Hammer Head

Nina MacLaughlin

Reading this immediately after Frank Bruni’s memoir, in which he is so open about his life, Nina MacLaughlin seems very guarded in comparison. She has some funny and touching stories to tell about leaving a career as a journalist to become a carpenter, responding to a Craiglist posting almost on a lark, but while she attempts to make clever literary statements by referencing other texts and going into the etymologies of terms, something seems off about her approach. At one point she criticizes an interview with Gabriel García Márquez in which he described writing being the same as carpentry, “With both you are working with reality, a material just as hard as wood.”

García Márquez admits a few sentences later that he’d never done any carpentry himself. If he had, he’d know that a piece of wood is not the same as words. A wall is real. A piece of baseboard that hides the gap between the wall and the floor, that’s real, too. There’s a sense of completion with carpentry that doesn’t exist with writing. Words are ghosty and mutable. A measurement, a cut, sawdust in my lungs, and the piece of wood slides in to fit tight with a few taps of the hammer. It’s the opposite of abstract.

In the following paragraph she describes how unhelpful language is while working with tools and wood, concluding, “What a relief it can be, for words not to matter.” It made me wonder why she even bothered writing a book, except part of her story involves weathering the slow season of carpentry, so I guess she needed something to do when it was too cold for “real” work.