How a Journalist Becomes a Carpenter: Nina MacLaughlin on ‘Hammer Head’

When Nina MacLaughlin was at the end of her 20s, she had everything figured out: she had a good job as an editor at The Boston Phoenix, one of the country’s leading alt-weeklies and legendary home of raconteur journalists. Yet despite the fact that her life looked good on paper, something was missing. She had reached the end of her rope with both journalism and her personal life. Salvation came in a flurry of big decisions. She quit The Phoenix (which closed in 2013) and looked for another route. She found it in a Craigslist ad that read: “Carptenter’s Assistant: Women strongly encouraged to apply.”

It’s a story that is human and familiar, and downright ordinary in its way. MacLaughlin moved onto a different job and a different career, finding joy and difficulty in the pursuit of carpentry, and she wrote a beautiful book, Hammer Head: The Making of a Carpenter, that is both a portrait of her journey up to this point and a reflection on the very nature of work. I had the chance to talk to her on the phone about just how to change your life and to find work that’s good for you.

Flavorwire: Do journalists ever ask you about how you did it, how you got out of the journalism grind? I would think you’d get that a bunch.

Nina MacLaughlin: Even though the book is about journalism and carpentry, I hope it would speak to anyone who’s thought about leaving the life they know for something else — a job, moving out of the city that you live in, when you’ve reached the expiration point on an experience. All of us have that at some point.

Do you have advice for about making that change?

It’s going to be really frightening. I was really scared. It took me a long time to summon up the courage to leave. Probably a year. Know that it’s going to be scary, that you’re going to lie in bed and think about your rent, health insurance, how you’re going to pay your bills. There will be those nights of fretting, figuring things out: What am I going to be? Who am I going to be?

Trust the gut sense of go, and figure out those logistics as you can. It’s a slow process. Even six months in I was like I’ve made the biggest mistake of my life and then it went on.

hammerheadWhy isn’t carpentry something that women learn?

Yesterday someone asked me if the Craigslist ad that I answered didn’t say “women encouraged to apply,” whether I would’ve considered it. I would not have had the courage to say I’m going to throw my hat in the ring.

It’s a 98 or 99 percent male-dominated industry. All the trades [skilled work like carpentry, plumbers, metal workers, roofers, tilers], it’s mostly dudes. My boss [Mary] and I, the two of us, have no real occasions where we haven’t been able to handle something, or to figure out how to make it work. People have said oh you must get catcalls — maybe we’ve been lucky, but it hasn’t been that kind of environment.

My boss has been in the trades for years now, these guys have been working with her for years and respect the hell out of her. Now and then, in the lumberyard, there’s been some skepticism or raised eyebrows. My boyfriend said to me, you’re a curiosity to these guys, They don’t see women on the job.

I do think that it would be cool if more women felt like it was an option. A lot of people say, ‘How do I connect with women in the trades?’ and I don’t have an answer for them yet. I’m lucky that I fell into a relationship with my boss.

Do you have a favorite type of wood?

For the stuff we do there’s this wood called Brazilian walnut, it’s one of the densest woods there is, we use it when we’re making and building decks. It barely burns, bugs don’t eat it, and it lasts.

To pick up a piece of Brazilian walnut, you know that this is something that’s totally different. It weighs a ton, it has a beautiful reddish freckle color to it, and a beautiful smell, this marshmallow cinnamon-y smell. It’s also a total pain in the ass.

How does your work in carpentry and writing go together?

I find that they compliment each other really well. When I have stretches when I’ve just been writing, you have to go inside your head. My brain got cranky and I was much less fun to be around unlike when I was building a deck or putting up a wall. In combination, they work well, after I’ve spent some days working on a carpentry project, I’m ready to do a blog post, and vice versa.

What’s appealing about carpentry to you? What have you learned about work from it?

In those great moments, in both writing and carpentry, you kind of rise above yourself, exit your work, exit your mind. It’s kind of that magical meditative transcendent feeling.

Makes sense. There’s a bit of the Transcendentalist about your memoir, and you’re based in Massachusetts, not too far from Concord.

I’m as seduced as anyone by the Internet, I have a hard time pulling myself away from it, but when I do, my brain is better and, I’m a happier, calmer person. There’s a difference between that sort of quick ego stroke you get from interacting online whereas what you get from building something, finishing up a deck or a kitchen renovation. The pride is more genuine and more lasting. That hasn’t gotten old at all, it’s totally powerful.