I got introduced to Robert Fulghum by a really good blogging friend of mine. I enjoyed his use of irreverent humour to buttress a truth. The way he took his Christianity straight – no water or tonic for this man. All these I got from the blog posts of my friend. I didn’t really expect to come across any of his books, I mean c’mon, this is Nigeria! Robert Ludlum…yes; Robert Fulghum…? I had not even heard about him till 2008.
Anyway, I rarely ever buy new books even though I have over 300 different books in my collection. I frequent book fairs, second hand book shops and other places where used books can be found. It was to one of such places I came when I stumbled upon Robert Fulghum’s book: Uh-Oh. I’m not through with it yet, but like the Philosopher himself recommended, it should not be read in a hurry.
Still, I became really curious about this man. Imagine my delight when I came across his website, via google, and discovered that he has a journal, right there! Then browsing through the internet, I came across this interview of him:
He is being hailed as the philosopher king of this generation. “Bullshit!” he explodes good-naturedly. “I don’t pay any attention to it. What’s important is what you think of yourself, not what gets typed in the paper. They’re always saying, ‘he’s the reincarnation of’ or ‘the next whatever’ and I say no: I’m still Robert Fulghum.”
The author of All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, It Was on Fire When I Lay Down on It, Maybe (Maybe Not), Uh-Oh, From Beginning to End, True Love and — most recently — Words I Wish I Wrote is widely recognized internationally. Collectively his books have sold more than fifteen million copies in 93 countries and been translated into 27 languages.
Fulghum says that on his way to selling literally millions of books, he’s learned a thing or two about humility: things that he sees focused in a couple of experiences. “I was in Miami,” he begins. The storyteller comfortably ready to spin his yarn. He leans back in his chair as he begins, the light dancing in his eyes as he recalls the day.
“I play in a rock and roll band called The Rock Bottom Remainders. It’s other authors. It’s Stephen King and Amy Tan and Dave Barry and a bunch of others of us. We play to raise money for charities, because we’re kind of a freak show, but we’re not bad. I play a guitar and a mando cello,” he pauses for effect. Will I bite? I don’t know enough about obscure instruments to take the bait, but he’s ready for that eventuality. “And since you don’t know what a mando cello sounds like or how it should be played, you can say with some authority I’m the most interesting mando cello player you’ve ever heard.
“Anyhow, we’re in this hotel and this maid comes in and she keeps looking at me and she smiled and she said, ‘I know who you are.’ And I said, ‘No you don’t. Who am I?’ And said, ‘You’re Kenny Rogers.’ And I of course said, ‘No, no, no.’ And she said, ‘If you were Kenny Rogers you wouldn’t say you were Kenny Rogers would you? So you must be Kenny Rogers.'”
It’s a bit of a reach, but the resemblance is there. Both Fulghum and Rogers are mature men with silvery gray hair and full beards. Perhaps more importantly, both are men with presence. You get the feeling that when Robert Fulghum walks into a room people pay attention. Possibly Rogers gets that as well. He continues.
“So that evening I’m walking along with my guitars going to the elevator and she went up like a skyrocket, ‘See! I knew you were Kenny Rogers!’ So I signed her card, ‘Love and kisses, Kenny Rogers.'”
The other experience that he feels taught him humility happened in Europe and actually became two humble pies in one road trip.
“My books have done extraordinarily well in the Czech language. Like the all time best English language sales in Czech. So I’m thinking, ‘Why is this true?’ So I went to Prague and I was going to do a book signing and there was this incredible line. And it looked like it was going on forever. So I stopped at the end of the line and I thought, these people always have to line up for bread or sausages or whatever. So I asked this woman why she was standing in line. And she said, ‘Oh: Robert Fulghum.’ And I said, ‘That’s me!’ And she picked up the book and she looked at the back and she said, ‘No. He’s much better looking than you are.'”
The Czech Republic experience was not over yet. “So that night we’re at a big banquet that the publisher threw. And I said to her, ‘Why are my books so well received in the Czech Republic?’ And she asked if I wanted to know the truth. And I told her I did. And she said, ‘It’s because your translator is a much better writer than you are.’ And how would I know? I don’t read Czech.”
Fulghum does not see himself as a great writer. Perhaps, in some ways, he barely sees himself as a writer at all. Rather he is someone who had thoughts to share that people happened to want to hear.
“I did not set out to be a writer. It’s something that came to me after I was 50 years of age. And I already had the life that I wanted and the wife I wanted and at that age I was fairly clear about what was important. The success that my writing is enjoying is like finding out your rich uncle has left you a train full of hammers. I mean, how many hammers can you use? It’s chocolate syrup. It’s an extra. So I take it very lightly. And if I were to fall off the charts tomorrow, I’ve already had more fame than I deserve and more money than I’ve ever had in my life. The thought that I could finally pay off my Visa bill! That’s rich.”
A train full of hammers it might be, but it’s the same hammers that he’s using to help change the world: or at least the part of it he can get to. For example, all the royalties earned by Words I Wish I Wrote will be given to Human Rights Watch, a cause he believes in deeply.
Fulghum reports that Words I Wish I Wrote is doing very well. “But, more importantly, it’s inspiring other writers to want to do the same thing for the same reason. That’s my measure of success. I want it to inspire other writers to give the proceeds of their books to the Human Rights Watch. That’s what I want to accomplish. I don’t care if it gets on the New York Times bestsellers list or not, but people have a reason to care about human rights.”
Everything I Ever Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten was Fulghum’s first book and the start of the train of hammers.
“The kindergarten essay got into that underground press we all belong to where something just sort of has a life of its own and moves around and it gets on refrigerators and in the work place and people copy it.” (Read the rest here)