The flesh of the world: carpentry and writing

Comparisons between carpentry and writing come often and easy. Chiseling away at a threshold or an essay. Hammering a ten-penny nail or your closing line. Framing a wall or a world. As Susan Bell writes in The Artful Edit, “For if writing builds the house, nothing but revision can complete it. One writer needs to be two carpenters: a builder with mettle, and a finisher with slow hands.” Or, as Gabriel Garcia Marquez has it in an interview with the Paris Review, “Ultimately, literature is nothing but carpentry . . . Both are very hard work . . . With both you are working with reality, a material just as hard as wood.”

A little over two years ago, I left my job at the Boston Phoenix and started work as an apprentice to a carpenter. It was a case of dumb luck and a teary, unemployed morning on Craigslist. “Carpenter’s apprentice sought. Women strongly urged to apply.”

And so I did, not knowing the difference between a Phillips and a flathead screwdriver. I got the job, and since then, under the patient eye of a woman carpenter based in Somerville, have learned how to build walls, tile floors, hang doors, install windows, make stairs, cut trim, and build bookshelves. I’ve learned how to use screwdrivers, drills, hammers, awls, shims, nail guns, framing guns, pry bars, crow bars, mitre saws, table saws, Japanese saws, reciprocating saws, sanders, stains, and routers. I’ve also hauled tons of bags of trash, inhaled a lot of sawdust, scarred the meat of my thumb, and carried 65 boxes of Italian tile, each weighing 30 pounds, up three flights of stairs. There’s been a lot of sweating and a lot of swearing.

And I can see the links between carpentry and writing, similarities in process and patience and trying to make something right and good, achieving the perfect sentence, the perfect seam. But more than anything, what’s appealed to me so much about this carpentry job is the away-ness from words.

The part of my brain that gets activated building bookshelves is a different part of my brain than the one that puts together sentences. And it’s a relief, not having to worry about the right word. Not having to think, over and over, is this the best way to say this? Is this as clear and lovely as it can be? Much of what the carpentry work entails does not come naturally to me. Angles, numbers, basic logic. My brain does acrobatics to figure out what degree a piece of baseboard should be sliced at to slot in tight. But with carpentry, you have a tape measure, a saw, a pencil, and a piece of wood. There’s a sense of completion, a real this-is-done-ness, that doesn’t exist with writing.

Garcia Marquez admits that he’d never done any carpentry himself. If he had, he’d know that the a piece of wood is not the same as words. A wall is real. A piece of baseboard that hides the gap between wall and floor, that’s real, too. Words, they’re ghosty and shiftable, and there are just so goddamn many of them. They make me stumble. Cutting a piece of trim, I don’t have to worry about how to explain what’s making me feel sad. I don’t have to translate emotion, sensation, impression, observation into language. A measurement, a cut, sawdust in my lungs. And the piece of wood slides in to fit tight after a few taps with a hammer. It’s a stripping away of bullshit, a stripping away of anything abstract or confusing. The actions are prescribed: measure, measure, cut, nail in.

Before his famous treatises on food, Michael Pollan wrote a book called A Place of My Own about building a little office outpost writing hut (pictured above) in his Connecticut backyard. “It reminded me just how much of reality slips through the net of our words,” he writes, “and that time spent working directly with the flesh of the world is the best antidote for abstraction.”

And though the job is not always glamorous, and though there are moments -- when I’m yanking up carpet in a dank basement or getting fiberglass thistles underneath my skin -- when I wonder what the hell I’m doing with my life, I am grateful to be doing some work with the flesh of the world because it is, as Pollan says, a potent antidote against abstraction. And in that way, the building of walls has taught me much about the building of sentences.

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About the Author

Nina MacLaughlin has written for the Paris Review Daily, the Los Angeles Review of Books, the Believer, Bookslut, the Daily Beast, the Rumpus, Boston Magazine, and elsewhere. She writes a weekly column on New England literary news for the Boston Globe, and her book, HAMMER HEAD: THE MAKING OF A CARPENTER, about leaving her journalism job to learn the carpentry trade, came out in 2015 from W.W. Norton, has been translated into four languages, and was a finalist for the New England Book Award. She lives in Cambridge.

See other articles by Nina MacLaughlin
by Nina MacLaughlin


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