Lifeline Exercise

There is no greater burden than bearing an untold story inside of you

-- Maya Angelou

Lifeline Exercise

You will start the process of finding your story by taking a big picture view of your whole life with the Lifeline exercise. Writers return to the Lifeline exercise again and again, reporting that each attempt brings new and different insights. With that in mind, please don’t try to do to much on your first pass through!

The goals of this exercise are to:

  • identify major positive and negative life events
  • identify possible themes in your life story (eg., loss, abandonment, endurance, etc)
  • identify how specific events shaped your sense of self (eg., I am valued/not valued or smart/not smart, etc)
  • provide a later-in-life perspective to earlier life events
  • recognize how you have changed over time

You will not gain all this wisdom on the first pass of this exercise! But it will get you started on this important, reflective process.

You will spend two days on this Lifeline exercise. First, you will create your Lifeline, then you will do some exercises as your review what you’ve written.

Lifeline Exercise Instructions

  1. Use a blank piece of paper (or tape two together for more room)
  2. Draw a line down the middle of the page.
  3. At the top of the line, write the year of your birth.
  4. At the bottom of the line, write this year.
  5. Write the word positive on one side of the page and negative on the other.
  6. Add some decade markers. Start by dividing your age in two, (eg., I’m 74 divided by 2= 37. Add that number to your birth year. (eg., I was born in 1947+37=1984) Place a marker with that year in the middle of the line (eg., 1984). Add more decade markers to help you stay oriented.

You should end up with a piece of paper that looks something like this:

Now, add some significant life events to your lifeline. Place positive events on one side and negative events on the other. (Use those terms loosely as they work for you, knowing some experiences may not fit either category.) Keep adding until you feel you are done. (Try for a minimum of 5 events total and a maximum of 2-3 events per decade). Start anywhere and leave yourself room as it is normal for memories to trigger other memories. Don't try to add every important event, just write out the first ones that come to you.

When you feel you are finished adding events, (take a deep breath!) review your lifeline.

  • Review your ‘negative’ events. What did you learn about yourself and your world from those experiences? Be open to positive and negative impacts. Write some words or notes on your Lifeline to remember.
  • Review your ‘positive’ events. What did you learn about yourself and your world from those experiences? Be open to positive and negative impacts. Write some words or notes on your timeline to remember.
  • Review events that were hard to categorize. Explore why these experiences were hard to put in one category or the other.
  • Review the Cognitions List: As you read the cognitions, can you identify a time or event where you started to believe any of these statements? Add those to your timeline.


This exercise may have provided some ideas on a story or stories that you might want to write (for this course or in the future). Jot down any story ideas that have come to you in your StoryList notebook. Pay less attention to thoughts about which story you should write. Pay more attention to feelings about which story you want to write.

Don’t try to figure out what other people want to hear from you; figure out what you have to say. 

It’s the one and only thing you have to offer. 

– Barbara Kingsolver

Complete and Continue