead to a story, or be developed into a story in their own right.
Instead, think of your memories as a smorgasbord, a buffet of tasty dishes. You don’t expect to eat everything. Instead, you pick and choose.
“But that still doesn’t answer my question. Where do I start?”
Right. Sorry. I was distracted by the word “buffet.” It made me think of my high school father-daughter dance, going through the buffet line with my friends Lori and Tina and their dads. The strange sight of grown men dancing to Joan Jett’s “I Love Rock n’ Roll.” The weird vending machine in the bathroom that shot out a cloud of perfume for 75 cents. We angled ourselves to get maximum coverage, then spent the rest of the evening trying to wash it off. This was St. Louis, 1982.
If I were writing my life story, maybe that mini-anecdote would make it onto the page, maybe not. But I shared it with you as an example of how “Where do I start?” isn’t the question we should be asking. If you’re thinking about writing your life story, I promise, you’ve already started the pleasurable part—recalling your memories. You’ve likely thought of experiences or events you want to include, important people, places, traditions, reflections. Maybe you’ve even jotted down some of them. But even if you haven’t picked up a pen or a laptop yet, the real question isn’t “Where do I start?” but “What do I do next?”
Gather and Sort
There’s this cool thing in classical rhetoric called inventio, and it’s all about finding what you want to include in a piece of writing (or, that speech you’re giving over at the Forum).
We life story writers have it much easier; all our material is right there in our head. Still, we can learn something from Aristotle and his gang.
One of the tools they used during the inventio phase was the topoi. Otherwise known as commonplaces, topoi are the questions rhetors asked themselves to expand their thinking about something and prompt new insights. Topoi, which translates roughly to “places,” is a metaphor. Picture an empty cargo ship traveling along the coastline, stopping at ports to take on cargo. The ports are the topoi; the cargo is the stuff the rhetor gathers to use in a speech or essay.
It’s a helpful concept for life story writing, one that we can employ both metaphorically and literally. In my newsletter—and by the way, if you haven’t signed up for it, but you’d like occasional emails with tips on how to write your life story, or the life story of a loved one, you can do that at thestoryscribe.com. You’ll see a email newsletter signup form. Or look at the show notes for this episode to find a link. For now, I’m sending something every three to four weeks, so you shouldn’t feel overwhelmed. I respect your time and I don’t want to flood your inbox.
Today’s writing activity
In the last newsletter, I suggested you draw a simple timeline and populate it with the events of your life. Today, I’m going to ask you to create an additional layer, the placeline.
This can be part of your timeline or a separate line altogether. Or, if you don’t have a good memory for dates, scrap the timeline and use this instead. You’ll still have a rough chronology for your life but without the burden of trying to remember exact years.
Now, mark the line with the major locations of your life (your literal topoi). Some examples:
- Where you were born
- Where you lived as a child
- Where you served in the military
- Your first home as an idependent adult
- Where you live now
If you want to start your story earlier, go back to where your parents and grandparents were born and lived; did someone arrive as an immigrant? From where?
You may have multiple events or time periods spanning across a single place or location. That’s okay. Life isn’t tidy or compartmentalized; our notes on it shouldn’t have to be, either.
A location may be the important backdrop setting for a period in your life (your family home in Chicago; the little Pennsylvania town where you went to high school); or it may be a “character” in its own right (your parents’ ice cream parlor; the first house you bought as an adult). List as many as you’d like. This is part of pre-writing, what our friends the rhetors deemed the inventio. But for us, it’s doing double-duty: helping bring memories to mind, and helping us keep those memories organized.
Using timelines/placelines to gather and organize your material
By sketching out a timeline/placeline, you’re creating a sort of container for the memories that will undoubtedly come rushing in. In my example about the father-daughter dance, I would write out the scene or story (or make preliminary notes for a later writing session), then label it with the place marker I gave to that period on my timeline/placeline; in this case, “St. Mary’s High School, O’Fallon” and/or “1982.”
Do this however it makes sense for you. For instance, you might keep separate folders (manilla or computer) for each of the locations, subdivided into time periods (reserving one section for things that don’t fit neatly into a specific time period, such as a relationship with a grandparent, or piano lessons that continued into adulthood). Or you can create a code to match documents to their respective spots on the timeline/placeline (see below). Any time you takes notes or write up a particular memory, it will now have a natural home among all the other stories or notes you’ve written. And you don’t have to worry about the memories coming to you out of order. Or about “where to start.” Just jump in.
Whatever system you use, keep it simple, let it evolve, and don’t be afraid of a little chaos.
On a piece of paper turned sideways, draw a line and mark the big events of your life with a year (if you know it) and a brief description.
And then on the opposite side of the line, mark the major locations of your life.
Thanks for listening. I hope that this podcast will inspire you to start gathering your stories, or the stories of a family elder before it’s too late. If you’d like to learn more about personal history and how you can save your story or the story of someone you love, visit me at the story scribe .com
Until next time, start saving your story.