I’ve heard more than a few first-time memoir writers say:
“I just feel like I’m whining about my past. Who would ever want to read this stuff?”
Memoir writers usually feel this way whether they are writing about their traumatic childhood or their journey through business school. They reread their pages and cringe because they feel like they’re whining about the things that have happened to them in life.
Now, it is entirely possible that we do end up whining when we write about our past. In that first sloppy draft, when our main focus is to get those memories down on paper, it’s likely that a lot of our pent-up emotions will come out too. The most important things to occur in anyone’s life necessarily involve a certain amount of frustration, sorrow, anger, and pain. That’s why they’re called life experiences, and that’s why other people want to read about them. Because we all go through it.
So it’s totally okay to write a sloppy first draft and whine all you want. But how do you get that sloppy draft from pure messy emotion to the polished, interesting story that someone else will want to read?
You take the whine out of it.
Whining is basically made up of one element—the victim mentality. This is the attitude that takes the position of other people being to blame. Don’t get me wrong, sometimes other people actually are to blame. But handing out blame doesn’t make for that great of a story. We get that just from reading the news every day and it’s draining. A good story should energize the reader. It should wake them up and get them turning pages.
For instance, here’s a paragraph that could come out of a “whiny” memoir:
That first day of school, all the girls were mean to me. They thought they were so much better than me, and so they started calling me names. It was because of them that my first day was ruined and then everything went downhill from there. It was all their fault. I still think about them now and hope they ended up having horrible lives.
In that paragraph we can’t get a good look at the writer’s pain because it’s cloaked with so much resentment and bitterness. You can easily see how it could get tedious. It also doesn’t give us very much hope for the narrator changing in any way.
To take the whine out of your memoir, pivot the focus to be on the narrator instead of other people. Zoom in on the narrator’s thoughts and feelings. Strive for an honest assessment of the situation, even if it’s embarrassing or unpleasant.
Let’s take a look at that same paragraph, this time pivoting the viewpoint:
That first day of school, some of the more popular girls started calling me names. When I heard them on the playground, my stomach just dropped. I remembered my old school and how I felt left out there too. Tears stung my eyes and almost blinded me as I ran to the bathroom and locked myself in a stall. I cried as quietly as I could, praying no one would hear me. After that day, school became a sort of torture for me.
Here, we see the narrator’s pain, we feel it. It’s still unpleasant, but now it’s interesting because we are able to emotionally connect with her. We’ve all had similar feelings at some point in our life. Now, instead of coming off as hardened and bitter, we see her as feeling rejected and unloved. Not only are we interested in her story, we are rooting for her. And that’s what keeps us turning those pages.
People tend to adopt a hardened façade to protect themselves from anyone seeing the real person inside. We meet these masks all the time: the Bully, the Ice Queen, the Skeptic, etc. There are dozens of examples. Writers do it too. Especially when we’re writing memoir, because we’re exposing things that make us feel vulnerable, scared, and unsure. But when you adopt that tough mask in your writing, the reader picks up on it immediately and not many want to keep reading.
The secret is that your reader already knows you aren’t perfect. They’re not reading your memoir to follow the story of a perfect life. They’re reading it because they are also vulnerable, scared, and unsure. They’re reading it because YOU are the one who is brave enough to actually admit you are all of those things too.
Be truly emotionally authentic as you tell your story, and the whine will cut itself out.
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