Paddle Your Own Canoe

With his Pyramid of Greatness, woodworking prowess, and lust for bacon and eggs, Ron Swanson of Parks and Recreation seems like the ultimate man: a carnivorous, all-American alpha male who can fashion rings in 20 minutes and escape all women named Tammy.

But Nick Offerman insists, despite his love of woodworking and iconic mustache, he’s nothing like his character — after all, he’s an artist who went to theater school and danced ballet, and even puts on makeup for work every day. In his new book, Paddle Your Own Canoe, he not only explores his Paul Bunyan-like image with tongue-in-cheek lessons on manliness, complete with illustrations and advice, but also offers poignant memories of his childhood growing up in Illinois and hilarious anecdotes from his career.

The actor spoke to EW about his writing process, his favorite memories, and what it truly means to be manly. Hint: No punching involved — unless it’s something to do with Jamm.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You write that when you were on set for The Men Who Stare At Goats, you had a moment when you thought to yourself, ‘This would be something I should include in a book if I ever write one.’ When did you finally decide to write a book, and what convinced you to do so?

NICK OFFERMAN: It was long after The Men Who Stare At Goats. I suppose I’ve had many experiences, as the book will attest, which led me to think, ‘Oh, that’ll be a good story.’ It’s sort of a joke around my circle that when a story occurs, someone will say something facetiously like, ‘Save that for your book’ or ‘Save that for Letterman.’ Deciding to turn in 350 pages of anecdotes and musings is something I would’ve considered a bit precious or narcissistic for most of my years, and it was only inadvertently when I began to travel to colleges on a speaking tour of a show I had written called American Ham that people began to say things to me like ‘Oh, that sounds like it’s from your book,’ and I said, ‘Oh, that’s funny, let me think about that.’

Was there a message you wanted to share with these anecdotes and musings? Most of what you include deals with your childhood and growing up.

I thought, ‘I’m really enjoying taking the lessons of my youth, simple lessons like just saying ‘please’ and ‘thank you,’ having good manners, having a good work ethic — I really like telling that to the young people of our country because I feel like things are much more complicated these days than in my simple childhood. I think anytime our youth, and frankly we ourselves, can be reminded that we’re never too old to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you,’ that’s not a bad thing, and the secret then is to dress it in humor so that it’s not just a lecture in good manners.

Do you have a favorite chapter?

Sure. I think if we’re lucky and we play our cards right, then we make our stupidest mistakes in college. I think that’s part of the system — it certainly continues your secondary education, but it’s also the place where you leave the nest of your parents’ home and figure out how your wings work and see if you can fly straight through and perhaps determine upon which power lines you sit and thereby choosing where you poop. [Laughs] These are all questions we answer in college with some varying amounts of elegance and clumsiness. Since mine were very heavy on the clumsy side, it was a lot of fun to work myself through those stories.

Why did you decide on having short guides to manliness strewn throughout? You write that you don’t believe you’re manly.

That’s more of a response to the world, that has for some reason decided that I am to be held up as an example of manliness or machismo. The first thing people say to me, infuriatingly, is ‘Why do you think people think you’re so manly?’ So I start the chapter by saying, ‘Look, I understand why on the surface you might think a Snickers bar is a meal — it’s packed with peanuts, it really satisfies, it’s got a nice thick dimension — but when you break it down, it’s actually a candy bar.’ And by the same token, I see the mustache, I use tools, I don’t suffer fools gladly, I don’t mince about in the public eye as frequently, so I understand why people would say, ‘Oh, that guy seems like he’s very manly.’ I’m quick to remind the audience that I’m, of my family and my community, I’m the one who went away to theater school to find a career in the arts. I have studied ballet, I have worn tights, I wear makeup every day at work, I love to cry openly at a Pixar film. So I don’t think I’m as manly as you think.

What do you consider to be manly?

It’s not punching people in the face and firing a shotgun. It’s being decent and loyal and standing by one’s principles and things like that. I also don’t think it’s right to refer to these qualities as manly per se because I think they are ideals that both men and women should strive for.

Do you think it’s possible that you’re the one who has to bear the torch for manliness anyway because there aren’t enough public figures with that kind of machismo, that kind of decency and loyalty that you value, today?

That’s something I haven’t really thought about, but it is quite sad now that you mention it. Our politicians can never remotely approach that topic, they’re too busy engaging in double speak and equivocating to ever stop and talk about decency or standing by one’s principles, because were they to do that, they’d be laughed right off the pulpit.

Would you be open to writing another book in the future? Do you have any ideas already?

I have greatly enjoyed this process of writing this book. I certainly have a lot more stories and can certainly envision another book of this ilk, probably leaning more towards entertainment and less towards admonitions. I’m very excited — I have a couple of book ideas that are more in the documentary vein. One might involve making a guitar, one might involve traveling around the world and talking to people who make different kinds of canoes. I really enjoy the nonfiction of John McPhee and Bill Bryson, the sort of folksy journalists who write about subject matters and parts of the outdoors that I find interesting, so I wouldn’t mind trying to settle somewhere into that niche.

Are you reading those authors now? What do you like to read?

My music and my reading tastes are really across the board. I just reread John McPhee’s Survival of the Bark Canoe and just finished Michael Pollan’s Cooked. My favorite writer is Wendell Berry, and I think that for me, Wendell Berry and Michael Pollan are sort of the John Lennons, the voices of exciting leadership. I don’t want to go so far as to use the term ‘savior,’ but there is something messianic about their writings to me because they simply point out mistakes that we make as a modern society of humans dealing with the amount of technology and luxury that we have.

And what attracts you to their work?

They offer the best hope at returning to a life in which we might not destroy our planet. Staying in touch with the land from which we glean our food and by doing things like working with our hands, whether it’s cooking in the kitchen or building our own furniture or playing music, those are the ideals that I’m really attracted to these days.

If you do think about writing a sequel to Paddle Your Own Canoe, might I suggest Build Your Own Canoe?

Sure, that may be in the bag, we’ll see what the people will agree to.

How about poetry? Paddle Your Own Canoe has a haiku and lyrics to a song.

I mean, those are about as third grade as poetry can get. I don’t think anybody is gonna make me their poet laureate unless it’s the pipe fitters union or something.

Paddle Your Own Canoe hits shelves today.

Paddle Your Own Canoe
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