All the Language in the World Won’t Make a Bookshelf Exist

After leaving a drag-and-click job at a newspaper to learn carpentry, Nina MacLaughlin takes on her first big solo project: building bookshelves for her father.

Nina MacLaughlin | Hammer Head, W.W. Norton | Spring 2014 | 18 minutes (4,383 words)

The following is an excerpt from Nina MacLaughlin’s memoir Hammer Head—the story of MacLaughlin’s journey out of a drag-and-click job at a newspaper and into a carpentry apprenticeship. In this section MacLaughlin strikes out on her own to craft bookshelves for her father and meditates on the relationship between writing and carpentry, and learning to build with wood instead of words.

***

The maple leaves dropped, the temperature fell, and we slipped into winter. After the skylight, in the slowing of the year, Mary planned to pause the progress on her third-floor office space in favor of redoing a bathroom downstairs, the one with the paintbrushes in the tub and the crumbling walls.

I swung by her place to pick up the last check she owed me before we took our annual break. She walked me through her bathroom plan.

“Give me a call if you want some help,” I said.

“We’ll see if I can afford you. I’m scared shitless about how much the plumbing is going to cost.”

We parted ways with a hug and Christmas wishes, knowing it might be some months before we paired up again. I didn’t fear the slowing. I knew next season would come.

Around this time, my father and his girlfriend bought a house together in the woods by a tidal river in southeastern Massachusetts. My father finally collected his belongings out of the storage bay they’d been occupying for six years. To visit his new home was to see the familiar items from our growing up freed from dark boxes in a storage cell. Many boxes stacked in the basement remained to be unpacked, most of them labeled BOOKS.

During one of the first visits there, we sat near the fireplace, my brothers, father, and I, and our respective romantic partners. Outside the window, the bird feeder was a flurry of action. Tubby morning doves, bright darting cardinals, feathers a duller red than their full-force summer color, a nuthatch, some chickadees, a woodpecker. They fluttered and fed, some pecking at the feeder that sat atop a pole, some on the ground picking at seeds, some at the small cage of white suet that hung from a branch, cow fat white like snow. My father identified each bird. When one swooped in to scope the scene from the branches nearby, he would forecast which feeder the little bird would go to—pole, ground, or suet. He was right every time. He talked about how you could feel the presence of a hawk nearby—the birds would still, then scatter.

After watching the birds, we turned our attention back inside, toward the fire. Darkness settled, the window out to the feeder reflected the lamps, the stone fireplace, our faces. We chatted and laughed. Finally everyone started toward bed. My father stood, looked at me, and raised his hands toward either side of the fireplace.

“Bookcases,” he said toward the enormous blank spaces on the wall. I could picture it immediately.

“Great idea,” I said.

“I’d like for you to build them.”

I frowned. The relaxed feeling brought on by an evening of fireside laughs shifted to a storm of doubt. For me to build them? By myself? I could not say out loud that I wasn’t sure I could, that after these years with Mary, I doubted my ability to build cases on my own. I did not want to admit that the thought of it scared me. So I lied. I told him I wasn’t sure what my schedule was with Mary these days. “I don’t know if I’ll have the time.”

I went to bed that night and thought about the cases. My reaction when he’d asked was immediate and surprising. Could I? I knew how to do this, didn’t I? I went through the steps in my head, the ones I’d learned from Mary and done with her many times. I pieced the cases together mentally, starting with the bases on which they’d sit, moving on to the frames, the shelves, the trim. I’d have them match the height of the window trim, I thought, keep that line consistent around the room. An outlet on one wall would mean notching a hole in the back. These were all things I’d done before, had seen Mary do.

“Keep me posted on the shelves,” my dad said as we left.

“I’d like to start unpacking those books.”

Back in Cambridge, I kept thinking about the cases. I made them more real in my head, more possible. The floors probably aren’t level, I figured, and reminded myself how to correct for that. I’ll have to alter the trim around the window. In my mind, I knew what to do.

But when my father called to see if I was up for the project, again I hesitated. The project had been taking shape in my thoughts, but, tools in hand, would I be able to translate what I knew to the wood? Without Mary at the helm, would I come to discover that I’d learned nothing? A terrible thought, it brought a clenching sort of discomfort, the confrontation that I’d been living a lie. I could dress the part, but did it mean I could do the work?

The feeling was familiar. When I began my job at the newspaper, when I first started filing stories, I’d wake up before work in anguish. How am I going to do this? What if I don’t finish on time? What if I can’t figure out how to say what I want to say? It was a specific, potent fear of failure, of being struck with the inability to express what I knew, or to do so in a way that revealed me for the faker I was.

The carpentry questions echoed the journalism ones. How am I going to do this? What if they don’t work? What if I can’t figure out how to make them stand? What if I can’t translate what I know to the wood? Doubt crowded my thoughts and delayed any possible start. To begin was to open the possibility of fucking it up.

The novelist Gabriel García Márquez once told the Paris Review that “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.”

It’s true that writing and carpentry both require patience and practice, and both revolve around the effort of making something right and good. Both involve getting it wrong over and over, and being able to stay with it until it is right. In both, the best way of understanding something is often by taking it apart. In both, small individual pieces combine and connect to make something larger, total, whole. In both, we start with nothing and end with something.

But what appealed to me so much about carpentry work is how far it is from words. The zone of my brain that gets activated building bookshelves is a different one than the one that puts together sentences. And what a relief it can be, not having to worry about the right word, not having to think, over and over, is this the best way to say this? The questions carpentry raises are the same, ultimately—will this work? Will this function as it should, be true and strong? But the answers come from different rooms in my head, and it is good to exit the word room in favor of a less-used realm that deals with space, numbers, tools, and materials. Much of what carpentry requires does not come naturally to me. Angles, numbers, basic logic. But with carpentry you have a tape measure, a saw, a pencil, a piece of wood. Concrete, understandable, real in the world, each of these things made for a specific purpose.

García Márquez admits a few sentences later that he’d never done any carpentry himself. If he had, he’d know that a piece of wood is not the same as words. A wall is real. A piece of baseboard that hides the gap between the wall and the floor, that’s real, too. There’s a sense of completion with carpentry that doesn’t exist with writing. Words are ghosty and mutable. A measurement, a cut, sawdust in my lungs, and the piece of wood slides in to fit tight with a few taps of the hammer. It’s the opposite of abstract. Measure, measure, mark. Cut. Nail in.

The process of building a writing office in his Connecticut backyard reminded Michael Pollan “just how much of reality slips through the net of our words.” Language becomes less useful when you’re building a bookcase. A certain head-emptying, in the finest moments, takes place. That meditative goal, rising above the words and emotional swamps, being fully awake to the tools and the wood, involves the evacuation of language. What a relief it can be, for words not to matter. The shelf is real, and right now, as I sand it smooth, it’s all there is. To write is to muck around in the space inside your skull. It is to build something, yes—worlds and people, moods and truths—but it is closer to a conjuring. You cannot put your wineglass down on a paragraph, even if that paragraph is perfect.

Much of what Mary taught me did not involve words. The classic writing dictum applies in carpentry, too: show, don’t tell. It’s hard to explain how to install crown molding. It’s best learned by watching it done, and doing it. Over and over. Her verbal lessons—start rare with meat; finesse; go slow; be smarter than the tools—are all enacted in the way she does her work, the way she moves and uses her tools to solve each problem. You could read books and books on how to build a wall or tile a floor, hear someone speak for hours on the best ways to make a bureau or a bookcase. They could use all the right words, weave the tightest net, but until you grip the hammer in your palm, until you feel two pieces of wood pressed flush against each other before they are fastened, until you stand back from what you’ve made and then walk up to it and kick it or place something on it, you will not know how it’s done. All the language in the world won’t make a bookshelf exist. It takes watching, and doing, and screwing it up, and doing it again and again until it is done.

***

I spent hours sketching and adding and subtracting in planning out the bookcases my father wanted. I called Mary to see if she could loan me a few of her tools.

“You’re heading out on your own,” I could hear the smile in her voice. “Good for you.”

“I haven’t said yes yet.”

“Say yes! You know what you’re doing. Remember that it’s going to take longer than you think.”

“I was guessing four days?”

“I’m guessing more like eight.”

“Shit.”

“Remember when you could barely use a drill?”

Photo by Nina MacLaughlin

That night I dreamed about bookcases. Up on a ladder in the sand, I was building a bookcase on a beach. The shelves faced the sea and the tide was rising, waves washing in to lower shelves, soaking the books that were already filling them, making the pages swell, drawing some off the shelves and back into the ocean. I was building the bookcases higher and higher so they’d rise above the biggest waves. When I turned, I saw seagulls dive-bombing the books that had been swept away and floated on the sea. My ladder kept slipping in the sand. Dread:

how will I hammer through water?

In the morning, I called my dad and told him I was available for the project.

It was the third day into the first real cold snap of the season, and the dry tight cold made everything seem brittle, bones and branches. The highway on the drive down, with the wood loaded into the car, seemed bleached by the cold. The sky was pale.

I arrived late in the afternoon, pulled down the dirt driveway with spindly trees closing in on either side, tall and narrow-trunked, fuzzed with pale green lichen. The house had the feel of a cabin—woodstoves and wool blankets, a high-peaked roof. The air down there had the sweet mulchy stink of wood and dead leaves, a whisper of the sea. Coming from the city, I noticed the quiet. A chatter of birds, rustle of branches and dried dead leaves. There was no city hum, no low rumble and buzz of traffic, movement, streetlights, no static of a neighbor’s television. Here, at night, the darkness and silence collected around the house like a quilt.

I unloaded the wood on the thin rim of back porch that faced three feet of grass and a wall of mossy forest and the river somewhere beyond. I looked at the stack of boards, the bundles of trim, and it seemed impossible that these would come together to make something real and useful. The light was fading and I stared at the wood, imagined the way each board and stick of trim would be cut, how they’d be fastened. Great steamy puffs of breath rose around my face with every exhale.

In what little light remained of the day, I drilled the holes in the case sides where pegs would slot in to hold up the shelves. I held the drill and stared at the wood some more. I took a deep breath, knowing that this first hole was the first chance to make a mistake. To look is to keep it perfect in your mind. To take the tool to the wood is to open yourself up to error. You know how to do this, I told myself. I placed the drill and squeezed the trigger and the bit burrowed down into the wood. The noise against the quiet of the marsh almost seemed a violence. I drilled hole after hole. Ducks made noise on the river. I’d finished the holes on two boards, half done, when it started to snow. The porch lamps bathed the wood in light. And if I held my breath over the planks of wood, I could hear the sound of snow falling, a papery whisper.

My hands ached from cold by the time I finished with the peg holes. I stacked the boards up, set the sawhorses aside, and put the drill back into its case. I shivered a bit inside. I’d be staying here until the shelves were done. Besides plotting out the shelves over and over in my mind, my thoughts kept returning to my father’s inevitable criticisms. He is a perfectionist, and quick to call out fault. I imagined him hovering over the work, in his khaki pants and leather shoes and layered shirts, clicking his tongue. You’re doing it like that? I anticipated having to remind him that he’d hired me.

I stomped around the living room to shake off the cold and he came in and told me to sit down. The gravity of his tone caused the rise of walls, the ones that shoot up to protect against coming bad news, to guard against the things you don’t want to hear. I sat and looked at my lap, pretended to focus on thawing my fingers.

“You are the boss,” he said. “And you have the right to kick me in the shins if I start being an asshole.”

I laughed. This was not what I’d expected.

He said it made him happy to have me be the one building these things, putting my stamp on this new house in this new phase. He talked about pride. He talked about how much it meant to him. How to explain the discomfort provoked by this moment of sincerity? This was not how we communicated in our family. We made jokes and talked books, and affection was understood as opposed to expressed. As he spoke, I tried telepathy: Stop, please, even this is too much. I glanced at him. Oh no please are those tears in his eyes? I felt shy and eager to rush away. So I scoffed and dismissed it with a shrug. “We’ll see how they turn out,” I said from behind the walls. But from there, I felt the significance of these shelves, too, of contributing to this new home and phase by making a home for his books. He loved to quote the Anthony Powell title: “Books do furnish a room.”

We had soup for dinner that night, thick soup he’d made with sausage and red pepper and white beans. We ate it sitting side by side at the kitchen island. It was exactly the sort of food I wanted after standing in the cold. He warmed the bowls with hot water before serving up the soup.

He saw me flipping through a stack of seed catalogues left on the counter, something I remembered from childhood, looking at all the colorful pictures of pansies and melons and zucchinis, and all of them and more appearing in our backyard in summer. “We’re going to clear some trees on the south side of the house and make a garden,” he said.

As we ate, he talked of decoys. He talked of having a workshop again. He’d been unpacking his tools. The workbench in the basement had a scatter of clamps and bullet levels, paint- brushes, half-carved shore birds, pale and paintless, pieces of driftwood, files, chisels, and rasps, all those wooden-handled tools I still didn’t know the names of, all of them freed from boxes finally and ready to be used again. I bet it felt good for him to have his hands on these tools, to feel the wooden bodies of the birds, to feel the potential, to start to carve again.

“Stay here,” he said, after we finished our soup. He went down to the basement and I heard rustling from below. “It’s amazing the stuff I’m coming across,” he said on his way back up the stairs. He returned to the kitchen with a cardboard tube under his arm and removed a scroll of crinkly delicate tracing paper, dry and faded a tea-stained yellow. He unrolled it to show a pencil drawing of a great blue heron with its S-shaped neck and stalky legs, a beautiful line drawing life-size at nearly four feet high. I’d thought he’d long forgotten his promise to make me a heron out of wood. “Pretty cool, isn’t it?” my dad said. I told him it was extremely cool. “Now I just need to translate the drawing into wood. Imagine it in three dimensions.”

 ***

It didn’t warm up any overnight. In the morning, I made the boxes, the outer shell of the cases, and fastened on the backs. I cut the shelves, six for each case, and cut the pieces of trim to line the shelves and the cases, too. Measure, mark, cut—again and again. I attached the pieces of trim to the shelves, made the strips of poplar one-by-two flush with the top of each shelf to hide the unfinished edge of the plywood behind it.

My father went about his day, drinking big mugs of tea and working at the computer on a marketing strategy for a Boston nonprofit. And he watched his birds at the feeder outside. “There’s a woodpecker,” he’d call from the other room, “another downy,” and I’d lean to look out the window and see its red head and black-and-white-flecked wings. Its cheerful tap of beak against wood drummed out through the forest.

I moved on to sanding, priming, painting, which seemed to last for days. My boyfriend Jonah joined me for the last stages of the project, and it was good to have the help and company, to break the tedium and speed the sanding, priming, painting process. I had nerves for the eventual installation, when errors would reveal themselves. I had sent Mary a few panicked texts. What happens when? Do we do it this way or? And she wrote back straightaway with simple answers.

The floors bowed, rising and falling like low-tide waves.

They required time with shims and the level in order to right the bases on which the cases would sit, raising and lowering them until the bubble in the level slipped between its lines.

The levels with tubes almost full of yellow or chemical green liquid and an air bubble that slips back and forth inside are known as spirit levels. The alcohol in the tubes gives the spirit level its name. The laying of the level is one of the final tests of a carpenter’s work—the bubble settles itself in the middle. Perfect, yes: clamp, screw, check again; still level? Good, done. Press it against a doorframe, up and down, and the bubble finds center if all is as it should be.

I sometimes wish a tool existed that could measure the plumbness of our spirits, a tool that would help us decide what’s right for our own lives. How helpful to have an instrument that signaled, with the silent fluid shift of a bubble, that we should shift our spirit a little to the left—just a skosh— and all would be balanced and right. It’s not like that in life, of course. If your spirit is level one minute, there’s no guarantee it will be level the next. We shift, or don’t, make adjustments, change, with the intention and the hope—and sometimes nothing so intentional—that the bubble will find center.

Mary had a six-foot level, but we mostly used the two-footer and the bullet level, a little guy, six inches long. The levels have three tubes, one in the center and one at each end. The center tube reads for level on the horizontal: a floor, a shelf. The ones at either end measure for plumb on vertical readings, a doorframe, a wall. Two tiny lines mark each tube, and the bubble inside is exactly the size of the distance between those two marks.

It’s a silent tool. To see that bubble land between the lines is to feel relief and satisfaction. It’s a tool that’s also brought about temporary lapses in sanity. In adjusting cabinets on the floor, for example, a thin shim in the front corner gets the side- to-side reading right, but throws off the front-to-back. More shims, more adjustments, space fragments up and down. I lose the way. It’s a similar feeling of being so close to a piece of writing that suddenly you can’t see it, the plot goes, the whole thing vanishes, there but unseeable. The same happens sometimes with leveling. The bubble shifts and settles but refuses to tell you what you want it to tell you. A shim in and out, another, and nothing’s where it should be and each move gets you further away from where you want to be. I’ve had to step away, to approach another task, empty my head, then come back to leveling, removing all my little stacks of shims and starting fresh, to try again from scratch.

Once the bases were level, it was time to put the boxes up against the wall to see if the fit was right. I feared this moment. I feared the miscalculations that would be revealed. The first one, to the right of the fireplace, fit just right. It was the simpler one, the one that didn’t edge up against a window. I was pleased with the distance between the light switch and the side of the case, and pleased that it fit as it should against the stones of the fireplace, too. I pressed the other one into place. The outlet hole I’d made with the jigsaw slipped over the outlet right on center. The left side was flush against the piece of window trim I’d had to remove and rip to make the case fit. Oh, the seam was perfect! I marveled. This is always the moment—before it’s all finished, before the last piece has gone in and you’re tidying and on your way out—when you can really see it, when it feels the best.

My father took a break from his work and came into theliving room as I stood back and looked at the cases, hands on my hips. His smile was big and genuine. “Hey, all right,” he said. He gave me a high five. He could see it, too.

Photo by Nina MacLaughlin

Photo by Nina MacLaughlin

Later that afternoon, as I tidied up the tools and stowed the paint cans for the day, buzzing with relief that the cases fit, that I’d done it right and well, my father came into the room, dark news written on his face. He’d just gotten an e-mail from my younger brother, who’d written that his girlfriend’s father was dying, and it was happening fast. In the years my brother and she had been together, she’d become a good friend. Her big laugh upped the level of joy in any room she was in. I hadn’t met her father, but knew he was a journalist, as she was. My dad shared the news, and we got quiet. In the pause, the silence felt like a bowl for what was being felt. Sadness, of course, the collision of facts and disbelief, an ache at the thought of a friend facing a changed world with someone gone, but also an appreciation of my luck, too, the recognition that here we still were right now, my father and I.

He made his way back to his office, and I finished packing the tools, and pulled on a coat to head out for a walk. I passed by my dad, his back to me at his desk as he looked out the window at his birds. Now and then, the bullshit gets stripped away, and the accumulated anger and hurt and confusion give way for a glimpse at a different truth. And what I saw was that he was trying his best like all of us, eager and excited to share his enthusiasms about birds and fish and books, keeping the feeders stocked with sunflower seeds, fumbling like all of us to bring himself and his distracted love into focus. I was overwhelmed by a moment of crushing affection. Our friend’s father would be dead soon. My dad had looked so happy when he saw the cases in their place.

“Bye, Dad,” I yelled as I opened the door to head out for the walk, and my voice almost cracked.

***