Into the Wood

A Cambridge carpenter recounts how she traded typing for hammering.


Hammer Head by Nina MacLaughlin

Published by W. W. Norton & Company, 240 pages, $25

It’s daring enough to leave a once-satisfying career. When the next step is into a completely unfamiliar field—where a measly 1.6 percent of pros share your gender—that’s impressive. Former Boston Phoenix staffer Nina MacLaughlin did just that, trading the heady work of journalism for the muscular demands of carpentry, a transition chronicled in this lyrical memoir.

Dispirited by days increasingly spent clicking in the virtual world, MacLaughlin sought the granite solidity of the actual, responding to a Craigslist post for a carpenter’s assistant. Mary, her new boss, patiently, tactfully instructs her on the use of screaming saws and specialized screwdrivers as they build stairways, closets and entire rooms. In one frightening moment, Mary gets stuck working halfway out a window; Nina has to laboriously haul her back in. On another day, they load and mix 2,560 pounds of cement. “Not bad for two chicks!” Mary sings out.

Such heavy lifting coexists with delicate handiwork: Sawing big pieces of wood demands the precision of sewing. MacLaughlin writes with equal care about the pleasures of her benevolent home invasions, which transform the surroundings and lives of strangers. Her work gives her a vivid feeling of power, and while she appreciates the difference between the abstraction of writing and the tangibility of her new trade, daily musings about the meanings of carpentry have kept her literary self alive.

From page 200: 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?

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