CHOOSE YOUR AUDIENCE: My friend, Allan Wilson, has chosen to write to his young grandson. Consequently, his story is a very personal one with affectionate references to the boy’s father. Allan’s narrative voice is the tender one of A LOVING GRANDFATHER. Accordingly, his childhood shenanigans are written about with humor, chagrin, and a gentle wisdom.
Although my story is also a personal one of growing faith, I periodically adopt the voice of THE FAMILY HISTORIAN. I am attempting to answer for my descendants the same questions I’ve had about those who have gone before me. I want to explain to the younger ones the context of my stories—how very different was the American culture in which I grew up.
My brother, Brian, tells riveting adventure stories. Family gatherings often bring forth still another yarn, and I gleefully request that he write it down. I am collecting a sizable file! What fun it will be to edit his tall tales one day. His voice, however, is not that of a loving grandfather or a family historian. He is the PRANKSTER—HERO, and so very lovable!!
To share God’s story in your story, you need not try and write the great American novel. Using the writing style or narrative voice God has given you, focus on your audience, and share what the Father has revealed to you.
CREATE YOUR TIMELINE: Many people begin their autobiography by announcing the year of their birth. It is rarely an inviting opening, but your birth date is the perfect beginning for your timeline. You may simply list the years of your life and begin filling in the events (both personal and historical) that occurred within them, or you may choose to construct a detailed Excel spreadsheet. It is up to you. I suggest you make it a fun activity and involve other family members.
WHEN, WHERE, WHO, WHAT, WHY and HOW are the essential questions upon which every story is built. To fill in your timeline, here are some questions you might ask yourself. WHEN did you acquire siblings, move, or enjoy a special vacation? When did you leave home? Lose your parents? WHERE did you grow up, live and travel? WHO were your important friends or were they lacking? Who did you live with? WHAT did you do for fun as a youngster, a teen, a young adult? What was your biggest challenge? Your wildest adventure? The difficulty only God could overcome? What are some of your favorite memories? What has changed your life? WHY did you get your first job, or go to college, or join the military? Why did you persist when others quit? HOW have you supported yourself—perhaps trace your job history? How have you learned new things? How did your and/or your family weather economic downturns, layoffs, major illness? WHEN, WHERE, WHO, WHAT, WHY and HOW can certainly activate the storyteller in each of us.
Filling in your personal timeline just naturally sets you up to tell your life story with two inherent benefits. First, you will notice periods of time united by themes—perhaps a military experience, a change from farm to city life, or a season of travel and career exploration. Of course, this exercise will also bring up the hard times we are promised in the Bible. My family endured a trial that generated the refrain, And so the saga continues! Perhaps your saga is recovery from a divorce, a period of severe illness, or a career setback. It can be very illuminating to revisit these seasons prayerfully and ask God to give us new insights and understanding. Paul said our lives are like living epistles illustrating the gospel. As you work and re-work your timeline with the events and lessons of your life, you may find new clarity about the message of your life.
Secondly, taking the long view of your lifespan by means of a timeline enables you to give your descendants the cultural context of your life. What historical events (local or world-wide) impacted you? Do make your reader aware of the technology you did not have, whether or not cars were lined up at gas stations, if there was a war going on, and who was president. When you are writing to future generations, help them grasp how different were the times about which you are writing. (I can remember when one dollar would buy 4 gallons of gas, 4 loaves of bread, or 4 pounds of ground beef!) A person born in the seventies, eighties, or nineties had a much different high school experience than one born during World War II. Giving context may alter readers’ assumptions drastically. The timeline exercise will equip you to write your narrative by helping you to identify the historical context as well as revealing the thematic elements of your life. Good writing!!