What carpenters teach a writer

Always say 'please' and 'thank you.'
Always say ‘please’ and ‘thank you.’

The day a young carpenter eagerly showed me a photo of a nail he’d shot into his forearm with a nail gun, I knew I would miss the platoon of tool-swingers who worked on our home for seven months.

Photos of lurid injuries do not top my list of favorites. But the picture brought home two things: the hazards of construction work–often in the top 10 of annual lists of dangerous jobs–and the eagerness of carpenters to do the work anyway.

Add to that list the value of a plan.

The workers who walked into our home entered with a smile, a tale, a tune and a relish for the job. Many limped but climbed a ladder as easily as they’d slide on a pair of work boots.

“You’re going to be glad when we are gone, and then you are going to miss us,” one told me at the end.

He said this odd thing with confidence, as if he had seen it happen before.

What would I miss? The constant interruptions of our remodeling project had thrown my work off the rails months before, and the stress took a physical toll on everyone in the house. I snapped out in anger a couple of times at things that I should have laughed at. And one day when we returned after being out of town, I searched for the dog’s water bowl (it was in the kitchen sink, where I left it) and wondered if we’d ever get back our lives.

Now that the project is over, I find myself doing Steve Martin’s happy dance as I return to a work routine.

Writing regularly, on a schedule, is something I thought I could maintain for the duration. I assured myself and others that I would be at my computer daily, just as I had done for years before. My work habits are good; nothing would get in my way.

As I would soon find out, my work ethic was roadkill, smashed flat by noise, grime, a summer cold and two separate bouts of raspy voice which forced me not to speak much (not a bad thing, several people would agree). Good work ethic collapsed before insatiable curiosity about what was occurring outside my door and interruptions to make decisions about things I never gave a thought to before. Like floors and paint and where light switches should go. I welcomed the need for decisions because at least I was doing something.

A friend who teaches Spanish emailed me his response to my work plans. He wrote his words in Spanish so I would study them and remember. He wrote about noise, mostly. I brushed off his misgivings. He is wrong, I thought. I can do this.

Honestly, it worked for a while, mostly while the building happened outdoors. I would work, then go see the addition that was my new office and our new patio.

Then the work moved indoors. The man in charge tried to assure us that the workers could move around us. “You are not in the way,” he said.

Perhaps he was right, and it’s not like we had much choice. We could find no affordable place to live that would accept us and a dog. But we soon found we were in our own way. I could not write, and I made that not only my problem, but my spouse’s. I would alternately worry and be confident, and we passed this virus back and forth like a cold. I lost my temper and, embarrassed, apologized to gracious workers who were there only to work. At the end of May, we left for a mere 10 days while painters, then flooring experts, performed magic.

The daily hubbub was worse when we returned, but the work had transformed the house into something different. Rooms were beginning to change shape, and we liked the shape. Had we really chosen those paint colors and floor tiles?

As I tried to work again I realized that I had written nothing of substance for months except my name on checks and receipts.

So, what, exactly, am I going to miss?

These: The almost-daily example of loving work that is painful, dirty, dangerous, hot and tedious. The beauty of a plan being worked and the vision that makes it happen. The art. The craft.

Writers and those who know them are familiar with the words “pantsers” and “plotters”, and the theories of each. A plotter makes a plan. A pantser flies by the seat of her pants. In anything we do–in life–I believe we all must be a bit of each. Plans are the only way to see forward movement on any project. But the way you work the plan sometimes changes it. I saw this point illustrated daily, as carpenters studied their coffee-stained, crumb-littered copies of what to do next. They summoned help when they got stumped. When they made a mistake, they fixed it. Fear did not paralyze them.

For someone trying to move forward on a difficult project, these examples are gold. Even when watching the actual work is more like watching sausage being made: a picture of a nail in the soft part of a young man’s forearm.

And yes, we miss them.