What a 70-year-old stone mason taught me about teaching creative brief writing.

In the summer of 1979, I was living in Tampa, Florida between my junior and senior years at the University of Tampa. My uncle, who was a senior legal-eagle at The Shriners, landed a summer job for me at a swimming pool company owned by one of the Shriners’ biggest donors.

I don’t mind sharing this bit of nepotism because the job was forgettable, dirty and outside, no great treat in the drenching humidity and pummeling heat of tropical Florida between June and August.

My first day on the job, I was directed to join a group of young men who were mingling by the big company truck parked behind the main building. I noticed I was a head shorter than everyone around me and easily thirty pounds or more lighter. I stood five-ten and weighed probably 150 pounds, so I wasn’t puny, but no body builder either.

I had no idea what I had been assigned to do. Little did I realize that all these men would be heading out to do the finishing work on residential swimming pools dug by my employer.

Finishing work meaning these young men would be laying the decorative stones in the pool, around its edge and the walkway around the pool. Back-breaking work. And all outside, under the summer sun with no shade for protection.

Someone took one look at me before the truck pulled out of the company parking lot and had pity. I was called over to a supervisor and redirected to a small open-air workspace in the back of the property covered by a corrugated-tin roof.

Beneath this welcome canopy, I met an old guy named Gus. He was short, stocky, a bit stooped with close-cropped white hair. Gus had been the pool company’s sole stone mason for 25 years. He was in his 70s, but looked older, and had retired the year before. But he came in to work once or twice a week. He showed me how to do my new job. I became the pool company’s summer stone mason.

Gus was not the loquacious type and showed me what I needed to do by, well, showing me what I needed to do. And that was truly the best way to learn. My task was straightforward, although not simple. I had to pour 100 stones every day. One hundred. Not 99, not 101, but an even 100. My pay wouldn’t be docked for failing to reach the 100 mark, but I would also not be rewarded for exceeding it. The good news, if you could call it that, was that I did not have to pour 100 of the same stones. There were different sizes and shapes and different quantities required for each size. So the job was repetitive, but not mindless.

Gus did tell me one thing, which turned out to be pretty important.

“You don’t have to pour 100 stones on your first day,” he said with a mischievous smile on his round face. He would cut me a break while he showed me the ropes, or rather the concrete.

And I learned not only how to use the two dozen or so wooden molds he, Gus, had built over the years for his employer, based on the needs of the pool and landscape designers. Gus also taught me how to mix all the ingredients to make the cement I would need to pour all the stones.

In truth, then, I had three tasks: mix the cement, pour the stones and keep track of the clock, because I needed to pour 100 stones in the eight-hour shift at the pool company. In other words, I was expected to hit the number before I left for the day. It’s called a quota. It may be a free market, but it was tyranny nonetheless.

And I learned. I discovered the difference between the subtly textured surfaces of the decorative stones used on the steps leading into the water, or that lined the edge of a pool, and the 200-pound ugly gray behemoth called the main-drain that required a back-hoe and a team of two or three men to maneuver into the bottom of the deep end of a pool.

I made dozens of the decorative stones, but only one main-drain a day. If I broke a decorative stone removing it from its mold, no big deal. I could easily pour another. But if I cracked the main-drain, that was it. The main-drain was my first pour of the day and required a full 24-hours to set before I could break it out of its mold first thing the next day. And I was required to let my supervisor know and endure a stern look of disapproval, should the main-drain crack.

When I asked Gus how many main-drains he’d broken over the years, he answered with another mischievous smile and a cocked head that I could only interpret as, “Not a one, kid.” I was skeptical, but I never pressed him.

I am a lot more talkative than Gus, who said maybe 25 words to me all summer. But when I teach brief writing, I remind myself what I think is the most valuable skill I possess as a teacher: Show, don’t tell. Writers learn this skill very early. This is also how young artists teach themselves technique: they visit museums, sit in front of a Botticelli or a Monet and copy what they see. They learn by doing.

I could lecture on how to write great briefs. But I don’t, and my students are probably grateful. I’d rather be the guide on the side rather than the sage on the stage.

Gus did a lot more than show me how to pour stones 43 years ago.

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