Adult Learning, Self-expression and the Power of Habits

By Jerry Waxler

In high school, I devoted myself to science, and considered self-expression to be a waste of time. My nerdy youth prepared me to earn a living in technology but left me miserably out of touch with my own voice.

My first attempt to find my voice occurred in my twenties, when I devoted myself to writing in a journal, every day for years. I loved the sensation of self-expression, but the audience was limited to myself.

In my forties, I read a memoir by Joan Baez, And a Voice to Sing With, in which she expressed hope that no one should leave this earth without experiencing the pleasure of singing. Her appeal made me think about how tired I was of being silent. If I didn’t change soon, I would be one of those people Joan Baez warned about.

I enrolled in voice lessons at a small music school, where I was 30 years older than most of the other students, and older than my teacher. Each week, she taught me basics such as how to sing pure vowels, how to use my diaphragm, and how to attack and sustain each note. I recorded our lessons and played them in the car, singing scales on my long commute to work. Daily habits supported my effort to learn how to sing.

When I reached a minimum level of skill, I qualified for entry in a choir. Every Wednesday evening, the choir director, a recent college grad, taught us how to follow a conductor, how to harmonize with each other, and how to align our voices on the beat. Week by week, year by year, we rehearsed, taking occasional breaks when our director went on her honeymoon, then had babies.

Each rehearsal I learned a little more about reading music, and adjusting the dynamics and going straight to the pitch. Finally I was part of a performance, and, after I all the hours and years of preparation, I was able to see my voice reflected on the faces of those to whom I was singing. I realized I had fulfilled Joan Baez’s challenge.

In my fifties, another hankering for self-expression welled up in my heart. My years of journaling had given me a love for writing. I wanted to expand my audience to readers. I didn’t know how to reach that goal, but experience with singing had proven to me that adults can learn skills.

I studied books about writing and attended classes, soaking in the expertise of those who had succeeded. When I felt brave enough, I joined clubs. Instead of being intimidated by the other writers, I discovered that being in their company sped up my learning, by giving me feedback and support. Through every stage of my study, I was sustained by a daily writing habit.  By writing every day, seven days a week, gradually I increased my ability to express myself in the written word.

Through it all, I have come to experience the joy of writing as a means of communicating with readers. The feedback from writing is not as immediate as it is when singing. However, writers also have their ways of feeling the appreciation of readers, such as praise from reviewers, and the willingness of people to invest their time. And it was all earned through the power of daily effort.

What can you do?
For any adult who wants to find a voice, there’s no need to feel trapped by inadequate skills. Apply steady persistent effort. Over time, your writing voice improves, your self-confidence grows, and bit by bit, you learn what writers must do in order to reach readers.

If you have never developed a daily writing habit, take that first step. Read Julia Cameron The Artist’s Way. In it, she describes a method for pouring thoughts out on to paper. She calls the daily exercise, “Morning Pages.” Or read my book How to Become a Heroic Writer in which I outline the steps of forming a habit. By writing every day, you will gradually gain familiarity and skill at shaping sentences on a page.

If you are already writing in a journal and want to learn to learn a more structured form, keep up your daily habit, but turn it toward writing pieces for strangers. Find a critique group, and accept reader feedback. By learning how your writing sounds in other people’s ears, over time you will gain the knack of writing for readers.

To learn more about the power of habits, read my book Learn to Become a Heroic Writer to help you develop habits, attitudes and social connections necessary to share your words with strangers.

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