When I was thirteen, I was sleeping over at my friend Jenny’s house. Her father was a musician. He played folk music, which Jenny and I considered boring and for old people. On this particular weekend, Jenny’s father had been given tickets for a performance by a folk guitarist who he had once played with. We were obliged to go to the concert too. This was not how we wanted our weekend to go but we were offered two options: go to the boring stupid folk gig or not have a sleepover. So we went to the boring stupid folk gig with some ancient guitarist and no singers. (I suspect, though I can’t properly remember, that we did a lot of flouncing and humphing.) Worse, when we got to the venue, Jenny’s father made us stay inside.
So when Tommy Emmanuel walked out on stage and began playing, I was listening.
And by the end of the night, I wanted nothing more than to be like Tommy Emmanuel.
If you’ve ever heard Emmanuel play, you will know he is an extraordinary musician. Mesmerising. But at thirteen, it wasn’t only his artistry that made me want to be like him.
It was the way he seemed to celebrate being utterly himself.
I don’t know if Tommy Emmanuel is or was a fan of Dolly Parton, but in his performance that night, he embodied one of Miss P’s most famous pieces of advice: ‘Figure out who you are and then do it deliberately.’
Last week I talked about Jack London attempting to mimic Rudyard Kipling. But there’s another way of deepening your own writing voice, that I like to refer to as ‘Going the Full Dolly’.
As Dolly says, there are two stages. First, figure out who you are. Then, do it deliberately.
Could you take a look today at what you’ve written over the last few weeks? If you’ve written on a screen, print it out if you can. Then sit yourself somewhere lovely, with a candle lit if that makes you feel good, or a perfect cup of tea. In other words, get yourself into a welcoming state.
Then, simply read over what you’ve written. Notice the concerns that come up. Observe the patterns. In particular, could you highlight in some way those sentences or pages or scenes that feel particularly pleasing to you? Not to someone else, some imaginary judge – but to you.
What do you love?
Then, look again. What are those elements in your own writing that you want to celebrate? Those elements you want more of?
Is it those flashes of wildly lush writing? Or the lines that so clearly and succinctly reveal a whole truth? Perhaps it’s wit, or playfulness, or outrageous imagination.
Whatever it is, write it down. If you can land on three things, brilliant.
So now you have a list of elements in your own work that attract you.
Can you deepen those elements of your own writing? Can you dive into them deliberately?
Can you return to a previous piece of writing and ‘make it more like you’?
If you’ve decided, for instance, that you love those moments when you let the writing have stillness and space, could you pick up something you wrote earlier and now rewrite it, creating more of that stillness and space?
You already know how to do it – because you’ve already done it.
If you noted down that you love it when your characters behave foolishly, return to a previous piece of writing which felt perhaps a little stuck… and play. See how foolish your characters can be. There’s no one watching, so push it a little further. Let them be ridiculous. Mimic your own best writer self.
I cannot promise that being brave enough to be fully yourself will give you the technical mastery or outrageous talent of Dolly Parton or Tommy Emmanuel.
But I can promise that it will lead you closer to the artist that you are meant to be.
Write a lie