Hammer Head: The Making of a Carpenter

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Bodywise and Brainwise: The Millions Interviews Nina MacLaughlin


I’m not sure when I began following Nina MacLaughlin’s Tumblr, but for at least a year I’ve admired her thoughtful and elegant writing; it sometimes feels as if I’m reading a poem rather than a blog post. Just recently, for instance, she wrote this:

The wood, white oak, has the look of driftwood. Weather worn, sea bashed. The hole, former home of a long-gone knot, brings eyeballs to mind, or portals, entries to other worlds. Two inches thick, the slab got sawed to size yesterday afternoon, from a length of six+ feet to a little over two. In the cold air of yesterday’s afternoon, I sawed, which warmed me fast, and did a first run of sanding with coarse grit paper. Snowbanks have eclipsed the fence behind the house, and snowflakes, more, falling slow and small, landed on the board as I worked. They disappeared, but not for melting — I watched one linger on the wood — but for being sanded into the board, an adding and a stripping at once, layer by layer, instilling and smoothing. This is the beginning of an end table.

See what I mean?

MacLaughlin’s beautiful and wise first book, Hammer Head: The Making of a Carpenter, recounts how she left her job as a journalist at an alt-weekly in Boston and became the apprentice to a carpenter named Mary. When she started, Nina was burnt out from her former career, but had no experience working with her hands. Now she can tile a bathroom, build a deck, and renovate a kitchen — among other projects! — and remains energized by the work. The book not only lets its readers experience Nina’s career shift along with her, it also sneaks in some carpentry lessons and history. In Hammer Head, MacLauglin poses questions both big and small, and its default mode is one of consideration and wonderment: How did that wall get there? How do we decide what’s right for our own lives? It’s like if Annie Dillard had her own show on HGTV.

Nina was kind enough to answer some of my questions via email. What follows is that conversation.

TM: The book is organized by tools — the saw, the tape measure, the screwdriver, and so on. How did this organizing principle come about, and can you talk a little bit about how you balanced the book’s dramatized scenes (the memoir aspect of the book) with succinct histories of said tools?

NM: I’m drawn to books that braid together the personal, political, historic, cultural, and philosophical. Rebecca Solnit, Maggie Nelson, Anne Carson, Annie Dillard, Eula Biss, these are writers who, when they write about themselves, address questions on a human-wide scale, and when they write about politics, geographies, or journeys, demonstrate how decisions, history, and powers impact us as individuals. So I wanted to write something that did a little bit of blending. In early drafts, the book was much more heavily weighted on the meditative side. So much ruminating! Some of it had to give way for the sake of a forward-moving story. As for the tools, they provided a sort of spine, a way of grounding the story in the work. The order of the tools as they appear in the book loosely follows the order in which you’d use them on the job, a way of moving through time based on the state of completion of the project. First thing you’re likely going to use is your tape measure. The level comes at the end to see if what you’ve done is true.

TM: There are so many wonderful literary references in the book, from Ovid to Joan Didion. Did those just surface as you were working, or was that another organizing principle for the book?

NM: When I sat down to write the second draft, I started reading the Metamorphoses, which I’d somehow never read, despite majoring in classics in college. I figured poetry of that sort wouldn’t overly influence the writing I was doing, would be a good way of continuing to read without having someone else’s sentences, rhythms, ideas, etc. weasel their way into what I was up to. Wrong! It ended up being an enormous influence, and a guiding principle behind the whole book. I’d recommend everyone read or revisit Ovid’s Metamorphoses. (I read Alan Mandelbaum’s translation.) It’s violent, sexy, dark, beautiful. There’s a section in Book VIII that makes me cry every time I read it.

The other references happened more spontaneously and surfaced along the way. In reading, I’m often underlining, and when I’m lucky I’ll remember a particular passage when it relates to something I’m trying to get at.

TM: I love your descriptions of Mary — the wisdom she imparted, her small physical frame, how hard she worked. What was your process like for depicting her on the page?

NM: It’s so nice hearing how much people respond to Mary in the book. Whereas describing in words (and making clear and compelling) the act of tiling a floor or swinging a hammer proved tricky, writing Mary happened naturally and easily. That likely has a lot to do with who she is and what she’s about as a human being. She is so much who she is, a complete person, and that’s rare, I think, and it made it easier to present her on the page. We’ve also spent a lot of time together, working in close quarters, and you get to know someone pretty well when you’re in an attic crawl space trying not to cut the person’s hand off or bang them with a hammer.

TM: You came from a journalism career, but this book is very much about you and your evolution, your gathering of experience with and knowledge of objects and building, of working with your hands. How was it to write about yourself? Were there any sections in the book that felt difficult for what they revealed to the reader about you?

NM: Discomfort comes when I think about the people closest to me reading the book. It’s obviously strange to know that my parents and my boyfriend will read that I thought about boning the plumbers we work with, but that’s something you just have to deal with. I know as a reader, it’s difficult when reading a memoir not to think that this is this person’s whole life, that you know everything about them. In this case, I shone the flashlight on a narrow and specific part of my experience. In that way, it feels strange that people who I knew for six weeks while we renovated their kitchen and will likely never see again in my life, got more attention on the page than the people closest to me.

I suspect it’s true of all writers at some moment, but I definitely had to make big efforts to quiet the voices that said: Who cares about your dumb life? Why would anyone want to read about you? You had a job, then a different job, who cares? What makes your story more worth telling than anyone else’s? Those voices are still there, demanding attention as much as they did when I was writing. I try to hush them by reminding myself that everyone, really everyone, has, at one point or another, wanted to do something other than what they’re doing. We’ve all wanted to change our lives in big or small ways. It’s a human urge to want to leave one life for another, and it’s a story that can resonate with anyone who’s had a job or a relationship or a shitty afternoon. That’s my hope, anyway, and what I tell myself to quiet the voices that say otherwise.

TM: You write, “Finishing a piece of writing, the sensation was relief coupled with a spentness, a short temper and depletion, grinchy and hollow.” In contrast, you say of working with Mary, “I looked back on everything we’d built with satisfaction and pride.” I wonder how the writing of this book — rather than your past journalism — felt. Did writing this book feel like journalism did, or is writing about working, about doing, about the physical world, somehow different?

NM: Working on the book, the grinch quotient was high. More so than working on journalism stuff for sure. Writing about my own life as opposed to someone else’s turned out to shorten my temper and deplete me in a much more pronounced way. And so did the scope of the project and the length of time I worked on it. The book went through multiple drafts. It took me a long time to figure out how to write it, shape, pace it, make it a story. All I’ve done my whole life is read books and write about them, and I very wrongly figured that along the way I just absorbed how to do it, that I would just sort of know how to shape a book. I didn’t! I didn’t at all. I had a lot of trouble. It was a raw experience of coming up against my own limits, up against so much that I didn’t know and that didn’t come easily — a lot like my entry into carpentry. I was not good company for stretches while working on the book — I’m much better to be around after a day building a deck. But even in the pits of it, in some deep gut-level place, when I woke up in the morning and knew I had to work on the book, even if I was hating it and hating myself and wishing it were done or gone, in the deepest part of myself I felt happy — or not happy exactly, but calm and serious and motivated and grateful and glad — that I had this thing to work on, that I knew exactly what I faced, that I was doing what I always wanted to be doing.

TM: You’re still a carpenter and you’ve also returned to writing. How do these two careers balance and inform one another?

NM: What I’ve found: after a stretch of writing, I get antsy to get out of my head and back to the satisfaction — physical and mental — of building. I get antsy to leave the screen, leave my apartment, joke with Mary, use tools, forget about words.

And the same is true in the opposite way — after a bit of time goes by (usually a matter of about three days) where I haven’t written, I start to feel an itching in my head, and all I want is for some time putting sentences together. It feels a little like a hunger. A deep need. And it can be satisfied by writing a blog post or a book review. The best days usually involve some combination of the two.

There’s something about putting your brain where you hands are that frees up the word-centers of the mind, maybe a bit like meditating. It could be knitting or cooking or playing guitar or drawing or whatever. Letting that part of the brain go quiet allows things to cook in there without the grinding at the desk and the deliberate footfalls of one word after the next. Bodywise and brainwise, I feel so lucky to have these two pursuits in combination.

TM: When one is hiring a carpenter, what questions should one ask? What’s the closest way to a carpenter’s heart?

NM: Don’t be afraid to ask hundreds of questions if you don’t understand what’s being explained. People in the trades are fluent in the language of their work, and often forget that not everyone knows, for example, what sistering a stud means. Ask us to translate! Ask us the most basic questions. Don’t know what a joist is? Ask. Don’t know what 16-on-center means or how it relates to the wall you’re having built? Ask. It’s sort of like going to the doctor. There’s a specialized vocabulary, and it’s being spoken quickly and it’s good to slow down and make sure you understand what’s happening to your house. As for a way to our hearts, Mary and I have had good luck working for kind, warm, patient people (with a couple of exceptions). It’s a funny sort of intimacy that develops — we come to your home and spend days there, making a lot of noise. The people we tend to like most are ones who take interest in the work, who ask questions, who seem excited about what we’re up to and the changes taking place, who chat with us, and, gosh, a cookie every now and then definitely boosts morale.

TM: And, finally, because The Millions is a literary website, I must ask: What’s the last book you read and loved?

NM: I just finished up Dog Soldiers by Robert Stone. It instantly transports you to a specific time (late ’60s) and a specific place (southern California) and a specific atmosphere (crumbling of the counterculture, strung-out, confused, chaotic, disillusioned, failed gurus, dead dreams). Stone writes great sentences and the story moves fast.

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