Embracing Creativity, History and culture, Travels

Explore the mysteries of Mt. Gilead, North Carolina

On a family trip to Lake Tillery this week, we traveled into Mt. Gilead one afternoon to check out a coffee shop. As we got out of the car, the North Carolina August heat rippled up from the sidewalk and silence wrapped us in a blissful blanket of quiet — no constant roar of engines or music blaring from car speakers. A stately red brick Methodist church stood across the street, and a colorful “Welcome to Historic Downtown Mount Gilead” mural hung from a facing wall.

I love murals and street art (check out my Las Vegas post), so I was immediately curious about the town we had stumbled upon.

The first mural …

Next, I saw an old-timey Coca-Cola ad painted on the side of a building. Then, an R.C. Cola one:

We passed a sewing shop, a frame and gift shop, and when we got to the next cross-street, we saw a historical-looking mural:

And opposite this mural, another important-looking one:

A fifth mural up ahead displayed an image of a Native American man. Who were these men, and who commissioned and painted all these murals? We walked back the way we came, crossing the street at the coffee shop, which I later found out had once been a doctor’s office building. I took a photo outside as a record:

Who was Dr. P.R. Rankin? I’m so curious!

Kyle and Myra Poplin own Speckled Paw Coffee and were more than happy to tell us how they started the coffee shop, which is much more than a coffee-and-ice-cream shop. It’s a community center, a place for people to gather and chat. Mt. Gilead didn’t really have a place like that until 2018, when the Poplins bought the old building, which had stood empty for two decades. The Poplins took out the office walls of the main room but kept the original windows (and all the glass except for one pane, which had to be replaced.) Now, it’s an airy, open space with lots of light flowing in.

Guess who Speckled Paw Coffee is named for?

I love mysteries, and Mt. Gilead is full of them. The town is tiny — only about 1000 people — but it has the feel of a place much bigger. The Poplins had the wherewithal to start an online community newsletter to replace the defunct local newspaper, and everyone has jumped on board. Elderly readers often get their children to print out the newsletter so they can read it more easily, Myra says.

The owners of Thistle Ridge Soap just down the street from Speckled Paw, rely on their Internet sales, as well as ones from their brick-and-mortar store. A husband-and-wife team, they make their own soap and sell crafts by local artisans.

Less than 10 miles away stands Town Creek Indian Mound, a State Historic Site. I’ve lived in NC for more than 20 years and have hardly heard anything about this archeological site of the Pee Dee people, other than that it exists. Why? I want to learn more — we arrived about 15 minutes before closing and didn’t have much time to look at the displays inside the museum — so I will need to research this.

Just ten minutes down the road from Mt. Gilead is a North Carolina State Historical Site, the Town Creek Indian Mound. This is the view from atop the mound.

Unlike other places I’ve visited (and lived in), Mt. Gilead seems to peacefully embrace its history and the modern, digital reality forced upon it. The residents I met are friendly and optimistic, proud of the past but also excited about the future. This feels like a healthy place to be!

What’s different about this little town, located near the geographical center of the state, next to the Uwharrie National Forest? Nearby, the bigger towns of Troy and Albemarle get more traffic (and more press), but Mt. Gilead has mysteries to uncover. I’ll be following up with answers to my questions in upcoming posts. If you want to visit Mt. Gilead (and Speckled Paw Coffee), it’s about 90 minutes south of Greensboro, in Montgomery County. And if you live in Mt. Gilead, or know more about this town, please share in the comments!

Author experiences, Embracing Creativity, Fiction, History and culture, Nonfiction, Writing Tips

Digging into your past for relief … and stories!

When I was 16, my grandmother and I had a falling out. She died in 2010, still furious (or perhaps oblivious). I had written to her a year earlier in a final attempt at resolution. But she wasn’t interested and informed me that if I was after her money, she’d already told her lawyers not to give me a dime.

Fast forward to 2021… I see a post on Twitter about a new app that can bring old photographs back to life; I’m not a fan of “deep fake” technology, but I have to admit, I was curious. I tried it on an old photograph of my grandfather (my grandmother’s late husband who died before I was born). His younger self beamed back at me, his smile wide and infectious, eyes twinkling, and I was charmed!

My dad at about four years old.

Right away, I began digging to find out more about my grandfather and my late dad’s side of the family. It turned out my grandfather used to work in a mental health institution, and his dad was a blacksmith. His mother was a school teacher. In the 1950s, he and my grandmother lived in Malaysia, my dad traveling on a troop ship when he was only about seven or eight. The timeline began to shift around, blurred spots becoming clearer, pieces floating into place like a magical jiggle puzzle, and a gap that I hadn’t even realized existed began to fill inside of me.

It turns out, the past takes up a lot of space if it’s not resolved. The unknowns, misunderstandings, and falsehoods hit each other at odd angles, leaving empty pockets. Those “pockets” stick around until you open up the photo albums, read the old letters, study the registers of births, death, and marriages, and have the difficult conversations with family members who don’t really want you to hash it all up again. With dust motes and the bitter scent of dried glue on the backs of black-and-white photographs hovering in the air, that’s the time to talk, cry, think, sigh, take a deep breath, and let it all go.

Two doves from my mom’s garden. Tomorrow is a new day!

Right now, I don’t know where this path is going. But I already have a couple of good ideas for story characters –a mysterious secretary who lopes around a graveyard at night and a proud woman who secretly hates herself for being born a girl. It’s all fodder, after all.

If you have relatives in Great Britain you’d like to research, here are some of the sites I’ve found helpful:

FreeBMD Home Page – this is a great FREE resource to find listings of births, deaths, and marriages in England and Wales.

https://probatesearch.service.gov.uk/ – where you can look up wills and probates of the deceased and purchase a digital copy if you want to.

ancestry.co.uk – you can get a free 14-day trial, and this site will help you build your family tree and keep it organized!

Home | Search the archive | British Newspaper Archive – you can search for free, but if you want to read the actual articles, you have to pay. Still, once you know the name of the newspaper and the date, you can always look the actual paper up through a library or other type of archives.

General Register Office (GRO) – Official information on births, marriages, civil partnerships and deaths – the “biggie,” where to order official certificates, etc…

Author experiences, Book Reviews, Embracing Creativity, Fiction

How the Pandemic Inspired a Love Story — Women Writers, Women’s Books

This is a re-post from the excellent website, “Women Writers, Women’s Books.” They always have interesting articles by women authors. This one caught my attention because Ms. Holloway talks fondly about her grandfather, and my grandfather started writing stories later in his life, so we had that connection that I’ll always hang on to.

After my grandfather had a heart attack four years ago, I moved in with my grandparents during his recovery. Late in the evenings, as my grandmother slept in her recliner beside him and my poodle sprawled across his feet, he and I would watch movies. His preference, inevitably and humorously, was Hallmark movies. I worked…

How the Pandemic Inspired a Love Story — Women Writers, Women’s Books
Embracing Creativity, History and culture, podcasts, politics

Mixing it up!

While my writing has been … a bit slow, I’ve been taking on other creative projects. My podcast, Train Your Brain to be Creative (I know, not a very creative name!), has been really fun to work on. And now, using ideas from my online graphic design classes, I’m creating designs in zazzle.com to put on tee shirts, tote bags, and postcards.

My latest “collection” (sounds fancier than it is!) is of powerful female leaders, inspired by Kamala Harris’s recent win! It’s really fun to take a photograph from the Creative Commons and edit it, adding colors and swirls and all sorts of thing. My goal is to improve my tech skills, have fun, and spread some positive images out there!

Whatever I sell in this collection, I’m going to donate the profits to the Malala Fund, which advocates for girls’ secondary education in Afghanistan, Brazil, India, Lebanon, Nigeria, Pakistan and Turkey. Malala Yousafzai is a hero of mine, having survived being shot by the Taliban when she was only 11 years old. She didn’t let that stop her and went on to become the youngest Nobel Peace Prize laureate!

You can check out my online zazzle store here: https://www.zazzle.com/collections/woman_power-119711412469975520

Author experiences, Book Reviews, Embracing Creativity, Fiction, History and culture, Writing Tips

A Strong Sense of Place — Women Writers, Women’s Books

This is a re-post from the excellent blog, Women Writers, Women’s Books. How do you handle setting in your fiction writing? I admit that setting is sometimes an afterthought for me, and I constantly have to challenge myself to place it up front!

Should I have chosen an exotic location in which to set my new novel?  Research can be done anywhere in the world (or at least, it could, pre-covid).  Armed with a suitcase, laptop and my writing head firmly switched on, I set forth on a magical adventure to research my new book.  But it was…

A Strong Sense of Place — Women Writers, Women’s Books
Author experiences, Embracing Creativity, podcasts, Writing Tips

Creativity and Kids!

Please check out the latest episode of Train Your Brain to be Creative! Lisa and I discuss a really interesting article about how motherhood affects creativity, and we also dive into how children, in general, can help spark creativity. You don’t have to be a parent — you can simply be around children!

Author experiences, Embracing Creativity, Fiction, Getting Published, History and culture, Nonfiction, podcasts

Improving Writing Productivity Amid a Pandemic — Women Writers, Women’s Books

This is a re-post from the excellent Women Writers, Women’s Books

Damyanti Biswas lives in Singapore, and supports Delhi’s underprivileged women and children, volunteering with organisations who work for this cause. Her short stories have been published in magazines in the US, UK, and Asia, and she helps edit the Forge Literary Magazine. Her novel You Beneath Your Skin will be free between 7th and 11th August […]

Improving Writing Productivity Amid a Pandemic — Women Writers, Women’s Books
Author experiences, Embracing Creativity, podcasts, Writing Tips

A new podcast … by me!

If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you might know that I love podcasts! Well, a friend, fellow writer Lisa Logan, got me started on Anchor. It’s a site that lets you create your own podcasts for free, and I was immediately hooked!

With Lisa’s encouragement, I’ve begun recording short (about 6 mins) podcasts about how to spark creativity. They’re especially geared for people who are convinced they are NOT creative, but anyone can enjoy the brief lessons on how to get your imagination going.

Lisa will join me on some episodes, as she’s one of the most creative people I know! So, if you’d like, please give a listen!

Author experiences, Embracing Creativity, Fiction, History and culture, podcasts

What is authenticity in writing?

Hidden BrainI recently listened to an episode of the excellent podcast Hidden Brain by NPR,  hosted by Shankar Vedantam. This particular episode focused on the author Gail Shepherd (who sadly passed away in February this year) and her novel The True History of Lyndie B. Hawkins.

Originally, Shepherd had written her main character as half-Vietnamese, based on the life of a very close friend who is half white and half Vietnamese. But after much research and talking with friends of different races, Shepherd decided to re-write her novel with a white protagonist. Despite already having her good friend’s “blessing” to write the story, Shepherd worried that critics would say she was appropriating another culture.

Listening to the podcast, I remembered that while in graduate school I had written two short stories with Chinese and half-Vietnamese main characters. I wrote the stories based on my own knowledge (my boyfriend and now-husband is Chinese-Vietnamese, and we’d traveled to Vietnam together). I also had Vietnamese friends, so I didn’t think too much about it.

Today, I’m more educated about and aware of white privilege. I understand Shepherd’s decision. She had to consider dynamics of the publishing world, her own feelings about cultural appropriation, and her readers’ feelings. I was pretty much oblivious to all that in graduate school!

But I also agree with a point that host Shankar Vedantam made — Shepherd’s original version of the novel included insights about race and growing up Asian in the American South. Possibly, some American-Asian girls could have benefited from reading this story. While Shepherd was not Asian, she knew her friend’s story very well. She was telling an authentic story. That version could have been very insightful.

Shepherd argued that while people of color are not fairly represented in the publishing world, she didn’t feel comfortable writing as a different race. But if her friend wasn’t a writer and couldn’t tell her story, wasn’t better that someone she loved and trusted did?

It’s the job of fiction writers to tell lies to describe truths about life. Of course, there are some stories we can’t write — I don’t know how to write from a Black character’s point of view. I feel okay about writing from a 3rd person perspective of an Asian American character — but maybe not as much as I used to. If we are creating from a place of honesty and empathy — NOT using cultural stereotypes — I think it can be useful to have these stories told, regardless of the writer’s race.

And as one of the guests on the podcast, philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah, said a person’s identity is not wholly their race. They are also parents, grandparents, teachers, artists, philosophers, plumbers, athletes, and a multitude of other roles and identities.

But I am a white person and, so, can only see through the lens of a white person. What do you think? Story tellers use their imaginations, but are there some things we just can’t imagine well enough to write about? 

Conferences, Embracing Creativity, Getting Published, Writing Tips

Don’t let COVID stop you writing

I remember back in March when I posted the information about spring writers’ conferences…hmm. Well, here are some opportunities for writers that are STILL going on, despite COVID-19.

If you are a resident of NC (or don’t mind taking online writing classes), check out the North Carolina Writers’ Network. Right now, the Sally Buckner Emerging Writers’ Fellowship is going on. The deadline is June 30.

“The 2021 Buckner Fellowship will support an emerging writer of creative nonfiction. Fellowship recipients will use the $500 award to allay the costs associated with the business of writing: paper, printing, writing supplies, submission fees, research expenses, travel, conference registration fees, etc. In addition to the cash award, recipients will receive a complimentary one-year membership in the North Carolina Writers’ Network, as well as scholarship aid to attend the Network’s annual Fall and Spring Conferences.”

Also through the NC Network is the SQUIRE ONLINE summer writing workshop, a weekend’s worth of intensive, socially-distanced study in one of three genres. Registration ends JUNE 29. Writer Patrice Gopo (see photo) will lead the workshop “But It Really Happened Just Like That: Our Stories, Our Truth: Creative Nonfiction.”

Another great resource is the national group Sisters in Crime. It’s not just for women, either! Their site has links to webinars with writing tips, and you can check out your local chapter to see what’s being offered via Zoom. NC alone has 3 chapters in the Triad, Charlotte, and Durham!sistersincrime

For all kinds of writer news, online classes, contests, and more, check out the NewPages Blog. Just be sure to double-check that upcoming conferences (such as Killer Nashville in the Fall) are still on, or if they’ve been canceled or turned virtual. Who knows what surprises COVID-19 holds in store for us…

Regardless, keep on writing!