Are you thinking of changing careers? Ever thought about what that might entail? That’s what Boston Globe columnist Nina MacLaughlin did nine years ago when she gave up journalism for carpentry. She spoke to DCD students at a special assembly on Thursday, October 11, about her experience, chronicled in her book Hammerhead: The Making of a Carpenter.Author Nina MacLaughlin Visits DCD from Dedham Country Day School on Vimeo.
Gerry Clifford, DCD’s woodworking instructor, introduced Nina, who read from her book and answered questions from the audience.
Nina didn’t know to use a tape measure or Phillips-head screwdriver when she applied for a job with Mary, a self-described “journeyman” carpenter. Mary became Nina’s “very patient and extraordinary” mentor, taking her on as an assistant with no experience, only enthusiasm and work ethic as qualifications.
“I was very, very bad at it for a long time,” she told the audience. “I was naturally good at writing, but using tools, adding and subtracting fractions, and seeing things spatially were things that did not come naturally to my brain.” She encouraged students not to let their feelings of “being bad” at something prevent them from trying it and to go ahead and take risks!
Her book is the story of learning something totally new and the joys and frustrations she encountered in the process, something her young audience could relate to. Her first job with Mary was cutting tile for a bathroom floor, something she had never done before. Since then she has made decks, built bookshelves, and renovated kitchens, as well as made wooden spoons, a skill she says she is still mastering.
“One of the things that carpentry taught me was to be more patient with myself, with not being good at something right away. Writing also requires patience, to stay with something that isn’t immediately satisfying or fun.”
Nina visited Rob Thacher’s 8th grade English class where the day’s scheduled vocabulary assessment took a little different form! Seizing the opportunity of having such a special visitor in class, Mr. Thacher had his students ask Nina questions about her dual life as carpenter and writer using their new vocabulary words as a way for them to demonstrate mastery. Given her facility with words, Nina answered their questions in a way that reinforced the definition, meaning, and appropriate use of the words.
After English, Nina headed down to the woodshop to participate in a Shaker box class. She commented on how lucky the students were to have an opportunity to take a plain piece of wood and turn it into something “real”!
Nina still works as a writer, penning a weekly column on books for the Globe, and says the combination of carpentry and writing works well, the two balancing each other beautifully. “Carpentry uses one side of my brain, writing the other,” and each, she says, allows her to take a break from the other when the noise of tools or the isolation of writing become too much.