Image: Carl Larssen, In the Carpenter Shop, 1905. Sweden (Public Domain) via Wikiart.org
Nina Maclaughlin’s recent book, Hammer Head: The Making of a Carpenter (2015), traces her transition from full-time writer and editor for the Boston Phoenix to a carpenter’s assistant and, finally, to a competent table-maker and shelf-builder. In her slow beginning, MacLaughlin realizes that she doesn’t even know how to use a tape measure. By the memoir’s end, she is able to build some household items from scratch. She never reaches mastery, but mastery is not the object of this book. MacLaughlin is interested in the learning process itself. As a result, Hammer Head offers insightful glimpses into mentorship, craftsmanship and the rewards and difficulties inherent to learning.
Maclaughlin’s interest in learning is what gets her the job in the first place. In her application, Maclaughlin recalls that she
“wrote about the satisfaction of putting together a good sentence, but that something more immediate, more physical, more practical and tangible appealed to me and had for some time. ‘This is work I want to learn and do,’ I wrote. ‘You would have to teach me, but I would learn fast and don’t mind doing hard work. I can start immediately.’”
Despite her desire to learn and learn quickly, Maclaughlin admits she is as imperfect a learner as anyone. She is prone to frustration. Though she learns the basics rapidly, it takes her much longer to put those skills together, to engage in problem-solving and adaptive thinking. These are familiar trials for anyone who has taken on a new responsibility at work, much less for those who move from one field to another, and they act as a sympathetic balm for those among us who are trying to learn something new, reminding us that we are not alone. They equally serve as a reminder for the more skilled and advanced, a moment for reflecting on the trials we have undertaken to get where we are.
Fortunately, Mary, the journeyman carpenter Maclaughlin assists, is a skilled mentor and patient teacher. She models a flexible craftsmanship, one that strives for perfection while adapting for mistakes and roadblocks. She patiently demonstrates, offers advice and gives MacLaughlin the space to learn. In one trying instance, Maclaughlin recalls, “She heard me swearing. She saw me walking back and forth. She stayed quiet, let me puzzle my own way through. I got pieces wrong.” The learning process, Mary knows, requires experimentation, trial and error. She gives Maclaughlin ownership over projects, and lets her work her way through them, even when it is frustrating. At the same time, Mary is patient with Maclaughlin’s beginner and even intermediate mistakes. When Maclaughlin chips a tile, Mary responds that “It’ll get hidden under the baseboard.” Maclaughlin recalls,
“the relief made me think of doing my first Q&A for the newspaper–my editor told me the questions could go in any order I liked, that the interview didn’t have to follow the way I’d asked the questions in the interview itself. How literal-minded we are when new to work. How pleasing to learn that there’s slack in the toil, room for error and play.”
Learning a new trade – learning anything new, at work or at home – comes with its struggles. But Maclaughlin shows that the payoff for learning at work is, in some ways, similar to the payoff for other kinds of educational experiences, such as traveling or reading. In the same way that Shklovsky reminds us that art makes the familiar unfamiliar again, Maclaughlin writes:
“We’re blinded by the familiar. The sirens, smells, roofs and sky, they’re all there, too in the place you know the best. At home, awareness, open-eyedness, requires the effort of attention. The carpentry work, in these first stages, was like being in a foreign city. All this newness, it was a defamiliarizing of the most familiar: my kitchen cabinets, the doorway to my bedroom, the bathroom tiles.”
How beautiful. The payoff for good, mindful work is a return to our senses. More than this: the labor that often goes unseen or unrecognized itself has many virtues, many hidden stores of knowledge the like of which the rest of us can only imagine. At a time in which so much work is done behind closed doors, in which many kinds of labor become more and more invisible, in which some kinds of learning are privileged over others, Maclaughlin’s book is a necessary reminder that tile-laying, cabinet-hanging and an infinity of other analogues, require art, skill and deep thinking.