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A Lifeline to Good Stories

By Patti A. Wood, M.A.

A lifeline is a drawing of all the big and little events of a life. Creativity gurus like Julia Cameron, who wrote The Artist’s Way, and autobiographers swear by lifelining as a tool to draw stories from real life. I use it in my speech coaching and I teach it in my “There’s a Book Inside Me and I’ve Got to Get it Out” workshop for participants who are not only writing autobiographies but for those who are writing fiction so they can create a history for their characters.

To create a lifeline, turn a blank sheet of white paper sideways. Draw a line across the center from end to end so it divides the top and bottom half of the paper evenly. Go to the far left end of the line and decide where you would like to begin your time line stories. You can start at birth or at first grade or at your first job. Then decide where to end it.

After you’ve made the main time line, draw little lines out from the lifelineon the top and bottom. On each of these lines, write a keyword or phrase or sentence that describes an incident in your life. (For instance: “born,” “moved to Ohio,” got a puppy”). You may wish to put positive events on the bottom line and negative on the top or just hop from side to side.

When you are done with the time line, you can expand on particular incidents and begin making them into stories. For example, on my time line, I have the sentence: “Bad little boy burned down our play shed.” This is a story I tell that includes a description of how all the kids in the apartment complex didn’t like to play with this one boy because he was mean and how out of revenge he set our play shed on fire. My friends and I watched the flames lick up the sides of the building as we leaned out the windows looking down. Fire engines came charging up with sirens blaring. The next day I remember going to the play shed and crying over the burned black wood and thinking my instincts about the boy were right. It was also the first test of my ability to form accurate first impressions and resist the urge for vengeance.

The lifeline is a great exercise for uncovering and discovering terrific stories. And you may be surprised to discover just how rich and interesting your own life is.