This Writer's Life

Sticks and Stones: Memoirs About the Writing Life


“Writers often talk about the books that influenced them, but what are your nonliterary influences?” – Bookends, NYTimes, Sunday 11/9/14

Thomas Mallon and James Parker answer the question in two short essays. Mallon writes that he keeps “photos around me while I write the way other authors keep music on in the background, as a kind of atmospheric stimulation.” Parker states, “From my fellow bakers, I learned about industry and cohesion and the moral obligation to be cheerful.” I enjoyed these pieces as much for their diversity as for their content. Mallon uses photos “for unexpected details, such as the faces in the crowd, the people witnessing what a historical novelist can only try to reconstruct.” Parker credits drummers and comedians, as well as his years spent baking, as his “greatest nonliterary influences.”

My greatest nonliterary influence is the humble parking lot. I wrote about this in my book Vibrant Words: Ideas and Inspirations for Poets. Recently, the parking lot of my neighborhood hardware store was re-paved and re-striped, covering up its gray and pitted surface, the little tufts of grass and baby trees, the years of dumped coffee, crushed cigarette butts, crumbled leaves and motor oil rainbows. I have observed this parking lot for a long time. Its spiffy black and white appearance will soften soon, as when a pair of new white sports shoes gets its first scuff. The edges of paint marking off parking places will fray and split, and the asphalt will start to crack as soon as summer returns.

Some parking lots are challenging, like the tiny one behind the Beat Museum in San Francisco. A huge and empty parking lot surrounds the Veterans Memorial Building in Santa Rosa, where I learned to drive. Some cities seem to exist almost without parking lots, or with very small ones, such as New York or Berlin. Others, Los Angeles for example, are covered in them.

One of my favorite qualities of parking lots is that no one else cares about them, at least not for poetic inspiration. However, if you look long enough, you will discover a lot about these neglected patches of pavement. In an after-school enrichment class I once taught, I had students mark off four-foot squares in the school parking lot with chalk. I told each student that he or she was responsible for that square, and had the students make lists of everything they could observe about their squares. The students thought it was a little weird at first, but they complied, making more and more detailed lists. Since these were children under the age of ten, they saw things like fairies and Pikachu in addition to plastic straws, ripped binder paper and pencil stubs. I had them construct narratives from the lists, and then illustrated stories.

Today, claim your piece of pavement. Find a spot no one else sees the beauty in, and populate it from your imagination. Take photos of your parking lot throughout the seasons. Keep an album of parking lots you’ve visited on your travels. What happens there? Who comes and goes? What is the most common piece of trash you see? Why do you think that is?

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