Quilting Your Memoir: Your Turning Points and Timeline by Linda Joy Myers

Quilting Your Memoir Turning Points and Timeline

Photo Credit: http://www.freeimages.com/photographer/clt3jxm-48600

When you write a memoir, you take on the task of exploring your life and being willing to write with truth and honesty. Writing a memoir is a journey that leads us away from known territory into the unknown and unexplored parts of our lives. We need a map to guide us as we write so we can find our themes and the moments that have meaning, moments that shaped us into who we are.

Courage First

Being a memoirist is to encounter your brave self. I liken the courage to write a memoir as similar to the pioneers my great-grandmother Blanche would tell me about when I was a little girl. She was eighty and I was eight as we lay in her featherbed on summer nights where she spun the stories of her life. She was still a young girl on a farm near the Mississippi River when neighbors drove up in a covered wagon. They were on their way to Kansas in the 1880s, when the prairie was notched with the deep ruts of wagon trains from settlers who wanted to explore the larger world beyond the Mississippi. Tribes of Native Americans were still inhabiting the Great Plains, along with outlaws and roving bands of ne’er do wells. Blanche watched them drive off into the unknown with a crude map, but going on that journey meant that they had to advance into unknown territory while still raising children, giving birth, and fixing dinner. Memoirists need maps and guides for the journey too.

Dorothy Allison, author of Bastard Out of Carolina, says “Write where the fear is, where the heat is.” That encounter with what is difficult takes us into the heart of our stories, the high and low points in our lives. Authentic emotion guides us into our journey of speaking and writing with truth and honesty. Judith Barrington says that the memoirist, “Whispers into the ear of the reader.” When we read a memoir, we feel that we are being invited into the secret heart of a person, a family, a time and a place. As readers, we are witnessing along with the narrator a world we have never seen before, the private world of the writer that is unfolding story by story.

To help writers get started and find their way to the end of the first draft, I teach the turning point and timeline exercises.

Find Your Turning Points 

Your turning points are the emotional hot spots of your life. Focusing on these points will help to sort through the file cabinet of your memories and will help to build the spine of your memoir structure.

These are moments of BIG CHANGE, the times when your life took a turn in another direction, propelled by powerful forces. These can be inner forces, such as a spiritual awakening, a moment of complete clarity, or outer forces such as an illness, a move, a sudden loss.

A turning point can be a powerful moment of utter happiness, a marriage, traveling to another country, or the birth of a child. These are special times that have deep meaning to you, and that made a difference in the course of your life. Your turning points taught you a lesson, woke you up, shaped you into the person that you are now.

Ask yourself: what moments ended the life I was living before, and changed the direction of my life? In a fictional story or a movie, we know that the plot is going to change when someone new wanders into town, when this new person shows up, we expect there to be important changes or we would not, as readers/viewers, be shown this event.

Make a list of the 15-20 most important moments of your life—emotionally significant events.

Women used to belong to quilting bees. They would sit around the quilting frame, chatting and stitching by hand. They cut out designs and patterns from old clothes, creating ripples of colors as the patches came together in new designs.

This is what we do with our turning point stories. We can write our vignettes in any order. If we write where the heat, and heart, is, we are gathering the pieces that will be quilted together into a finished work of art.

The Timeline Technique

The visual map of your memoir journey is the timeline. After you list your turning point stories, plot them on a timeline. Draw a horizontal line across a large sheet of paper, preferably 18×24–large enough to hold several decades.  Divide the line into 10 year sections, and then divide those into years.

List your turning point stories on the timeline by drawing vertical a line at the date you selected and put a circle at the bottom. In this circle, name the story, chapter, or turning point moment you want to include.

This exercise reveals many things: you see how some events cluster together, and how certain events followed other ones, revealing lapses in your memory. How your turning points cluster on the timeline presents new insights about time and relationships—memory is not always accurate. You can use your journals from the past and other research to help fill in your turning pints and your timeline. To enhance the visuals on your timelines, copy out photos to place on or near your turning points, creating a kind of vision board.

These techniques will help you to have a focus and structure for your memoir. As you write, you will continue to develop your turning points and the specific details of your life. The more you work with your list, timeline, and stories, the more you will remember. Maybe you will be like Blanche, who in her eighties was weaving the stories of the 19th century for me. Those stories stayed with me, and made me want to honor the history she shared, made me want to be a storyteller.

You too will weave magic as you write your memoir.

Marching Forth on March 4th

Today is March 4th, a date that for 46 years I’ve called my “spiritual holiday.” In 1966, still encased in the rigid expectations of a girl who’d grown up in the fifties in a small town with a Victorian grandmother in the Bible Baptist belt—you can see the picture, right—I experienced a moment that lifted me from that world. I was almost twenty, and was supposed to get engaged, married, go to church, raise children and maybe teach music in the public schools. I was also someone who desperately wanted security, not growing up with either a mother or a  father. Luckily my grandmother rescued me and took me to live with her—all this is captured in my memoir Don’t Call Me Mother—but the years of awakening, the step by step movement into finding out who I was, is a much longer story, as it is for all of us.

On March 4th, 1966, I walked in the silent soft snow on the University of Illinois campus early in the morning. I was alone amidst a few bare trees etching the white sky. Each snowflake was individually wrapped like a present, fluttering toward me in a perfect picture of the peace of a snowy day, no wind, a black and white singular moment. It wasn’t as if a voice spoke to me exactly, but a sweet shiver moved up and down my body, giving me the sense that the life I was looking for was yet to come, but I would have to break out of the mold of expectations to find it. I would have to fly away from the world of expectations and illusions of security.

We all know that though steps of our development all add up eventually –as we become a whole person. Each step becomes lost in the blur of memories, except for a few that stand out. I call these “turning points” when I teach my memoir students. I ask them to collect a list of these moments to help them remember, to help them gather these points of light.

As I grew up, I had gotten used to fear guiding me, of having a sense of doom, of things going wrong—as they often had with my family—mother, father, and grandmother ending up in hate for each other, at times each of them refusing to speak to me, but my basic nature was optimistic. After all, when you have seen everyone melt down all the time, watching them as they tore each other apart, it just seems natural to find a new way to see things. As a cellist and pianist, I knew that music could lift us away from our sorrows, and I knew that books could navigate me away from an unpleasant reality.  I was one of those flashlight under the covers kids. The arts held a promise of hope, as did this perfect moment on a snowy day, on March 4th.

I have celebrated Marching Forth on this day all these years, sharing it with my friends and family. It’s a day to celebrate being alive—which we should do every day—but just in case we forget, we can create a special day for ourselves.

What is your special day of spiritual awakening? How do you celebrate it?