Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Profile of The Moving Pen Workshop

Share |
Profile of The Moving Pen Workshop

What stops us, when almost everyone writes on a daily basis, from writing for ourselves? I suppose the reasons are endless— lack of confidence, busy schedules, etc., etc.— but surely the largest reason is our inner critic. When I visited a Toronto Public Library workshop hosted by Karen Connelly for Open Book last fall, I asked Karen if she had any insights on silencing the inner critic. She suggested developing a self-celebrating inner genius to counter it, but I sense this isn’t an easy feat to accomplish. This judging, editorial inner voice, more so than any lack of skill, is likely why so many people don’t commit their pen to paper. E.B. White, in his introduction to Katherine White’s book on gardening, described Katherine’s writing process: “The editor in her fought the writer every inch of the way; the struggle was felt all through the house. She would write eight or ten words, then draw her gun and shoot them down.”

Toronto-based editor and poet, Sharon Singer, understands this struggle and has created a long-running series of workshops that offer a simple solution to the problem: just keep your pen moving. She started her first writing group in 1992 and her aptly named Moving Pen Workshop was founded in 2001, created to offer a supportive environment in which writers could practice their craft. Sharon is an editor, poet and facilitator who has established and taken part in writing workshops for seventeen years. Her philosophy in creating the Moving Pen is to “use ‘writing practice’ as its basis, to help dislodge the internal critic’s stranglehold, and to allow creative impulses to be detected, enjoyed, and exercised.” The size of the workshop groups is kept small to allow for intimacy to develop, and participants engage in a series of writing exercises in a non-critical setting.

I had the pleasure of recently visiting one of Sharon’s workshops, held on a bright morning in an East Toronto home. A group of six people, including myself, gathered around a comfortable table and chatted before the workshop began. Sharon started by handing out pages of magazines with colourful imagery, then asked us to write about anything that the images brought to mind for seven minutes. I ended up with a photograph of mountains and oceans, and wrote about a friend who recently left New Zealand and yearns endlessly to be back in the mountains.

When the allotted time was up, we each took turns reading what we had written. This is usually the part of the workshop process that I dread, but something about the warm circle allowed me to read my exercise without any real nervousness. Relieved by this happy turn of events, we then moved on to our next exercise, which was prompted by a line from a poem that Sharon read and had a longer writing time. The results were fascinating and I was moved and impressed by everyone’s writing—each participant (some of whom have been in Sharon’s workshop for years) displayed a unique style that could be discerned right away. The writing ranged from bitingly funny and autobiographical to introspective and stream of consciousness.

A unique feature of the workshop was the fact that Sharon participated in all of the exercises, something that I had never experienced with a facilitator. She also read her work with everyone else, so the separation between the workshop leader and participant was pleasantly blurred. A second factor that made the workshop so successful was the lack of critique after you read your work. While I appreciate the value of the critique process, there is something to be said about sharing your work without cringing in anticipation of criticism. We discussed works after they were read, asked questions and shared related anecdotes, but nary an “I think losing that sentence would strengthen the authorial voice” was heard.

A particularly interesting exercise that we did was called ‘opposite hand writing,’ which involves writing with your non-dominant hand. Not being very ambidextrous, the process was painful and resulted in crazed and oversized hieroglyphs symbolizing words, and using my left hand affected what I wrote. There is certainly an editing process that occurs when forming each letter is so difficult, but I also had the sensation that I was accessing an unused source of thoughts—perhaps a different side of my brain. The workshop concluded with a final long writing period, directed by a prompt from another poem.

The dynamic of the workshop encourages experimentation—I found my writing jump from satirical to diaristic in the course of four short exercises. The level of sensitivity and support demonstrated by Sharon and the participants would allow anyone to feel secure in sharing their ideas. If you are curious about writing openly and experiencing the spontaneity and support of a group writing process, visit Sharon’s website to learn more about The Moving Pen.

Photo from

Related item from our archives