Yesterday I went shopping with my mum. This was a rare mother-daughter day that we had both been looking forward to. I was on the hunt for a special outfit. I wanted something special, but not too special. And predictably nothing was quite right. Every dress was too formal, too informal, too young, too old, or made for someone with a very different body shape to mine.
After almost five decades on the planet, I should have a good idea of what suits me, and most of the time I do. But here’s the thing: even after all these years, I still sometimes find myself wanting to live up to other people’s ideals, to be a better version of myself. Which is how I ended up in tears wrestling a weird designer jumpsuit in the fitting room of a high-end boutique.
My sister is a goddess. A tall, slender corporate powerhouse with impossibly sleek hair and a designer wardrobe. I love her to bits, but we are different. I veer to the crazy curly hair, floral frock and leather jacket end of the fashion spectrum. And I’ve never had a problem with it before, but yesterday I decided I could do better. I decided to try on a print wrap jumpsuit at her favourite designer boutique. Never mind the ridiculous price tag, or the fact that I’d vowed to never buy an outfit I had to take off completely to go to the toilet. This was my ticket to a new, glamorous me.
The trouble started as soon as I hit the change room, when I couldn’t figure out how to put it on. At first I had it back to front, then I figured out it had no front to speak of, just a precarious wrapped fabric arrangement to hold everything in. I let the delicate fabric tumble around my un-pedicured feet and fought back tears. Who was I trying to be? What was so terrible about being my authentic self? There’s nothing like a fitting room to precipitate an existential crisis.
A short time later, I found the right dress. Floral, relaxed, and 100% me. The whole experience got me thinking about authenticity. How important it is to be yourself, not a replica of someone else. And the same applies in writing, where authenticity is often tied to the difficult concept of voice. If, after all this time, I struggle with fashion choices, what hope do I have of developing a consistent writing voice? And does it matter?
The short answer is yes, it matters, and rather like your fashion style, voice is something that often develops without intent, when you’re not noticing. Voice is everything that makes your writing specifically, identifiably yours. It’s the personality of every piece you produce, and it’s hard to pin down in your own work, but it will be there.
What does a strong voice do for a writer? A strong, consistent voice, like your sense of style, is part of your brand. It helps readers get to know who you are, compels them to read your work, and with any luck keeps them coming back for more. Voice builds an audience for your work.
At times I’ve struggled to pin down my voice, as most beginner writers do. I’ve been guilty of imitating writers I admire. I’ve also edited a manuscript beyond recognition after taking respected feedback on board, only to reinstate the language that made it sound like my work in the first place. It takes time to build the confidence to trust in your voice, and to recognise when a piece doesn’t reflect your authentic style. I’m still getting there.
How do I know I’m on the right track and not regurgitating piece after piece with an insipid voice? I don’t, but lately a few people who aren’t related to me have said they love the way I write and that they want to read everything I’ve written. In other words, those few readers have found my voice strong and compelling, which is more than enough encouragement to embrace and develop my unique voice. And to be my authentic self, one flouncy floral dress at a time.