On carpentry and college

By NINA MACLAUGHLIN  |  October 20, 2011

When I am using the mitre saw, I am not thinking about the ablative absolute in Latin, or Vergil's use of alliteration, or images of infertility in 1920s literature. That sort of thing helps me not at all when I'm concentrating on a blade and a measurement. But college did teach me to concentrate, to focus my attention in a sustained way, to put my brain in a single place for an extended amount of time. It's a skill that deteriorated after college, after Facebook and Twitter and Tumblr and too many open tabs and you can click on things so quick. But concentration is a skill I'm regaining in the practice of working with wood and building and fixing things. The work demands attention. A lapse means a mismeasurement and wasted wood. A lapse means the difference between four fingers and five. When you're hammering a nail, there's not much else you can pay attention to. Being able to surf the Internet and talk on the phone at the same time on the same machine doesn't make you more productive. It makes you less engaged with both tasks simultaneously.

You will write papers in college. You will build arguments. You will develop theses and find the right support to prop up what you pose. Building an argument, putting together a paper, the efforts are, in many ways, similar to building bookshelves or constructing a wall. There are prescribed steps that can happen in a different order (write the conclusion last, cut the shelves before you build the frame). But in the end, if it's done right, if each piece fits together in the tightest way, if everything is level and square and fastened well, the argument and the shelves will stand, complete and sturdy. I don't look for supporting quotes when squaring up the base of the bookcase. But the experience of putting together papers, getting everything in the right place, serves me in the process of building things not out of words but out of wood.

And surprisingly, the inverse has proved true as well: the carpentry has aided in the writing. Michael Pollan puts it well in his book A Place of My Own about building a little office outpost writing hut in his Connecticut backyard. "It reminded me just how much of reality slips through the net of our words, and that time spent working directly with the flesh of the world is the best antidote for abstraction." If your college experience is like mine, you will have to actively seek out outlets like this, opportunities to engage your mind and hands. Take a photography class, build theater sets, learn bicycle repair or how to cook, make jewelry, or join some weird welding co-op that is wholly unaffiliated with your university. Find those antidotes to abstraction, because, in college, there is so much abstraction.

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