Tag Archives: creative writing

Women’s Creative Writing Workshop: What a Peanut Says–Truth Starts Small

Laura Lamm, our guest contributor today, wrote this essay as an example for her ENG 100 students at Methodist University where she teaches English. It is about her 2013 experience participating in our Oaxaca Women’s Creative Writing and Yoga Retreat: Lifting Your Creative Voice.    Our 2014 workshop is open for registration.

As I cull through and edit almost 800 photos from the Lunes Cerro extravaganza we call Guelaguetza to share with you, I offer you this extraordinary piece of writing to enjoy for today!


My Failed Free-Write by Laura Lamm

Last spring, on the fourth day of the Oaxaca Women’s Writing Retreat, Robin [Greene], our writing coach, had passed around a bag of peanuts. Her only instructions had been “take one and don’t eat it. Well, at least not right away,” and she had laughed in that funny light-hearted way we had immediately loved hearing from her on our first day. Her lesson of this day was “truth starts small” when writing.

Some members of our group were lucky enough to get a whole nut, but some of us only got a half.  Robin told us to examine our peanuts for a few minutes and write about them.  Admittedly, while game for the exercise, I had thought how much can be said about half a peanut. I was surprised by the details the other writers in the group gave.  Truly inspiring words flowed from their lips as they read aloud: crunchiness, smoothness, grooves, dimples, and salt flakes.  Each woman had something astounding to say about the small world of her peanut, but I did not meet the challenge.

In fact, if I had been scored in a classroom on my attempt, I would have failed, totally missing any points given for following directions, falling way below the other women writers on the retreat.  I would have been that girl in the back of the proverbial classroom who would make the teacher shake his or her head and later comment to a peer, “Poor child, she just doesn’t get it.”

Peanuts make me think of humid August dog days.  The ones so bad that my mother would buy us ice-cold Cokes and bags of Lance salted peanuts, and we’d pour the nuts into the top of the bottle, making the Coke fizz until we covered the top with our hot mouths and drank, catching the peanuts with our tongues, stuffing them in our cheeks like squirrels.  Small things, like peanuts, make me remember other things.  Peanuts also make me think of elephants.

Robin could not have known about my fondness for Coke and peanuts or of my admiration for elephants when she had made the writing assignment.  She could not have imagined that I had watched a television documentary, revolving around a herd of African elephants, the night before my flight to Mexico.  The elephant herd, which had been large in number, was steadily decreasing because of a drought.  That day in Oaxaca, where life was a string of perfect small truths to be discovered, I couldn’t focus my mind on my peanut half even for a brief time.  My mind kept wandering to the ancient cow that had many daughters in her herd but had birthed a male that season.

Instead of the nut in front of me, I kept seeing her walking, searching for any water or food to be found.  I sat in the safeness of my writing retreat, thinking about how that mother would have loved to have even this single half of a peanut for her calf.  He had died that summer in the documentary. His mother had continued to grieve for his loss until the herd splintered into smaller groups that had gone on their way, because she would not leave him behind even weeks after his death.  Her daughters and granddaughters stayed beside her until her death; then the eldest herded all of the surviving cows onto their primordial walking path, following the herd’s other females, for what she instinctively knew would be a better life just as her mother had done before her.

No, I don’t think I would have scored very highly on my free-write if I had been judged by an assignment’s standards, and it was lovely that on this retreat I didn’t have to worry about failure. My destiny was not predetermined by a rubric from a filing cabinet.  Instead, I was afforded time to reflect on my truth.

I found that I thought not of peanuts or elephants.  I realized that I am always emotionally torn by events that revolve around mothers and daughters. I thought of my mother who has led me until she can no longer do so.  I thought of my daughter who I am trying to lead, but, like the granddaughters on the African plain, she is willful and head strong—not seeing the path of least resistance that I have already walked.  One day she will make her own path because she finds no solace in mine.

In the end, the peanut did fulfill its purpose just as Robin had said it would.  It gave me pause to think, and its small truth brought me full circle to a universal truth.  As a daughter and mother, I am faced daily with many types of conflicts that all require resolutions; but no matter the pull of each problem, I put one foot in front of the other, on instinct alone at times.  I win. I lose. I make a decision only to make another decision, avert this problem to face another.  I stand in the face of many adversities.  The greatest one being that no matter what I do, I will send my daughter out into an uncertain future just as my mother sent me.


Oaxaca Women’s Creative Writing and Yoga Retreat 2014

            Registration is Now Open

In Transit and Transition: From North Carolina to Oaxaca

The past two months that I have been in North Carolina have been filled with visiting dear friends, doing a lot of creative writing that includes poetry, creative non-fiction and personal narrative, attending a women’s writing retreat, planning new workshops, and keeping Mexico on my mind.  I tell friends that I love it when I’m in North Carolina and I love it when I’m in Oaxaca.  Both places are home and I’m never ready to leave either place when it’s time.  But, thankfully, there’s always that return ticket to take me forward.

What does HOME mean to you?

This week I’m in transit and transition, planted in Santa Cruz, California for a longer-than-usual ten-day visit with my family.  My 97 year-old mother is slowing down, though is mobile and quite alert, still able to carry on a meaningful political conversation, always an important distinction in my family. Yesterday, my 12-year-old niece played a violin recital that my mother’s retirement community enjoyed.  Tomorrow my son arrives to celebrate his birthday during the July 4th weekend.  We are based at my sister’s house where an organic garden is in glorious profusion of fresh vegetables and the Mediterranean climate offers dry sunny days and chilly nights that promote deep, restful sleep.  This feels like home to me, too, reminding me of childhood California nurturing.  California roots run deep.

On Tuesday, July 9, I will travel to Mexico City on a non-stop flight from San Francisco.  There, I’ll meet Deborah Morris, M.D.-P.A., who heads up the physician’s assistant program at Methodist University.  We have two of her students volunteering in the Teotitlan del Valle public health clinic for the month of July. We will join them for a mid-session debriefing and plan a project they will create that will have sustainable health education benefits for the village.

So, stay tuned.  Soon, I’ll be back in Mexico to give you more reportage about Oaxaca and beyond.

Hope you are having a great summer.  -Norma

P.S. Consider our next Women’s Creative Writing and Yoga Retreat in Oaxaca, winter 2014.

New Book of Poetry Crafted During Oaxaca Women’s Creative Writing and Yoga Retreat

Poet Katie Kingston has news! Lost Horse Press has just published her new book of poems, Shaking the Kaleidoscope.  It is her first complete book! Katie wrote this morning to tell me, “Two poems from the Oaxaca conference are in the book, so I was pleased to acknowledge the Oaxaca Women’s [Creative] Writing Retreat. The chapbook [instructor] Robin [Greene] reviewed with me in Teotitlan del Valle is the first section of the book, (the second section is the Mexico poems) so our week together in Oaxaca was very fruitful for me and I have to thank you again for that.”  Thank you, Katie, for making words that sing and speak to the colors, textures and beauty of our world.  Besos y abrazos y felicidades. I’m going to order Katie’s book.  I hope you do, too.   -Norma

We have space in the 2013 Women’s Creative Writing and Yoga Retreat.  Come to Oaxaca to lift your creative voice and be inspired to write.  Beginners are welcome!

Memoir and Fiction: Creative Writing Workshop in Oaxaca, Mexico: Lives in Motion

You write or have always wanted to write.  You may be experienced and published, a raw beginner or somewhere in-between.  Wherever you are, this 5-day creative writing workshop will help you become a better writer of fiction or memoir — or both!  Writing memoir and fiction can be an exploration of self that becomes integrated into the creative work.  With published authors and university professors Robin Greene and Michael Colonnese you will explore the craft by examining your own life and experiences that can be integrated into and reflected in your writing.  Your voice will gain strength and momentum through this creative process.

Arrive Friday, July 12, depart Thursday, July 18—six nights, five days.

Participants may sign up in advance for either memoir or fiction tracks or take part in both. Each day offers a mixed-genre technique seminar, followed by a breakout genre-specific workshop session. Writers—at all levels of accomplishment (including beginners) —are welcome and will benefit from the supportive, stimulating and enriching format. Topics include:

  • Setting and Context—how and where our important stories take place
  • Genre Conventions and Publishing—effectively presenting your work to readers
  • Effective Plotting—the events that move our stories forward
  • Point of View, Voice, and Narrative Reliability—understanding the teller of the tale
  • Negotiating Grammar and Tense—the nuts-and-bolts of writing and effective editing

With experienced authors and university professors Michael Colonnese and Robin Greene as your writing instructors, and Norma Hawthorne as your cultural guide, you’ll have the opportunity to write or polish your fiction or personal memoir.

We will be based in the Zapotec weaving village of Teotitlan del Valle about thirty minutes from Oaxaca city, where we are surrounded by 9,000 foot peaks, shaded by ripening pomegranates, and scented by blossoming bougainvillea—a setting that inspires and renews creativity.  Here in this traditional Zapotec village, life and a naturally beautiful setting unfolds to stimulate your senses and creative energy.  Daily workshop sessions are tailored to each participant’s skill-level and needs.

We include a one-on-one conference with Michael or Robin to discuss your work and gain meaningful feedback that will serve your development as a writer well beyond the workshop. Participants may also choose to pay a fee and receive a manuscript review.

Although we cannot promise that you’ll win a literary prize—as one of Robin’s  retreat participants did in 2011 after writing an award-winning poem at a similar retreat, or be published in a prestigious literary journal as another participant did in 2012—we can promise that you will explore and develop yourself as a writer.

You’ll have plenty of free time to write during the workshop.  You can also choose to take part in optional activities such as hiking, birdwatching, and visiting village weaving and artists’ studios. You are welcome to venture out and explore the village and its environs on your own. Personal safety is not a concern here.

The Retreat Includes:

  • 15 hours of group writing instruction
  • One-hour individual coaching session
  • Daily workshop sessions to give/receive feedback
  • Focused coaching to hone your skills: grammar, syntax, plotting, and publishing
  • Guided visit to Tlacolula regional market
  • 6 nights lodging
  • 5 breakfasts
  • 4 lunches
  • 5 dinners

Optional Fee-based Activities (see below):  a Zapotec cooking class, continuing education units,  2 semester hours of university credit, private manuscript review.

Meet Your Instructors: 

Robin Greene is the McLean Endowed Professor of English and Writing, and Director of the Writing Center at Methodist University in Fayetteville, North Carolina. She is also co-founder and editor of Longleaf Press and is widely published. Greene is recipient of a NC Arts Council/NEA Fellowship, a university teaching award, and a visiting professorship in Romania. Greene has led community and conference workshops, has served as a writing consultant, and has taught creative writing for over two decades. Her books include Real Birth: Women Share Their Stories (nonfiction), Memories of Light and Lateral Drift (collections of poetry), and Augustus: Narrative of a Slave Woman (novel). Greene holds an M.A. in English from SUNY-Binghamton and an M.F.A. in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts.

Michael Colonnese is a published novelist and poet, and the Director of the Creative Writing Program at Methodist University. He holds an M.A. and Ph.D. from Binghamton University. His award-winning mystery novel, Sex and Death, I Suppose, won the Dark Oak Novel Award and was published in 2010 by Oak Tree Press. A poetry collection, Temporary Agency, won the prestigious Ledge Poetry Award and was published in 2009 by Ledge Press. Over his literary career, he has published widely in short fiction, poetry, and creative non-fiction and is the winner of numerous literary awards in all three genres. He was also a NEH grant recipient, and he worked for years as a documentary filmmaker whose work in that medium has aired on public television.

Norma Hawthorne has produced arts and educational programs in Oaxaca, Mexico, through Oaxaca Cultural Navigator LLC since 2006. She offers textile, arts  photography workshops that are attended by participants from around the world. During her career in higher education, Norma has organized national award-winning continuing education programs for Indiana University, University of Virginia, and George Washington University, and raised more than $23 million for The University of North Carolina School of Nursing. She holds the B.A. from California State University at Northridge and the M.S. from the University of Notre Dame.

Preliminary Workshop Outline:

•   Friday, July 12, travel day—arrive and check-in

•   Saturday, July 13, village walk / seminar topic: setting and context / workshop

•   Sunday, July 14, regional market visit / seminar topic: genre conventions / workshop

•   Monday, July 15, seminar topic: effective plotting / workshop

•   Tuesday, July 16, seminar topic: POV, voice, and narrative reliability / workshop

•   Wednesday, July 17, seminar topic: negotiating grammar and tense /workshop / retreat-writers’  reading

•   Thursday, July 18, departure or stay an additional night (optional) for a cooking class today

Lodging/Accommodations and Costs:

To keep this program affordable, we have selected clean and basic accommodations at family-operated bed and breakfast inns. Local meals are prepared by excellent cooks from organic ingredients made from scratch. Vegetarian options are available.

Base Cost: $1,395 per person double occupancy with shared bath facilities.

[  ] Option 2: I prefer a single room with private bath for $1,695

[  ] Option 3: 5-hour Zapotec cooking class on Thursday, July 18.  You will depart on, Friday, July 19. This includes local market shopping tour, breakfast, lunch, dinner overnight on Thursday, July 18.  Add $145.

[  ] Option 4: 3 CEUs (Continuing Education Units) for 15 contact hours of instruction, with certificate of completion, $75 per person.

[  ] Option 5:  2 semester hours of college credit available through Methodist University for an additional summer tuition fee of $700.00

[  ]  Option 6:  Manuscript review @ $150 per manuscript

The workshop does NOT include airfare, taxes, tips/gratuities, travel insurance, liquor or alcoholic beverages, some meals, and local transportation to and from Oaxaca City. We can pre-arrange taxi pick-up and return from/to the Oaxaca airport at your own expense.

We reserve the right to substitute instructors and alter the program as needed.

Reservations and Cancellations:  A 50% deposit based on your preferred options is required to guarantee your spot. The final payment for the balance due (including any additional costs) shall be paid by March 1, 2013 to reserve your place.  The balance is due on June 1, 2013.  Payment is requested or PayPal. We will send you an itemized invoice when you are ready to register.

We strongly recommend that you take out trip cancellation, baggage, emergency evacuation and medical insurance before you begin your trip, since unforeseen circumstances are possible.

To get your questions answered and to register, contact: normahawthorne@mac.com.  Since we are in Oaxaca during many months of the year, we are happy to arrange a Skype conversation with you if you wish.

This retreat is produced by Norma Hawthorne, Oaxaca Cultural Navigator LLC. We reserve the right to make itinerary changes and substitutions as necessary.




Tribute to International Women’s Day Through Poetry

Left to right: Giselt, Simona, Jennifer, Beth, Norma, Robin, Debbie, Kelly, Becky

Who knew there would be a full moon illuminating the courtyard at Las Granadas  Bed and Breakfast last night, March 8, when Professor Robin Greene and I planned our Women’s Creative Writing and Yoga Retreat a year ago?  And, who knew that it would coincide with International Women’s Day?  Who knew that nine magnifient women would gather on this day to lift voices in poetry, song, memoir, and reflective writing?  Sometimes, the universe aligns perfectly.


We invite Zapotec women from the village of Teotitlan del Valle where our retreat was based to share our experience.  Expatriates join in.  Together we sit, hear stories and poems about mothers, loved ones, the experience of first-time travel out of the U.S., a first date.  We honor each other with applause, a wonderful meal, a toast of sweetened juice made from the hibiscus flower (agua de jamaica).  This is our local tribute to the universality of women.  We lift our voices in community.


Rebecca King, one of our retreat participants, is a writer and poet who returned to college to complete a degree in English and creative writing as an adult.  She will graduate from Methodist University in Fayetteville, NC, this spring.  This is the poem she wrote during the retreat and read last night, giving me permission to share it with you. (Above: Becky works on last minute changes before the fiesta and final reading.)


(Reyna’s mole amarillo with green beans, choyote squash and potatoes, that she dishes out from the cooking pot.)

Where I Stand by Rebecca King

I stand

on the kitchen chair,

in the white house

before the twins came.

My mother, wearing

her green dress with the

white flowers,

moves her arms

back and forth,

a slow rolling.

I am five,

clumsy, messy.

Soft, squishy dough

sticks to my fingers.

Together, my mother

and I knead, roll,

gather the dough

back to center.



almost forty years

later, I stand

on the dirt floor

of Reyna’s kitchen

in Teotitlan, Mexico.

I move my arms

back and forth

a slow rolling.

I am forty two,

clumsy, messy.

The mano de matate

heavy in my hands.

I knead, roll,

grind the onions,

peppers, tomatillas,

roasted sesame

seeds into stone.

I gather the paste

back to center,

feel the ancient

rhythm of the women

where I stand.



Photos immediately above:  we are eating a lunch of amarillo molé prepared by cooking teacher Reyna Mendoza Ruiz outside in her immaculately clean traditional dirt floor kitchen.  She prepared the luscious traditional sauce using a metate that Rebecca refers to in her poem.  Rebecca opted to also take a cooking class with Reyna, which inspired her poem.