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Three Thoughts I Loved from ‘Hammer Head’ by Nina MacLaughlin

hammer head by nina maclaughlinIn her twenties, Nina MacLaughlin spent most of her time sitting behind a desk at a newspaper in Boston. Tired of moderating comments and feeding the endless beast that is the Internet (sound familiar?), MacLaughlin responded to a Craiglist ad looking for a carpenter’s assistant – “women strongly encouraged to apply.” Despite her lack of experience, MacLaughlin got the job and began her apprenticeship as a carpenter – a career change she chronicles in her memoir Hammer Head (March 16 from W.W. Norton).

I wish that I had lots of smart, interesting things to say about this book that would make you pick it up – it’s pretty great – but all of my notes are just passages I flagged with hearts or exclamation points. Although this is a memoir about what it takes to become a carpenter, it’s also a thoughtful meditation on work and the value that labor, of all kinds, brings into our lives.

So instead of a traditional review, I’m just going to share three of my favorite passages and hope that the lovely and smart writing will convince you to pick it up.

On the challenges of all work

There is a dullness in all forms of work, a “violence—to the spirit as well as to the body,” as Studs Terkel put it in Working. There are repeated tasks and empty time and moments you wish you were swimming. These are unavoidable, even in jobs we love and feel proud to have; these are natural, even if you’ve found your calling. It’s when those meaningless moments pile and mount, the meaning- less moments that chew at your soul, that creep into the crev- ices of your brain and holler at you until ignoring them is not an option. Deadening moments that lead to the hard questions, the ones that swirl, in the broadest sense, around time and dying.

On the complexity of stairs

Useful for moving between floors, for reaching your front door, for heading underground to catch a train to another part of the city. Codes regulate height and depth. We all know the feeling of a stair rising higher than the one before it, catching our toe on its lip; or more jarring, in the descent, stepping down with the expectation in your every bone that a solid thing will be there to meet you, to take your weight—and it not being there. Or it comes up too soon and sends a jolt through the ankle, up into the knee, the ugly vibration of impact. We’ve all felt that falling feeling right before sleep, the plunging feeling where we take a step and miss and make a fast thrash in our sheets. Muscle memory is fast formed—our bones know where the next step should come— and it’s important that steps answer those expectations. Rules for stairs go back a long way.

On writing and carpentry

It’s true that writing and carpentry both require patience and practice, and both revolve around the effort of making something right and good. Both involve getting it wrong over and over, and being able to stay with it until it is right. In both, the best way of understanding something is often by taking it apart. In both, small individual pieces combine and connect to make something larger, total, whole. In both, we start with nothing and end with something.

But what appealed to me so much about carpentry work is how far it is from words. The zone of my brain that gets activated building bookshelves is a different one than the one that puts together sentences. And what a relief it can be, not having to worry about the right word, not having to think, over and over, is this the best way to say this?…What a relief it can be, for words not to matter. The shelf is real, and right now, as I sand it smooth, it’s all there is. To write is to muck around in the space inside your skull. It is to build something, yes—worlds and people, moods and truths—but it is closer to a conjuring. You cannot put your wineglass down on a paragraph, even if that paragraph is perfect.

There were many other passages I flagged from this book, but these were my favorites. What are some of your favorite memoirs on work?

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Trisha March 12, 2015, 7:44 am

    Sometimes quotes make the best posts in my opinion. That’s how I used to “review” books, even on the blog. I would post the quotes that stuck out the most and why and how I responded to them.

    • Kim Ukura March 17, 2015, 9:49 pm

      In looking back on the post, I wish I’d added more reaction with the quotes — it’s a good format for a review!

  • BermudaOnion(Kathy) March 12, 2015, 8:05 am

    I’ve never heard of this book but it sounds right up my alley.

  • Leah @ Books Speak Volumes March 12, 2015, 3:55 pm

    This book sounds fascinating, and I love those quotes. This was a great approach for “reviewing” this book!

  • Shannon @ River City Reading March 12, 2015, 5:26 pm

    I’ve been hearing some great things about this, but wasn’t sure it was something I would get into – I think you proved me wrong!

    • Kim Ukura March 17, 2015, 9:51 pm

      I think you’d really like this one Shannon. It’s a pretty quick read, but lots of little passages to chew on.

  • Belle Wong March 13, 2015, 12:08 am

    I think sometimes the quotes we flag as we’re reading have the ability to really describe how a book makes us feel. This one sounds like a lovely read.

  • Jennine G. March 14, 2015, 2:42 pm

    Well that’s an interesting topic for a memoir. I can see how the discussion about work and what it does for us and I our lives would really grow out of that experience.

    • Kim Ukura March 17, 2015, 9:51 pm

      I loved the way she contrasted different types of work, and how the experience of carpentry is both similar and different from other work that we do.

  • Katie @ Doing Dewey March 16, 2015, 8:55 pm

    I think the fact that you didn’t take detailed notes probably speaks well of this book. I find that if I’m really swept off my feet by a book, I’m likely to take fewer notes and have a hard time explaining why it was so wonderful.

  • Kerry M March 19, 2015, 8:28 am

    I put a hold on this at my library the other day and now you have me even more excited for it to come in. I don’t read many business books, because they tend to be too jargon-y or irrelevant to me, but I think this sounds like the kind of meditation on work that will fill that gap in my reading. Especially based on that first quote, which is relevant to carpentry, I’m sure, but to any job, really.

    • Kim Ukura March 21, 2015, 3:27 pm

      Even though this is a book about work, I don’t think it’s a business book in the sense of jargon, etc. It’s totally applicable across kinds of work and kinds of creative thinking, which I loved.

  • Jennifer March 21, 2015, 12:58 am

    These passages really make me want to pick up this book!

    I’ve actually been thinking a lot about work lately: why are we drawn to do certain types of work? What kind of work provides the most satisfaction? How can we find something that satisfies in the long run?

    And I just love that passage about stairs. Makes me think of the stairs leading down to the beach at this beach house I visit. There’s actually a photo of them on my blog. They are imperfect and uneven and every time I walk down them to go to the beach, I go through this range of strange uncertainty. And yet they have so much character and despite all their imprefections, they get the job done.

  • Zandria March 21, 2015, 10:00 am

    I love reading memoirs written by women who do something out of the ordinary – whether it’s moving somewhere new and exciting (like a foreign country), taking on a year-long challenge, or changing their life in a big way (like this writer did). I want to read it but my library doesn’t have it yet! Since it just came out this month I’m hoping they’ll have it soon. 🙂

    • Kim Ukura March 21, 2015, 3:28 pm

      Yes, me too! She writes a bit about what it’s like to be a woman in a traditionally male profession, both how she is treated by others and how it changes her perceptions of herself. It’s very interesting. I hope your library gets it soon!