Many years ago, when I was gainfully employed (and paid in money instead of love), I managed a large department store specialising in fabrics, craft goods and homewares. I had about fifty people working for me, each of them with their own unique personality and style. But, as time has gone on, many of them have blended together in my memory. It happens. But there’s one man who I still remember distinctly. Not because of anything he did, or his work performance, or because we socialised. No, I remember him because of his voice.
Paul* was a man in his early fifties. He was tall (slightly taller than my 6’2″), with great posture and distinguished grey hair. He grew up in London, but emigrated to Australia when he was a young man. Although he’d replaced his English accent with an Australian one, he still spoke in a slightly more… “plummy” way than most Aussies. And the way he expressed himself was priceless.
I remember one afternoon in particular.
I was due to finish work at 2:00pm, but got caught up with some admin work. At 4:30, I was just making my way through the store to the front door. That’s when Paul pounced.
“Ah, Jo,” he said as an opening line. I was running late, so I tried a quick smile and wave in order to escape. It didn’t work. Paul merely continued talking in his smooth, almost-English accent. “It’s quite a welcome coincidence that our paths should cross this afternoon. Does the day find you well?
“Yes,” I said. “I’m just heading home.”
“Ah…” he said, drawing out the vowel sound. “Well, it’s certainly a pleasant day to be leaving this establishment at such an early hour, and I would not like to come between you and a surely well-deserved afternoon off. However, since Fate has decreed that we should meet here amongst the aisle of our fair craft section, perhaps this would be a suitable time for me to consult you about a matter that has been weighing heavily upon my mind of late. If you would be kind enough to spare me a few moments of your oh-so-precious time, I would be most appreciative.”
He paused here and looked at me. Expectantly. I’m not going to lie, I had no idea what he was waiting for. It’s not that I was ignoring him — far from it. I’d listened to each and every word, and been lulled into a sense of peace by the smooth cadence of his speech. After a moment, I said, “Yes.” It seemed like the right thing to say.
“I’m ever-so grateful,” Paul went on. “I’m sure that a young lady like yourself has a great many plans, and a great many responsibilities resting upon your shoulders, and I am appreciative that you would be prepared to put them on hold for a few moments to hear what I have to say. And, in fact, it’s exactly the thought of plans and responsibilities that weighs upon my mind. I’m not sure if you’re aware, but I have, in fact, been working for this company for quite some time. When I started, of course, things were quite different. There was a great deal less paperwork, for one thing. But it certainly isn’t my place to question the march of progress, and I have adapted to the changing environment around me as, of course, has everyone else.”
“Yes,” I said again. I had no idea where he was going with any of this, but all thoughts of actually leaving the store had vanished.
“Time changes us all, they say, and in my years I’ve come to think that they are right on that count. Perhaps my dislike of paperwork is merely a sign that it is I that needs to change. But I digress.”
He paused here. I don’t know why. Perhaps I was supposed to comment. I didn’t.
Paul went on, “As I said, it is the thoughts of plans and responsibilities that weigh most heavily upon my mind in these days. As you know, I take great care to ensure that my schedule is kept up to date. However, there is always the odd occasion where Fate or Chance steps in, and the best laid plans of mice and men, if you catch my drift.”
“Yes,” I said.
“Ah, well then,” Paul said. “Perhaps then, it would be fitting to elaborate further upon the unexpected delight which occurred just last night. I received a phone call, you see, from my youngest daughter. I’m certain I’ve spoken of her before, either in conversation with you directly or with our colleagues as we ate lunch.”
He paused for an answer. “Yes,” I said again.
“Then it should come as no surprise to you that I was overjoyed to hear that she would be visiting us in the near future, venturing forth from her apartment in Sydney to journey here and spend some time with her parents. It’s always a pleasant thing when one’s children announce these things, especially where there is no great event to prompt said visit. However, the announcement has also left me feeling that I’m in quite a bind, as she has decided to arrive on our doorstep next month and I have, of course, taken no provisions for welcoming her home at this stage.”
I nodded. I still had no idea why he was telling me any of this.
“It would be quite a shame for her to come all this way, and to be forced by necessity to spend her days lonely and alone in our house, while–”
“Oh!” I interrupted. “Would you like to apply for leave?”
“Ah, yes, the inevitable application process that one must–”
“Absolutely,” I said. “Take as much as you like. Lorraine will give you the form. See you later, Paul!”
And I left.
Poor Lorraine probably had to listen to the entire story again.
I never asked.
My point here is not that Paul could string a simple query into a 30 minute exercise in frustration (although he could), it’s this: Years later, when I’ve forgotten everyone else I worked with, I remember Paul. I remember the way he spoke, the words he used, the sound of his voice. I would recognise his speech patterns anywhere.
And that, my friends, is what people mean when they talk about an author’s voice.
It’s the combination of style and flow and rhythm and vocabulary and grammar and stuff that makes your writing yours. It’s the thing that people will remember about you.
You don’t need to find your voice. Or create your voice. You just need to capture it.
Because you’ve already got it. It’s right there, inside you. Release it on to the page, allow it to grow and mature (as you do the same), and then grab it with both hands.
Easy as a poke in the eye with a sharp pie.
* Paul may or may not be his real name. I’m not telling.