THE LISTENING ROOM. Margaret O’Brien ~ Writing Changes Lives

The Listening Room by Rene Magritte (1952)

This painting, The Listening Room by Rene Magritte (1952), fascinates me. It pushes against the boundaries of the known, of relativity, of reality, of perception. What is too big, too small, what can fit where? 

It’s an odd one, this painting but I’m around long enough to know that when something gives me that little tingle, that draws me back even though I might be perplexed, I know I ought to pay attention. So it is now with The Listening Room. Look at it. It’s either an oversized apple or a very, very small room. Its surrealism stretches my thinking, as Magritte no doubt playfully intended. 

I have been spinning my wheels, writing a piece with all the skills I can muster. But it was dead. I inserted Magritte’s painting The Listening Room at the top of page 1. It had something to tell me. But I wasn’t able to make it fit. Note the use of the word ‘make’. This morning I left screen and keyboard, and the deep rut I had written myself into, and took out notebook and pen. And wrote, physically wrote, connected to my heart, left my ‘should’ voice in the basement. Sssshh! Find the love. There is the art. 

Over the years I have often recounted the story of ‘Fred’, a concept I borrowed from writer Damon Knight. I explain to workshop participants that our creative side is akin to ‘Fred’. I invite them to picture a large, lolloping dog, the kind who loves when we respond to his playful approaches. For example, each time he drops a ball at our feet and we pick it up and play with him he gets excited and energised. And so do we. But if we ignore Fred; if we’re too busy, have too many ‘important’ things calling for our attention, then Fred becomes despondent, lethargic and stops bringing us invitations to play. If ‘Fred’ is our creative side, my creative side, and he has brought my attention to Magritte’s The Listening Room then I honour that by doing something with it. Today that something is this article. 

Where are we in terms of creativity, writing and wellness? Is The Listening Room  a visual shorthand for our creativity and how we tend to squeeze it into a very small, cramped space, with the walls and ceiling about to crush us? Where are we playing too small? How can we make the room bigger? And I mean those questions to relate to the wider society, not simply the individual. Notice that there are groups of people spoken about instead of speaking? Who is silent or silenced?

I would like to outline the ground on which I stand in regard to writing, to creativity. A couple of years ago I moved on from my position as lecturer in English Literature in an Institute of Technology. Before that I lectured in Adult Literacy Studies in that same institute. But how did I get there, when I didn’t start my third level education until I was a mother of four growing children. Back when I thought I was old, at 40! 

The real story is in the gaps. Access to third level education opened up to me via the signing of the Maastricht Treaty in 1992. This treaty meant that anything available to citizens in one member state of the EU must be made available to all others. For me this opened access to studying at The Open University in the UK. Up until then the OU was only available to UK citizens and, I think, UK forces serving overseas. As I lived (and still do) in a small town in the southeast of Ireland, then with four young children and a husband on shift work, there wasn’t the option of travelling to study as a mature student in a college in any of the major centres of population. And before that? Let me just say that the aspirations for a working-class girl from a council estate in a small rural town in the ‘70s were so low you mightn’t believe. But then again, a lot of things haven’t changed a jot with regard to access over the decades have they? My primary degree in English Literature, with the OU, took me six years of part-time study and I loved every bit of it, especially the immersive experience during annual summer schools in UK universities – I was more than hungry for it, I was thirsty for it. 

Crucially, the experience showed me how important policy is in relation to access; to education and to so much else. This led me on to do a Masters in Education, in an attempt to gain a better understanding of inequalities in this area and how power operated. I certainly had my own felt experiences to draw on. For example, when I encountered the work of Pierre Bourdieu and the concept of ‘cultural capital’ I understood instantly. It’s not enough to have the financial capital, there are other ways of being marked as an outsider, e.g. language / ways of speaking, dress, cultural references and other social behaviours. 

In my later work in adult literacy I recognised the importance of story to reading and writing, to literacy, one’s own story, thanks to the work of Pat Schneider and her organisation, Amherst Writers and Artists. I had trained with Pat and AWA and one of Pat’s essential affirmations is: ‘Writing as an art form belongs to all people, regardless of economic class or educational level’. The Amherst Writers & Artists’ philosophy is a simple one: every person is potentially a writer, and every writer deserves a safe environment in which to experiment, learn, and develop craft. The AWA method, which is fully described in Schneider’s book Writing Alone and With Others, provides just such an environment. All AWA workshops are based on the principle that the teaching of craft can be practiced without damage to the creative spirit. But do not mistake this creation of a safe environment for something that is soft, without rigour. 

Instead this is something both empathetic and fierce; fierce in the belief that writing matters, that diversity of voice matters, that it is of crucial importance that we create the conditions that support such voices. Empathetic in the deliberate creating of these conditions. To quote Schneider, “Not being able to write is a learned disability.” [emphasis in original]

The AWA method includes these two revolutionary practices: 

  • Everything read aloud in the writing workshop is treated as fiction, to minimize the personal vulnerability of the writer, and 
  • The workshop leader writes with the students or participants, and reads aloud in turn, inviting responses, along with the other writers. The workshop leader doesn’t ask others to take a risk that s/he is not prepared to take.

These practices, and others in the AWA method, create an environment that is non-hierarchical, honest, and safe. An environment where people feel safe enough to take creative risks. In this way accomplished and beginning writers learn from one another in a generous atmosphere of both critical craft and personal respect for the value of every voice. As Schneider insists, 

‘There is no place for hierarchies in the heart and the making of art is a matter of the heart. Art is the creative expression of the human spirit, and it cannot – it must not, for the sake of the human community – be limited to those few who achieve critical acclaim or financial reward.’

As time went on I became frustrated with the lack of opportunities for many people to gain support as writers, to develop as writers, outside of the post-grad college route, competitive places at residential centres and outside of the major centres of population. It can be almost impossible as an individual to break into the literary ecosystem without one or more of such supports. I had the realisation that I could ‘dig where I stood’, and this led to my setting up my own workshops, ‘Writing Changes Lives’, based on the work of Pat Schneider and subsequently the open mic sessions, Poetry Plus, the Brewery Lane Writers’ Weekend and The Story House Ireland. The latter is a story for another time, but there’s a comprehensive account of its genesis on Lia Mills’ blog, Libran Writer

In the years I’ve been leading creative writing workshops I have never (never!) met one person who didn’t have something interesting to write. And we all discover something new and are very often moved when fresh first drafts are read out loud in a workshop. The writer frequently experiences their own writing in a much deeper way when they read it aloud to a receptive group, when they give it voice. The wisdom of the Amherst Writers and Artists (AWA) method comes in to play here, and for this I have always been deeply grateful. When we hear a first draft read aloud we listen, we receive it. Then I invite the listeners to tell the writer what they heard that was vivid and strong in the writing, what stays with them. No suggestions for improvement, no taking over of another’s writing seedling. Instead generous and attentive listening is more than enough to allow that nascent first draft to evolve later into a second and further draft if the writer wishes. We trust the process. Full constructive responses are only given at AWA workshops when the writer has worked on a piece, brought it beyond first draft stage and then invited such responses. 

People develop confidence through writing, through being granted the space, the support, the time to playfully experiment, to craft their writing into a piece of prose or a poem, and this has a ripple effect that extends beyond writing. In a writing group that pays due attention to the voices of the writers present, something else happens. At the group level, a sensitivity to each others’ stories, to each others’ voices develops. There is an increase in empathy, while treating everything read aloud as fiction protects the privacy of the writer. A subtle beauty operates, one that I have witnessed over and over. This is about writing but it’s always about much more than writing. 

What if we believed, as Schneider insists, that, ‘Writing as an art form belongs to all people, regardless of economic class or educational level’? Then we must create a bigger, more capacious room.


Margaret O’Brien co-founded The Story House Ireland (2014 – 2018) and formerly lectured at Waterford Institute of Technology. She curates the Brewery Lane Writers’ W/E, the open-mic Poetry Plus, and her own workshops, Writing Changes Lives and is an affiliate of Amherst Writers & Artists. 

Margaret also mentors with The Happy Body, developed by Jerzy & Aniela Gregorek, teaching their life and health-changing daily training that increases strength, flexibility and speed at any age. 

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