When I was in my late teens I worked as a stonemason. Or rather, I worked as the tender to a stonemason, a position also known as the hod carrier or laborer. My job, perhaps obvious from the title, was to tend to the mason as he built walls, fireplaces, fences, patios, chimneys, etc. out of beautiful fieldstone, flagstone, split-faced boulders and river rock. To “tend” was to carry stones from here to there, mix mortar (or mud, as it is often called), scrape smooth the joints between stones, make coffee and lunch runs and all the other detritus grunt work associated with being the lowest wrung of the tradesman ladder.
It was a tremendous time in my life. The days were physically taxing. And while more than once, straddling a roofline for six or more hours to build scaffolding and lay out stones for a colossal chimney project, I suffered some truly cringe-worthy sunburns, I always ended the day, collapsing into bed and instant sleep, with a sense of accomplishment.
Stonemasonry is a puzzle minus the reference picture. You are given a pile of raw substance, quarried stone formed and shaped over millions of years, and tasked with displaying it in a functional and esthetically pleasing way. And because no two stones are exactly the same, no two stone features can ever be identical. So even though we have a sense of what, for example, a fireplace should look like—a hearth, firebox and mantle—the raw material, the wily shaped, multi-hued stones, ensures that a stone fireplace can look a thousand different ways depending on the type of stones used and their placement. In the hands of a master mason, the results transcend mere craftsmanship and become works of art.
When I teach, I tell my students that writing and stonemasonry are very similar. Each of us, I tell them, has a stockpile of raw material—the stuff we’ve accumulated over all the years of our lives—and it is from this heap of life events that we draw on for much of our writing. Some of the “stuff” is seemingly uninteresting, like a slab of Basalt, while other “stuff” glitters with the leopard markings of a Diorite. It is up to us to sift through the pile and find the gems.
But that’s the easy part of the process. The real difficulty of writing is fusing that raw material together in a meaningful way.
I was fortunate during my time as a tender to work with a very talented stonemason (several, actually) who occasionally let me mason. On one such occasion, I was covering a three-foot-high block foundation of a newly constructed home on Torch Lake with bowling ball-sized fieldstones that I couldn’t keep from slipping out of place. No amount of cursing or mortar could keep the wall from toppling. After a couple hours my “wall” wasn’t much more than a mud-covered heap. It was miserably hot that day, somewhere in the nineties, and the humidity hung like a horse collar around my neck. Sweat ran in rivulets down my chest and back. I ached all over from crouching and maneuvering the stones. My frustration gave way to exhaustion; my exhaustion gave way to defeat. The “I can’t do this” buzzer was bleating away, getting louder.
When my employer checked in on me and saw the condition of my project he laughed and explained what I was doing wrong:
First, the stones I’d picked were all alike. Yes, they were marbled in feldspar and quartz and looked beautiful, but they were too similar, both in look and shape. There needed to be some contrast, not only to make the beautiful stones pop, but to add interest and, as most of my stones were smooth and round, stability. The same can be said for writing. I tell my students that when I first started really writing I thought every sentence needed to be a glittering gem—the sort of prose that knocks readers on their asses. But I have learned over the years that some sentences (many sentences) are workhorses needed to help move a reader along. Sure, every sentence should further the objective of the piece, but that doesn’t mean your sentences need to stop a reader in his or her tracks. If anything, we want our readers to get lost in the flow of the words, to forget they’re even reading, and then, when they least expect it, WHAM! drop the knockout, “Oh my god, no way could I ever write anything as brilliant as this” piece of writing.
Second, I was trying to accomplish too much—cover too much wall—at one time. The stonemason told me to take my time, to build at my own pace. Every stonemason works differently, but they all (or most of them, anyhow) get to the same place. I emphasize this with my students: Figure out how you work. Be patient. Don’t get down on yourself. Our society does not value patience. We are a people who want everything now. Students, many of whom show signs of talent, dog their abilities because they can’t write a polished piece of writing in a single sitting. They are easily defeated. Why even try? their slumped shoulders ask. But as trite and cliché a sentiment as it is, if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Well, writing is all try. Capital “T” Try. Try, Try, Try. It’s about the only way to get better at… anything.
And, finally, I wasn’t using all the tools that were available to me. If I wanted to use a large stone fitted just so, I needed to find ways to support it—I needed to make it work. The stonemason suggested I use wedges cut from scrap wood inserted into the mortar joints to help hold a stone just long enough for the mortar to dry. Or, he suggested I use the block ties, those metal ribbons sticking out of the block foundation, as anchors to string wire around the front of the stones to keep them in place. Or, at the very least, use two-by-fours to prop up certain problem stones. In short, there were different ways to achieve the aesthetic I was looking for; I just needed to dip into the toolbox for the solution. In writing, I tell my students, our toolbox is filled with everything we read (although, I’m discovering a large number of my students don’t read), the writing we’ve done, the coursework we’ve covered. We know more than we think we do. So when we’re stumped, frustrated by the blank page, on the verge of tears, we need to turn to our toolbox and utilize the wealth of knowledge within. These moments of frustration are often ameliorated by experience, too. Those times when you were stumped and you managed to make it work? Be comforted by that. You did it before, you can do it again.
Not unlike those nights I collapsed into bed after a long day, writing, too, can leave you exhausted. But the process of creating something from nothing is always worth the blood, sweat and carpal tunnel.