In 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?