Fear of being whiny, self-indulgent, or TMI can become a roadblock on the writer’s search for truth.
Whining is one of the many interesting voices writers can explore. Like yelling, it’s not something we want to do or hear all the time. Its uses are nevertheless profound. First, it helps expel annoying thoughts that flutter at the edges of our consciousness. Language is a kind of magic. Whining-magic exorcises small but persistent demons that might otherwise plague our non-whining writing time.
Second, writing in a whiny voice may unearth deep concerns, issues we might consider legitimate topics for publishable writing.
That second bit often increases the writer’s fear of whininess. Even the ballsiest writer is still frightened of the truths lurking within. What if grumbling about my everyday life leads me to discover that [I’m secretly really upset about this thing that happened years ago, I’m living my life in a way that’s dissatisfying or self-destructive, enter your uncomfortable realization here]. And this discovery gives me a [weird, sickening, embarrassed, enraged, or just kinda squicky emotional sensation goes here] feeling. No wonder I don’t want to whine!
I work as an editor, freelance writer, poet, marketing hack, adjunct college faculty—and occasionally as a writing coach. I’ve also been on social media since 1992, before most people knew there was such a thing as an Internet. I notice that many writers and social posters are willing to display a sheen of humility, a shallow dip into personal revelation. It works fine for an Instagram post. Dipping into serious memoir and personal essay, though? Then this playing-footsies-with-truth approach, which coyly curtains off the writer’s deep internal reality from public view, can effectively neuter their work. They struggle with structure and fuss around with diction, unwilling to face the real reason their latest piece isn’t working: it lacks their true presence as a full human being.
People also fear whining due to social disapprobation. We meet a friend for coffee and she says, “Gawd, can you believe Jaden posted about his dental surgery again? Ugh, he’s such a whiner.” Our parents or assorted guardians shut us up during expressive yet irritating developmental phases; teachers and coaches tell us to buck up and take it like a man. Authority figures may verbally or physically abuse us for daring to voice our complaints.
Fear of whining can be also a gendered thing. Women’s stories about our lives and bodies are often dismissed by critics as “whiny, confessional memoir” and by doctors as “hysteria.”
This allows the tough white male cultural juggernaut to mow over everyone else, unabated, and allows doctors not to feel bad about the limitations of their knowledge. Women learn to downgrade our legitimate complaints to minor gripes; we’re allowed to grump about them only briefly and with a bright show of good humor.
Meanwhile, society urges men and boys to display epic levels of stoicism in the face of minor discomfort, serious pain, and real injustice alike. Whether John Wayne or Bruce Wayne, the role models aren’t crying in their soup. They’re strappin’ on bat armor and shootin’ pistols. This leads to some pretty repressed little guys, some of whom grow up trapped in a dysfunctional masculine role that doesn’t serve their lives very well. Some become aggressors, abusers, attackers, feeling it is expected of them, feeling they can blame testosterone if anyone objects.
Under the armor of their machismo, many men are shaking in their boots, terrified they’ll be uncovered as a regular, vulnerable, emotional guy — one with complaints and unhealed traumas.
An increasingly Oprah-friendly, #MeToo, #YesAllWomen popular culture encourages some types of personal storytelling, and social media enables many people to post words into the ether. Still, there is pushback. A woman who outs her famous harasser, for example, or who speaks out against sexism in gaming culture, will be told by various trolls that she deserves to be raped or killed. Nonbinary, female, and male writers alike share this cultural context.
In refusing to whine, we manifest the deep, covert fear that we are not allowed to have a voice at all. Complaining, speaking our truths, acknowledging our pain — a.k.a. whining — might actually be an ass-kicking, revolutionary act.
On a more aesthetic level, we can think of whining as an instrument that adds texture to a musical piece. Five hours of solo theremin or guitar feedback might rub our nerves raw, sure, but mixed in with the rest of the band, they help build an amazing sound. Any of rock history’s guitar solos would be torture to my ears if it stretched out all alone for sixty minutes. The solution isn’t to eliminate guitar solos. Instead, we learn to play really well and keep the solos short.
How? By practicing. Sitting in a room, wanking along with a Van Halen record or Malmsteen video or whatever. In the end, we may decide to only perform publicly on rhythm guitar. We might switch to clarinet or hurdy-gurdy. Or we may record a couple of really hot, smokin’ guitar leads only to find they don’t serve the song. Oh well! We’ve lost nothing. All those hours of practice strengthened our fingers and built up our callouses. We know our way around an axe, now. That knowledge isn’t going to somehow taint our other musical efforts.
Same goes for whining in the writer’s work. It can be one of the most honest writing voices we’ll ever know. Let’s explore that voice… even if we burn the paper afterward.