It was a listicle that did it for Nina MacLaughlin.
For nearly eight years, MacLaughlin worked as a journalist for alt-weekly Boston Phoenix. The staff became like family, and she felt proud of the newspaper’s role in the city. But even the things we love can grow old. Daily tasks became a tedious grind. In MacLaughlin’s case, it was specifically a satirical listicle of “The 100 Unsexiest Men in the World” that was the final blow in a yearlong “do I, or don’t I?” struggle to quit her job.
She did indeed quit her job, and the next line on her resume would change her life in the most unexpected ways: MacLaughlin became a carpenter.
Having zero prior experience, MacLaughlin answered an ad on Craigslist for a carpenter’s assistant and, to her shock, she landed the job. MacLaughlin has been working as a carpenter in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with her boss and mentor Mary (whose last name was not used in the book) for close to six years, and over that span of time, MacLaughlin wrote a memoir of her experiences that’s a must-read for anyone considering shifting careers.
Hammer Head: The Making of a Carpenter chronicles the nagging voices of doubt that trail the absolute thrill of restarting your career.
“I think there’s this universal human urge to try out a different life or to get away from a desk–this idea of shifting things up a little,” MacLaughlin says. “It’s those vague urges you have deep in the weird depths of your brain saying, It’d be nice to do something more tangible.”
MacLaughlin spoke with Fast Company about the making of her memoir and life after making such a huge career leap.
How did Hammer Head come about?
When I started carpentry, I was taking a ton of notes, because that’s how I knew how to learn. I was taking notes mostly on the actual work like, “this is how you use a saw” or “this is how you tile a floor.” Here and there, I was jotting stuff down about the people we were working for. Probably two years into it, I started keeping this blog called Carpentrix, and that was basically a notebook for myself. [Hammer Head] sort of came out of that. I would say going into it, it definitely is not the book I expected to write.
What kind of book were you expecting to write?
I always thought I would write fiction. When I knew this was going to be a story of leaving journalism to be a carpenter, it was trickier than I thought, in part because the work was unfolding as I was writing–the trick of trying to get perspective on what I was doing, digest it, and be able to write about it in a thoughtful way. The most difficult part was finding this trajectory, being able to tell this story of, first I was one thing and then I was something else.
Take me back to the start of your book: the day you quit your job.
It was definitely was not an abrupt decision. It was probably a year it took me to summon up the courage to walk in there that day. So it wasn’t this rash, spur-of-the-moment thing. The fact is, I loved working at the Phoenix–it was an ideal place to spend my 20s. But, knowing in my heart of hearts, it had run its course for me. It’s hard to leave something that’s comfortable.
So how did you gather the courage to leave?
You go through the soul searching and the crying and feeling depressed, and balancing that out with, How am I going to make money?, How am I going to pay for health insurance?, How am I going to pay my cell-phone bill? And there does reach that point where you have to stop thinking about it and say “fuck it!”–there has to be this hands-in-the-air leap of faith. It’s scary! It could be really worth it, or there’s the risk that you made a bad decision. It’s not an easy time to find jobs right now.
Do you ever fear carpentry will become tedious to you like journalism did?
It would be more of a question of nerves, and saying my body can’t handle it any more–it’s physically taxing stuff. There’s a lot of potential for injury, and I get really nervous about all the stuff we’re breathing in. I think it would less a matter of, This is boring and I can’t live with it anymore–it would be more like my body has reached a point where this isn’t sustainable. There’s still a ton for me to learn and to improve on, carpentry-wise. Writing will always be a part of my life–that’s the thread that will run through the whole thing. Carpentry, regardless of whether I’m doing it with Mary, [is something I’ll] know and use for the rest of my life. The possibility of building a house for myself, or redoing a kitchen, or building a giant dining room table, these are all things that are really exciting to me still.
No offense, but why in the world did your boss Mary hire you?!
In writing to her the first time, answering this ad on Craigslist, I went into this whole thing about putting together sentences–it’s humiliating to look back! It’s like, I cannot believe this is what I wrote to this woman. She ended up spending a half day of work with four or six other people, and she talked about some of them over the last years. She said one was texting all day, another was completely clueless, and one couldn’t lift more than 15 pounds. One of the things she said is that it seemed like I had a good head on my shoulders, so I think that was part of it.
For me, it was evident pretty quickly that we were comfortable with each other. Not all the time do you connect with someone right away. It felt like we understood each other from the start, which is important, because we’re in small spaces for many hours in a row together, so it’s nice to have someone you can be chatting and joking around with, or spend four hours not talking at all.
There’s an interesting section in the book where you talk about balancing your female and sexual identity with carpentry–can you expand on that?
At this point it feels pretty reconciled. It was a surprise to me how much it impacted my perception of myself and the way I felt as a woman and a sexual person. It’s so basic: [Being] taped up in a sports bra and wearing dirty clothes and work clothes and my hair’s tied back, that doesn’t change who I am on the inside–that sounds so lame! It took a while to project the spark I would normally project on the job. Now, I feel more powerful in the combination of it–being able to feel feminine in this very masculine work.
Any advice for someone out there looking to make a drastic career switch?
Like quitting smoking or breaking up with someone, you reach a point where you think, I’m done–you can’t force it. It takes the time it’s going to take. I left really not knowing what I was going to do next. I left with these vague ideas of what I was craving. So having maybe more of a sense of what you want to go into. Then it’s a matter of trying to connect with as many people who have done that thing or something similar. When I left, I had absolutely no idea that this is where I would end up. Otherwise, I would’ve tried to reach out to people who had made similar broad leaps like this!