First-time Boatbuilder’s Pep Talk

Reprinted from The Stripper’s Guide to Canoe-building

Written long before the ad agency for a certain famous shoe maker ever thought to “just do it,” this essay explores in depth how perfectionism kills the boat.

Launching a canoe and a marriage may lead to what one never expected!

The thought that almost invariably comes up for someone considering the construction of his/her own canoe is “I don’t think that I can build a beautiful boat like that.” I would agree with you, and go on to show you how that attitude is looking at the holes and not looking at the cheese. It is the attitude that I was stuck in during most of my career as a boatbuilder. It is the attitude which created a lot of unnecessary problems during the construction of some seventy boats.

The cheese that I want you to get out of using this book to build your own boat is NOT the boat. I don’t care whether the boat you build comes out looking gross and ugly or light and beautiful. This book is about achieving a certain technical result, and I know that if you pay attention to the result and ignore the awareness of how you are doing it — the awareness of your feelings, attitudes, sensations, and memories — the result will be sterile.

The cheese that I want you to get is the experience. Just notice, and accept, what happens to yourself when you follow the directions. When I am in this head-space, I am not building the canoe, the canoe is building me. I am building the boat for the sake of discovering myself.

I want to share with you some of the things I have discovered, because you and I as human beings are faced with pretty much the same difficulties. What I say may not make the job of building the boat any easier for you, but if you get what I am saying, you might remember WHY you are building a boat when things are looking grim.

The first thing I want to tell you is DO IT. This book is not the experience; you have to create that. It is not the whole truth; it is only a map containing symbols for the reality which is in the process and in you. Allow the boat to come out of you the way it wants to come out, not the way you think it is supposed to come out. The way things are supposed to be is not the way things ARE. The fantasy I have in my mind of the boat I might build does not, will not, look like the boat I will actually build. I guarantee you that.

It will be pointed at both ends and it will float, all right, but all the events and contingencies that occur during the process of building are going to keep changing what the boat finally looks like. The finished boat is in you, in your body. You can’t see it, visualize it, imagine, until it happens. OK? You cannot imagine the grain structure of the interior of a board or a tree; you can only see it after it has been cut open.

This book is only telling you how to operate a saw, not how to grow a tree. The tree is given. Cut it open, make little strips, glue them together, and so on. That is all. Just do it. See what happens. See yourself doing it.

To think about all the mistakes I’ve made and all the mistakes I might make is to guarantee that mistakes will be made. When whatever happens is whatever happens while doing a boat, then there are no mistakes; there are only surprises. It might mean I have to use a little plastic wood here and there, or inject a bubble in the fiberglass with some resin, or even peel off a layer of fiberglass that didn’t adhere to the wood properly, but SO WHAT? It may even mean that I get bummed out, depressed, because I really wanted the boat to weigh less than 50 pounds, and it comes out 58, and there is nothing I can do about it except build another boat. So what? A bummer is a bummer, and I’ll get over it as soon as I decide that I’m either going to build another boat or not, so I might as well make that decision right now. You know? I have to remind myself not to mess around with the suffering, whipping myself for making mistakes. Perfect boats do not exist. The only question it makes sense to ask is, “What’s next?”

It may be that what is next is an expression of anger. One of the greatest frustrations I had as a boatbuilder was being unable to allow myself the satisfaction of releasing my pent-up aggressions on the boat, with a chain-saw, ax, or torch. When I was in a bummer, I stayed away from the shop, did something else. I finally found myself out in the woods with a chainsaw, thinning trees with a forest service contractor, who called it “rape and maim” because he was so fond of the trees. I got into hating the trees sometimes if they would not fall in the direction I wanted them to. I shrieked curses at them insanely like a cornered cat. I would place myself in the path of a falling 30-foot, 4-inch diameter spruce or hemlock. Before it had gotten more than 5 or 10 degrees off vertical I’d throw the tree in the opposite direction. I don’t know how much the trees weighed, but I know I couldn’t have done it without the adrenalin from the anger.

Well, a lot of the anger came from anger at myself for all the mistakes I thought I had made on the boats I had been building. Soon after that release I realized that not one of my customers ever saw those mistakes. They were usually too overwhelmed by the charisma of the boat and ignorant of what small details composed the multitude of “mistakes” that went into every boat. The irregularities actually contributed to the charm of the whole thing, because they meant that it was made by a human being and not a machine, which has some value in our day. However, I got the mistakes down to such an unnoticeable level that many observers doubted that I had actually made the boat with my own two hands, which was rather disappointing to me.

I have also realized that the customer was not only buying the boat, he was also buying me, saying yes to me. I made a lot of friends out of my customers, and non-customers who liked me because I was a boatbuilder. Sometimes it seemed like I had something special, a quality of my personality which contributed to my success as a boatbuilder. I don’t deny that, but I vehemently deny that I am different from anybody else.

Everybody has a successful boatbuilder within himself, and by sharing with you the techniques and procedures I have developed from my experience, I offer to share with you some of that success. To receive it you must be willing to give the process your full attention and accept the fact that the boat does not represent you or your success or lack of it. What you learn about yourself will not be visible at all in the boat and may only manifest itself in that big grin of satisfaction on your face.

I want to thank you for making it possible for me to complete an important experience in my life, by sharing it. I built canoes and kayaks for four years, and I quit when I got too lonesome and the work held no more surprises. I found myself exploring in my mind more and more subtle aspects of boatbuilding which were meaningless to anyone except another boatbuilder. Writing has become my way of helping myself make sense about what I am doing. In the proces of writing I create you, an empathetic boatbuilder, to listen to me express my reality. Inasmuch as it makes sense to you, you become me, I become you, and the stuff I am talking about is real. It it doesn’t make sense to you, then I am talking about garbage that is unreal.

If you feel like sharing your reality with me, or confirming our mutual experience, I would love to hear about it. Sometimes very useful information pops up that way and contributes to further refinements in the content of this book.

You are now a graduate of the Boatbuilder’s Pep Talk, a prerequisite to the reading of the rest of this book. If you don’t have a “yes” feeling within you now, you’d better consider that the rest of this book is going to be hard to swallow, because I wrote it, and you’ve already spent several minutes with me. If you can feel a spark of enthusiasm, then I just made you into a boatbuilder, and the rest of the book will be all downhill.

[Note: originally published in 1976 and reprinted through 6 editions until 1999, The Stripper’s Guide to Canoe-building is no longer in print. A recent search produced a copy available for $10.39, with the necessary fold-out drawings, at World of Books ]

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