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On Whining in Performance Memoir

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August 26, 2012 by Paula Reed Nancarrow

“Whiny” is a qualifier no  artist wants attached to her work.  And yet some folk are predisposed to dislike memoir precisely because they equate it – and anything confessional – with whiny, self-absorbed, narcissistic prose. Though it has not always been this way, as Ben Yagoda’s Memoir: A History makes abundantly clear.

There are more than enough talented writers of creative nonfiction out there to debunk the myth that contemporary memoir is inherently whiny, at least in the minds of anyone who cares to pay attention – but there are also enough of us using memoir as a discovery process, as a way of making sense of difficult experiences in our lives, to perpetuate it. And although innate talent goes some way to distinguish one from the other, I don’t think it is the most important factor.

Because discovery is an ongoing process, and even the most talented and skilled have to work that process.  Few of us get to bypass self-pity altogether; most of us have to pass through it before we can drop that story line,  get beyond it to a narrative whose beauty and power calls attention to itself, not to us. We will write badly before we write well, and we will not always know without feedback – sometimes painful feedback – when we’ve moved from one realm to the next.

Writers of memoir often assume they do not need theater training to perform their  work because it is in their own voice and they “just have to be natural.” But developing performance skills requires ongoing practice, in public, which opens us up to the possibility of failing in public as well. What is moving on the page can be delivered poorly on the stage even if I wrote it myself – perhaps  because I wrote it myself.  A whiny tone in performance can often be corrected by attention to pacing and inflection. This is why there are story coaches, and directors. Few people can see themselves well enough to do this work alone.

And while I recognize that many minor humiliations in life are just nature’s way of telling us not to take ourselves too seriously, I’m all for minimizing unnecessary suffering, for a performer as well as her audience. So I take help where I can get it. You should too.

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