Welcome back for the final installment of my interview with author, philosopher and world traveler, Robert Fulghum. Before we broke, we were talking about your various artistic outlets - each very different from the other: the writing, playing music, painting, and sculpting. And the fact that besides for the writing, you don't do any of them for a living is a big bonus. What do they give you?
It's an opportunity to exercise one's creative and innovative faculties. I tend to find found objects or objects that already exist and put them together in a way that makes sense or is beautiful. So, in my writing, it's the same thing. I don't think I have anything new whatsoever to say. And I don't think I'm particularly innovative or creative in how I do it. But, frequently, what I put side by side from found objects in the world makes some sense.
This is Garrison Keillor's great ability with his Lake Wobegon stories. He'll start out over here with something. And then he'll wander away from that and you think what happened? The guy is still standing out in the snow. And you wait two or three minutes and he comes back and he hooks something to the end of it that you never saw coming. And I think that's kind of what I try to do. I take things that don't seem to have anything to do with one another and I attach them. And so the visual is very much like the written word. And I just noticed that. I'm standing here looking outside at these things and thinking, "It's the same deal." So, thanks for asking.
You're welcome! "Meanwhile", the last essay in What on Earth Have I done? particularly resonated with me. Can you tell our readers a bit about that one?
Well, it's unusual that you would ask me about this. Because it just so happens that I'm actually writing today for my journal website something that picks up a good part of that to repeat because it's so important to me. And what's provoked it this time is my mentor of many, many years said to me, "You don't want to read the book of essays." He thinks my essays are too nice and he thinks life is a lot nastier and harder than I ever suggest. The essay in What on Earth Have I Done? is a response to a German friend who stayed in my house in Crete and left me a note saying why didn't I address in my writing all the political issues of our time and the humanitarian problems and America's place in the world.
And it was provoked by Obama's Nobel Prize speech when he talked about the nature of existence being contradictory and paradoxical and so I had this open in front of me. So I will kind of paraphrase it and go through it. Because it gets important for how anybody looks at their life.
For me, what I'm doing with my life is a matter of league and scale.
And I happen to know that my mind works best on the scale of the local,
the daily, and the ordinary. Writing about that is the league in which
I am competent. And what I mean by this is that I think some sense of
being successful in life may lie in knowing which league to play in.
And if you've always been a klutz, playing basketball, for example, in
my notion of success, would be being on an NBA team, I'm going to be a
failure because I'm trying to get into the wrong league.
But if I'm pleased to play bocce ball with local friends and we do okay together and have a good time, then I'm in the right league. And I think this is true for any sport, or any endeavor, for that matter. Find your league where your abilities fit and flourishing there is a good thing. Epictetus nailed it a long time ago in the first century B.C. "If you can fish, fish. If you can sing, sing. If you can fight, fight. Determine what you can do. And do that."
I think, likewise, that some sense of being successful lies in knowing what scale you work best in. I give some examples: an astronomer is one whose mind can work on a cosmic scale. A physicist is one whose mind can handle the quantum scale. A theologian the metaphysical scale. A psychiatrist works with the deep picture and on and on and on. I think many people die confused and unfulfilled, because they spend a life trying to perform above or even below their abilities and perspective. They are in the wrong scale. And good old Epictetus said, "Why worry about being a nobody when what matters is being a somebody in those areas of your life over which you have control, and in which you can make a difference?"
So I respond to my German critic and my mentor's comment in saying that I know about evil and ugliness. I've been there; I'm a flawed and foolish man. I see stupidity and ugliness in my own life. And I'm as outraged and frustrated as most people. And I do the things most people try to do. And I know that ultimately the glaciers will be back. Life will evolve; we won't be here. The Earth will fall into the sun and all of that.
But I also know that I am a storyteller at heart. I am a man who goes about trying to be fully awake to the news of the immediate, the ordinary; to make sense of what I have to put up with every day and pass my thoughts along and ask "What is going on?" and "Have you noticed?" And "Now what?"
And I say, in one way or another, "The world is full of evil and good as it's ever been. But you don't want to miss the good stuff." And, if I have a message, that's pretty much what it is. I don't think that's self-defense or an apology. It's just where I am. I end the essay "The world and the universe go their inevitable way. And meanwhile" I know what I can do. And meanwhile" I do that."