Nina MacLaughlin is the author of the new memoir Hammer Head: The Making of a Carpenter, which describes how she switched careers from journalism to carpentry. She is a former editor at the Boston Phoenix, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including the Believer and the Los Angeles Review of Books. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Q: Why did you decide to write this book, and how does writing complement carpentry for you?
A: I never anticipated I’d write a book about learning carpentry. About three years into the carpentry work, an editor got in touch about a book review I’d written, found out about the carpentry work I do, and the conversation went from there. It was very lucky, and there are still moments I can’t believe that things unfolded the way they did.
It turns out, for me, that writing and carpentry complement each other beautifully. After days or weeks in front of the computer screen writing, all I want to do is get back to building a deck or a set of bookcases.
And after some days at the saw or swinging a hammer, I start to get that itch to write. Putting my brain into my hands, not having to think about language and putting sentences together, is a welcome relief. And after physical work, it’s good to return to wrestling with sentences instead of cabinets.
Q: When you saw the ad, "Carpenter's Assistant: Women strongly encouraged to apply," what made you decide to apply?
A: If that posting had been looking for an electrician's assistant, or plumber's or plasterer's or roofer's, I would've skimmed right over it and not given it a second thought. There's something essential about carpentry, something that appealed to me, something practical, useful to learn and know.
I had no experience with the work. Zero. When I left my journalism job, I had a vague crave to do something a little more tangible, something away from the screen. When I saw this post, the immediate feeling was this is it. I will say, had there not been the “women strongly encouraged to apply,” I would not have had the courage to toss my hat in the ring.
Q: You note in the book that very few women work in carpentry. Why do you think that is, and do you think it's likely to change?
A: If you look at the statistics, the numbers don’t seem to be changing much; not many more women work in the trades now than in the ‘70s.
I think in part it’s the result of representation: when you don’t see women doing the work, it’s not going to feel like an option, not going to feel like a path to consider if no one you know, or know of, or see in your daily life is doing it.
I think it also has to do with some deep-rooted misconceptions. People – men and women – assume that it’s a hostile environment for women, that it’s rough and crude and condescending.
Maybe I’m lucky, maybe we work with good people, but I haven’t found that to be the case at all. It’s respectful, funny, relaxed. (I dealt with more hostility and condescension in my journalism job.)
Q: You write, "Five years with [your boss,] Mary, and the work still feels new." How do those five years compare with the years you spent in journalism, and what would you advise people who are unhappy in their career but nervous about making a big change?
A: The carpentry work still feels new in the sense that there is so much left to learn, and so much to improve on. I loved working for a newspaper. I loved the people I worked for and with. After a time, I couldn’t locate the satisfaction in the day-to-day hours spent scrolling and clicking. So far with the carpentry work, six years in now, the satisfactions remain and continue to deepen as I get better at the work.
In terms of advice for people looking to leave one career or job (or city or relationship or any life scenario that defines how you spend your time and energy): I think the most important thing to keep in mind is that it’s going to be scary. It will feel overwhelming and daunting and frightening.
At some point – and trust yourself to know when this is – you have to stop thinking about it, stop the fretting, stop the planning, stop the second-guessing, put your hands in the air and take the step.
It took me over a year to summon up the courage to leave my job. And the following months were ugly. It wasn’t some quick-and-easy leap. These sorts of dismantlings are challenging, and because of that, possess the most potential.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: Carpentry-wise, we just finished up a kitchen renovation, and are about to start a quick job lining a ceiling with cedar boards. Later in the summer, we’ll be building some decks, which I’m looking forward to a lot. And I’m about to start working on some end tables for a friend of mine.
Writing-wise, I’m working on an essay about seeing a dead body for the first time, a book review about the new collection of work by Shirley Jackson that’s coming out, and a longer project about the month of November.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb