"No apology then. No regrets. My convictions have validity for me because I have experimented with the compounds of ideas of others in the laboratory of my mind. And I've tested the results in the living out of my life. At twenty-one, I had drawn an abstract map based on the evidence of others. At sixty, I have accumulated a practical guide grounded in my own experience. At twenty-one, I could discuss transportation theory with authority. At sixty, I know which bus to catch to go where, what the fare is, and how to get back home again. It is not my bus, but I know how to use it."
-- Robert Fulghum in Words I Wish I Wrote
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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 <http://www.hrw.org>, 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."
As it happened, the piece got into the little hands of a New York City kindergarten student whose mother was a literary agent. "She came home from her kindergarten class with that essay stuck in her knapsack." The agent tracked Fulghum down by backtracking the course the piece had taken to get into her daughter's knapsack.
"The kindergarten teacher had gotten it from her niece who was a librarian in New Orleans and she'd gotten it from the Kansas City Bugle. So when she found me she called me up and asked if I had any more. And I told her I did, but I didn't think it was commercially viable." Aside from the viability, Fulghum had other things on his mind.
"At the time my wife had decided she wanted to go to medical school and once she was settled as a doctor I was going to take some time to pursue my art, which I had never done. I was a minister in the Unitarian church at the time and teaching and I was ready to stop that and do the next phase of my life. So I had quit both those jobs and I was all set up with my studio in Seattle when this other horse came riding by."
The other horse in question was the writing career that Fulghum treats so lightly. It wasn't, after all, in the plan. "I'm not a great writer and I'll never get the Nobel Prize or a Pulitzer Prize but I've won the refrigerator door award. And you don't see Faulkner on people's refrigerator."
If he's not, I ask, the ranking American philosopher, who is? "I haven't the slightest clue," Fulghum answers candidly. "We've associated that word philosophy with academic study that in its own way has gotten so far beyond the layman that if you read contemporary philosophy you've no clue, because it's almost become math. And it's odd that if you don't do that and you call yourself a philosopher that you always get 'homespun' attached to it," you get the feeling that Fulghum would rather not be anyone's 'homespun' anything.
He offers Garrison Keillor and Dave Letterman as possible candidates of modern philosophers. "Or Jay Leno? Sally Jesse Rapheal? These are the gurus that people are turning to, when you think about it. Oprah is perhaps the most powerful woman on the North American continent."
If he's not a writer, what is he? I ask him what he says when people asks what he does for a living. "Well, I ask them almost invariably, what do you mean by that question? Do you want to know where I get money from or what gives me joy? What do you want to know? If you want to know where I get my money from, I get money from the stock market. Because I'm giving away all the money from these books. So I guess you could say in that case, I'm a stock broker. But I don't really have anything to do with stocks.
"If you ask me what I do that gives me real pleasure, well right now I'm getting back to two things I've not been doing because of travel. One is raising Bonsai trees. I used to have a really large collection and then when I started traveling a lot with writing my wife, who has a black thumb, managed to kill about half of them and maim the rest of them so I gave them away. And now I'm back raising them again."
The question, then, is obviously one he's given much thought to. Philosophized about, if you will. "And I'm getting back into painting, which I haven't done in a long time. So there's more time going into raising bonsai -- because I'm raising them from seed -- so it's a 25 year project. So you could say, I'm a Bonsai-person."
Maybe, he suggests, doing what you have passion for to earn a living isn't always the best scenario. "I think the hardest thing for most people to figure out is that it's really rare to be able to do what you really love and get paid for it. It's almost better to not, because you end up hating the thing you're doing because you have to do it. A lot of people would be artists if they didn't have to make a living. So you have to be careful about making a living doing what you love."
At present, Fulghum and his wife live on a houseboat in Lake Union in Seattle. The couple also keeps a place in Utah. "I really like living on the water," he says. "I don't know why I like it because I grew up in Texas and I really wasn't around the water. But I like the open space that's connected with water and I like living in the community of people, rather than on land. It's like living in an adult summer camp year round. It's a level of life that's very pleasant."
The houseboat isn't huge -- about 900 square feet of living space -- but, "for two of us it's quite comfortable. You can't have a lot of stuff, but you don't have to mow grass and you don't have to rake leaves. It's very sane."
It was perhaps the reality of the tight quarters of living on the water that prompted Fulghum to downsize his personal library during the course of writing Words I Wish I Wrote. "I gave them to libraries and friends and family. I tried to get my books down to a very small pile: the ones that I really want to read again and again and again. There haven't been that many of those.
"I realized that they've been sitting there on those shelves forever and I think if you die with a lot of books like that, I don't know what you've proved. But my kids took a lot of them and my friends took a lot of them. They were easy to get rid of because they were good books."
His concept of what's important to him in a book he wants to keep around forever has changed, he says, as he's matured. "I tend to keep books of art more than anything else now. I'm interested in visual things. And astronomy books. Things you can look at over and over and over again and see something new."
Fulghum has a very strong and personal interest in astronomy, or aspects of it. "Astronomy in the sense that I'm really awed by two things. One: the pictures that come from the Hubble Telescope. And the reverse, the photographs that have been taken of the earth from up high. I really enjoy just looking at them. Hardly a week goes by that the Hubble telescope doesn't come up with something that bends your mind in a way that you simply can not talk about."
This looking has, he reports, perhaps altered his views on some of the larger issues in his life. "My notions of God and the universe have always been too small. And limited by language. So now I'm looking at picture books. My children say I'm just beginning to enter my dotage: can't read, just looks at picture books."
It seems laughable: to think of this man as nearing his dotage. At 60 he seems just on the verge of his great discoveries, but well on the way to attaining his goal, "I don't think the thing is to be well known, but being worth knowing." Those who bestow the refrigerator award would say that he's just that.
Vistit Robert Fulghum online at his Web site.
Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine and the author of several books.