Tips on Writing Your Lifestory, 3 of 12: William Faulkner, “Read, read, read.”

Reading by the sea
3. Read stories you enjoy and follow their approaches.

At the start of each of my lifestory writing classes I ask students why they came. What is bothering you about writing? What has kept you from starting or completing your memoir, biography, or family history? I write their answers on a whiteboard and then turn the list out of view. At the end of class we revisit the list to see whether we covered their concerns.

Concerns include where to begin, what to do about painful memories, will I be sued, fears of what family or friends will say, I’m not a writer, and who will want to read it. A top concern: How do I make my story interesting? 

Do this and you can't miss
The best way to make your lifestory interesting—that is, write so people will want to read it—is to pay attention to how others write. You do that by reading stories you enjoy: nonfiction, short stories, poems, essays, mystery novels, romances, action-adventures, memoirs, biographies, and so on. You can learn from the myriad of mentors, models, and methods that made others successful.

Lee Iacocca is believable in Where Have All the Leaders Gone? because he was president of Ford Motor Company, Chrysler Corporation, and headed the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation (his parents were Italian immigrants). Stephen King is believable in On Writing because he wrote more than fifty novels that sold millions of copies. Literary agent Paula Balzer is believable in Writing & Selling Your Memoir because she represented best-selling authors.

Choose your favorites
Pick any author and genre: The late Ray Bradbury’s science fiction, William Zinsser’s nonfiction, Cait London’s romances, James Patterson’s thrillers, or whatever you like. Buy at random a handful of cheap paperbacks at a used book sale. Browse books in your library. Read them. Pay attention to how authors construct a scene, develop conflict, write dialogue, present character traits, show action, and use other good storytelling techniques. When you find yourself drawn into the plot and into the lives of characters, real or fiction, pay attention to how the author took you there. Soon you will say, “I can write like that”.

Reading and learning and applying keep you engaged in your craft. Practice writing a few paragraphs or a chapter of your own story in the style of a favorite author. This was carried to extreme by Yoknapatawpha Press, which for many years sponsored the Faux Faulkner Contest, now suspended. Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi is a fictional place created by William Faulkner (1897-1962) who was a native of Mississippi.

“Read, read, read,” Faulkner said. “Read everything –trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You'll absorb it.”

Photo by Ed Rourdon (Creative Commons)

Which authors' writings helped you most and what did you learn?


  1. A few years ago, I was losing hope I’d ever write the life stories I’d been talking about for so long. So I read a slew of memoirs looking for inspiration and motivation. Most were intimidating, but Michael Perry's memoirs ("Population: 485", "Truck: A Love Story", "Coop" and, just out today, "Visiting Tom") – stories extracted from his "ordinary" life in small-town America – moved me from talking to typing.

  2. Good for you, Greg. Wonderful stories come from ordinary lives. Keep me posted on your progress and best wishes for every success.

  3. Wayne, if William Faulkner says it's so, then it's so! Reading, reading, reading is a great educational tool.