Nina MacLaughlin is the author of Hammer Head: The Making of a Carpenter, a memoir about her transformation from journalist to carpenter. After spending her twenties as a staff writer at the award-winning alternative newsweekly the Boston Phoenix, in 2008 MacLaughlin quit her job to work as a carpenter’s assistant. Eight years later, MacLaughlin continues to pursue both building and writing. Her reviews and essays have appeared in the Boston Globe, Los Angeles Review of Books, The Believer, The Rumpus, The Millions, and Bookslut, among other places, and she has been a guest on All Things Considered. MacLaughlin also writes a blog called Carpentrix. She lives near the Charles River in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
EB: Have you always been a nonfiction writer?
NM: I totally was not. I got a job at the Boston Phoenix out of college, and I had worked doing journalism in high school and college, so working at the Phoenix was a very sense-making job. At the Phoenix I was writing book reviews and profiles, which are, of course, nonfiction, but in my own brain I was always a fiction writer. I always thought, Oh, if I write a book, it’s going to be a novel. When I was twenty-three or twenty-four, I took a fiction-writing workshop at GrubStreet [a creative writing center in Boston], and I thought, All right, this is it. This is what I want to do. It was all short stories, novels, and I never read nonfiction. Ever. Truly never. And then I started my carpentry work…
All through high school and college, the way I knew how to learn was by taking notes. So as I started doing carpentry work, I was taking notes all the time—this is how you use the miter saw, this is how you use the level—and then as I was gaining those skills, I would find myself also jotting down notes about people we worked for, any weird situations we were in, details about the houses, the people, the dynamics. I had tons and tons of material, and so I started writing a blog as a way for my own self to record the experience—a public notebook.
EB: So you were still writing even after you left the Phoenix?
NM: Yes—reviews, essays. That’s how the book came about. I had written a book review for BookSlut for [editor] Jessa Crispin about Philip Connors’ book Fire Season—which is an incredible, incredible book! He was a journalist at the Wall Street Journal and quit his job to be a fire lookout in New Mexico. After my review was published, Connors’ editor got in touch with me to thank me for the review. That never happens. But we exchanged a few emails, and he clicked on my blog link in my email signature, and he told me that if I was ever considering writing a book that I should let him know.
EB: And then all of a sudden you were a nonfiction writer!
NM: And then all of a sudden I was a nonfiction writer. I had applied to some MFA programs—again, all for fiction—and I had an extended life crisis about whether to do the MFA or not. But then as the book situation came about and I realized, Oh, this is going to be me writing about my own fucking life. That’s when I started reading more “true” books.
EB: “True” books?
NM: I understood myself as a fiction reader; I would say I don’t read true books, I just read fiction. You know, books that have their basis in the real world, though that’s exactly what novels are up to too. I guess it’s more books based on facts… Essays, memoirs, just nonfiction generally… The “true” books that are most appealing to me now are these hybrids, that braid together personal history and art, culture, global history. Those are the most compelling, and maybe the truest: Maggie Nelson, Eula Biss, Rebecca Solnit… taking their own specific moments and making them universal, and taking universal moments and making them personal. That expanding and narrowing in a really incredible way, feels to me so potent and exciting… It’s funny, I think about the journalism that I did and the nonfiction that you and I are talking about as different beasts.
EB: How so? How do you distinguish different types of nonfiction?
NM: Maybe it’s a matter of length or depth—the level of “digging in.” The best nonfiction, be it essays, be it book-length stuff, has a depth of excavation that digs a little deeper than just regular journalism as we think of it.
EB: I can see that. I often feel like journalism is trying to get across information, while nonfiction is more trying to figure out what it all means. But I have to ask: did you get into carpentry because you thought it might be interesting to write about? Sometimes as a nonfiction writer myself, I have these psychopathic moments were I think, I want to be pregnant one day because it would be interesting to write about. Which is so messed up, that shouldn’t be the reason you have a kid, but have you ever tried something just because you thought it could be a good story?
NM: If you’re someone who writes, anything is material. A trip to the grocery store is fodder potentially. I wasn’t in a nonfiction-writing mode when I took the carpentry job, and I wasn’t thinking it would be an interesting writing project because I was thinking about short stories and novels. But at the same time, every experience has that possibility. It wasn’t that impulse, though, that drove me to write Hammer Head. Later, I was pretty sensitive about this when the book became a reality—all these gimmicky experiential books like “the year I spent without shoes” or whatever. I really didn’t want to do that. People ask that often, oh, you’re trying carpentry as a woman and writing about it. But it’s been seven years now, so it’s no lark. It wasn’t just a vehicle for a book.
EB: Because you’re still actively working as a carpenter.
EB: So, what’s next? Is your current project also nonfiction?
NM: The project is a collection of vignettes about the month of November, but it is a little bit of everything—poetry, nonfiction, fiction. Some of it is so personal that I needed to think of it as fiction—needed to separate myself from it—to get into it as deeply as I wanted to. I had to think I’m not writing about myself, which gave me more freedom and a boost of bravery. It doesn’t feel like straight nonfiction, and it’s not poetry exactly—the way I describe it is an extended lyric essay, but it’s a real blend.
EB: Do you see yourself writing any more “traditional” nonfiction? Hammer Head Part 2?
NM: [gagging noise] The experience of writing so directly about my own life was… difficult. The having to battle with those voices that say who cares about your life and who cares about what you’re saying all the time. Though I think that any writer goes through that whether you’re writing nonfiction or fiction or poetry, you do have to confront those voices that say why do my words matter more than anyone else’s. But I think that writing nonfiction sometimes involves a level of self-reflection that is unhealthy. I think the Hammer Head story has been told, and I can’t imagine writing any more about that. I can imagine doing another true book, but I would rather not be the subject of it.
EB: Can you explain a little more about what you find unhealthy in nonfiction writing?
NM: I don’t know if this is nonfiction or just writing, but there is a tunneling in when you are writing. You get isolated…
EB: You become a feral version of yourself?
NM: Yes! Your perspective gets skewed. Things get a little weird. In some ways there is this perverse pleasure, but in some ways it’s uncomfortable. It’s taxing on relationships and on your day-to-day life.
EB: I know exactly what you mean. It’s so hard when my friends, my boyfriend, they get out of work and ask, So what are we doing tonight? And I reply, Well, I was planning on sitting alone for four hours and working on this essay, but maybe I’ll get a drink with you later… I worry it makes them think I don’t want to be with them. I do! I just want to be with my writing too.
NM: Totally! It’s hard to transition in and out of it. I get very possessive of my time when I’m in writing mode, and even if I say I’ll go out and get a drink after my four hours of writing are up, it’s a very jagged transition back into the world.
EB: So clearly that’s one of the major challenges of writing nonfiction, or just of writing in general. What have you found to be rewarding about writing nonfiction?
NM: I remember this from the Phoenix, the only person I ever imagined reading what I wrote was my editor. The same thing with Hammer Head; I only had two or three people that I could imagine really reading the book. So what has been rewarding has been hearing from people when they say I’ve reflected their experience in a way they wouldn’t have been able to do themselves. That is a very amazing feeling, and a very surreal feeling.
EB: Besides people coming up to you and saying you’ve reflected their own experience, how else has writing nonfiction affected your life? Is it weird to have your story out in the world?
NM: As a reader, when I would read a book about someone’s experience, I would always feel like, Oh, I know this person now. You have this connection. And in writing this book, one of the biggest challenges was knowing where to aim the spotlight. It’s about such a narrow part of my life, namely my work life, and it’s strange getting a sense that people feel like they know all about me from reading the book—and yes, in some ways, of course, yes they do, intimately and in a specific way—when it’s actually just a tiny part of my life. To go back to nonfiction challenges, actually, I found a lot of writing Hammer Head was writing about people whom we worked for, for a week or two weeks. It was very easy to capture those people on the page, and it extremely difficult, to the point of being almost impossible, to bring to life the people closest to me. How do you put to flesh in words the people that you love the most? I found that very, very difficult.
EB: Where you ever worried about what they’d think about what you wrote about them?
NM: Oh yeah, big time. There are parts of the book that are about my parents and my dad specifically. I think I failed when it came representing my romantic relationship with my now-ex-boyfriend, which caused a lot of strife with us. You are representing people who have their own lives and their own versions of stories, and you have a, well, not power exactly, but a responsibility.
EB: “With great power comes great responsibility”?
EB: In addition to writing about people you love, did you find that when writing about your own life, you were using writing to work through difficult events? You write in Hammer Head about being depressed and lost… Maybe I’m just thinking about this because of stuff that has been going on with me and how much I rely on my journals and writing to work through things…
NM: I’ve kept a journal since I was in second or third grade. Writing has always been a way for me to make sense of things, especially during hard times. My journals are a collection of my lowest moments. What was remarkable to me-and I found it both working on this new November project as well as on Hammer Head—was how my feelings evolved. In Hammer Head, writing about my relationship with my dad, when I was first writing it, it was much less kind. I had to think through how I was presenting this story, and in thinking about this and the level of kindness and generosity in our relationship and towards him, it did allow for a much bigger understanding for me of him as a person, which came totally unexpectedly. Grappling with that stuff is going to open up new levels of understanding, and it certainly helps me figure out I’m feeling about things. Which I’m bad at. It takes me a really long time to figure out.
EB: I love that you also love journaling. So often I’ve been writing in my journal and I write something and realize, Oh! I didn’t realize I was jealous, that’s what’s going on! I learn so much about myself.
NM: If there were a fire in my apartment, my journals would be the one thing I grab.
EB: I have the same thought. I’ve considered getting a fireproof safe, which feels crazy when I say it out loud, or at least to people who don’t also keep journals. Once my grandmother told me to just throw out my journals when I was done with them because they are so heavy and they take up so much space.
NM: Oh, no. That would feel like my whole self would be erased. Which can’t be a very healthy thought, but that’s what it feels like… it’s so comforting to pick up a journal from twelve years ago and see what you were thinking about. The brutality of it, though, looking back on it, is realizing I am still freaking out about the same shit. I’m still just writing about boys and weather.
EB: So, we’ve talked a lot about nonfiction. Let’s talk about non-men. You obviously don’t know what it’s like to be not you, but how do you think your gender as affected your experience both as a carpenter and a writer?
NM: When you first approached me about the idea of having this conversation, I found myself bristling a little bit at the idea of a “woman writer.” I spent some time trying to analyze where those feelings were coming from, and I was recently reading Madness, Rack and Honey by Mary Ruefle, and she really articulated it for me. Ruefle said, in response to someone calling her a “woman poet,” she said that there is gender in her life and in her interactions, but when she is sitting there writing, she is outside of it. There is no gender. When I am in it writing, I am not a woman, I’m an omni-gender being, the awareness of my womanhood is nonexistent. But in my life, I am very aware of myself as a woman. Especially with this new November book, it is very deeply feminine, but even then, the idea of being a “woman writer” doesn’t ring true to me.
With the carpentry work too, when I’m actually at the job, doing the work, I’m not for a second thinking, Here I am a woman, swinging a hammer! I’m aware it’s unusual, that not a lot of women are in the field, but that’s not my thought.
EB: But do you think that your gender affects how people perceive your work?
NM: The first cover of Hammer Head, actually, had a pink gardening glove with a hammer across it. When I saw it, I lost my shit. I had to cool off before replying to the email. I calmly pointed out that for one thing, this is a gardening glove, and carpenters don’t use them. In the end, I like both of the hardcover and the paperback covers a lot, but the paperback cover does have the silhouette of a woman’s body on it. They did want to amplify the fact that I am woman.
EB: At least it wasn’t a woman’s back or a pair of black high heels?
NM: At least!
EB: Finally, what is a favorite passage of nonfiction by a fellow non-man writer?
NM: Anne Carson is a little bit of every sort of writer: poet, novelist, translator, essayist, critic. From an essay called “Just for the Thrill: An Essay on the Difference between Women and Men” from her book Plainwater, there is this sentence, which I think might be the most perfect and pleasing sentence I’ve ever read:
A thunder-sullen autumn afternoon, I had all the lights on.
E.B. Bartels is from Massachusetts and writes nonfiction. Her work has appeared in The Toast, The Butter, xoJane, The Rumpus, Ploughshares, and the anthology The Places We’ve Been: Field Reports from Travelers Under 35, among others. E.B. has an MFA from Columbia University, and she runs an interview series on Fiction Advocate called “Non-Fiction by Non-Men.” You can visit her website at www.ebbartels.com, see her tweets at @eb_bartels, and read her haikus about strangers’ dogs at ebbartels.wordpress.com.