Robert Fulghum — underrated master of the short story (or so I say!)

Robert Fulghum’s writing saved me. When I was in university, I was a little bit of a nervous wreck, as I was pushing myself a little bit too hard. I didn’t know how to stop, rest, and smell the roses — but I definitely knew how to read, and it was only through reading that I could recharge.

I first found Fulghum’s work lying on a table in my university library, a title that I found almost completely incongruous to the setting of a university library — All I Really Need to Know I Learned in KindergartenIt was a book that was just so full of joy, the hours that I spent reading it passed by with me almost forgetting my troubles.

Fulghum’s work is often filed under the self-help/self-improvement section, but that makes almost zero sense to me. His writing, to me, is self-help only in the sense that it helps me feel better about the world and myself, it helps me feel more hopeful, and it helps me to enjoy the English language just a little bit more. His work contains very little advice of the “do this and you will be happy” variety, and even if Fulghum dispenses advice, it never is pedantic.

I reproduce a short chapter from his book, Maybe (Maybe Not), to show my readers how impressive his writing can be. No copyright infringement is meant (this post is not for sale!), and I’d like my readers to go out and buy/borrow his books, because they are really that good. As Fulghum says below: Tell it to someone. This is urgent news. Keep it alive in the world.

(But if Fulghum or his lawyers ask me to take down the extract, I will :P)

———–

Excerpt from Maybe (Maybe Not):

It is the year 2050. In a large Eastern European city — one that has survived the vicissitudes of more than a thousand years of human activity — in an open square in the city center — there is a rather odd civic monument. A bronze statue.

Not a soldier or politician.

Not a general on a horse or a king on a throne.

Instead, the figure of a somewhat common man, sitting in a chair.

Playing his cello.

Around the pedestal on which the statue sits, there are bouquets of flowers.

If you count, you will always find twenty-two flowers in each bunch.

The cellist is a national hero.

If you ask to hear the story of this statue, you will be told of a time of civil war in this city. Demagogues lit bonfires of hatred between citizens who belonged to different religions and ethnic groups. Everyone became an enemy of someone else. None was exempt or safe. Men, women, children, babies, grandparents — old and young — strong and weak — partisan and innocent — all, all were victims in the end. Many were maimed. Many were killed. Those who did not die lived like animals in the ruins of the city.

Except one man. A musician. A cellist. He came to a certain street corner every day. Dressed in formal black evening clothes, sitting in a fire-charred chair, he played his cello. Knowing he might be shot or beaten, still he played. Day after day he came. To play the most beautiful music he knew.

Day after day after day. For twenty-two days.

His music was stronger than hate. His courage, stronger than fear.

And in time other musicians were captured by his spirit, and they took their places in the street beside him. These acts of courage were contagious. Anyone who could play an instrument or sing found a place at a street intersection somewhere in the city and made music.

In time the fighting stopped.

The music and the city and the people lived on.

A nice fable. A lovely story. Something adults might make up to inspire children. A tale of the kind found in tourist guidebooks explaining and embellishing the myths behind civic statuary. A place to have your picture taken.

Is there any truth in such a parable other than the implied acknowledgement of the sentimentality of mythmaking? The real world does not work this way. We all know that. Cellists seldom become civic heroes — music doesn’t affect wars.

Vedran Smailovic does not agree.

In The New York Times Magazine, July 1992, his photograph appeared.

Middle-aged, longish hair, great bushy mustache. He is dressed in formal evening clothes. Sitting in a cafe chair in the middle of a street. In front of a bakery where mortar fire struck a breadline in late May, killing twenty-two people. He is playing his cello. As a member of the Sarajevo Opera Orchestra, there is little he can do about hate and war — it has been going on in Sarajevo for centuries. Even so, every day for twenty-two days he has braved sniper and artillery fire to play Albinoni’s profoundly moving Adagio in G Minor.

I wonder if he chose this piece of music knowing it was constructed from a manuscript fragment found in the ruins of Dresden after the Second World War? The music survived the firebombing. Perhaps that is why he played it there in the scarred street in Sarajevo, where people died waiting in line for bread. Something must triumph over horror.

Is this man crazy? Maybe. Is his gesture futile? Yes, in a conventional sense, yes, of course. But what can a cellist do? What madness to go out alone in the streets and address the world with a wooden box and a hair-strung bow. What can a cellist do?

All he knows how to do. Speaking softly with his cello, one note at a time, like the Pied Piper of Hamelin, calling out the rats that infest the human spirit.

Vedran Smailovic is a real person.

What he did is true.

Neither the breadline nor the mortar shell nor the music is fiction.

For all the fairy tales, these acts do take place in the world in which we live.

Sometimes history knocks at the most ordinary door to see if anyone is at home. Sometimes someone is.

Most everyone in Sarajevo knows now what a cellist can do — for the place where Vedran played has become an informal shrine, a place of honor. Croats, Serbs, Muslims, Christians alike — they all know his name and face.

They place flowers where he played. Commemorating the hope that must never die — that someday, somehow, the best of humanity shall overcome the worst, not through unexpected miracles but through the expected acts of the many. Sarajevo is not the only place where Vedran Smailovic is known. An artist in Seattle, Washington, saw his picture and read his story. Her name is Beliz Brother. Real person — real name. What could an artist do?

She organized twenty-two cellists to play in twenty-two public places in Seattle for twenty-two days, and on the final day, all twenty-two played together in one place in front of a store window displaying burnt-out bread pans, twenty-two loaves of bread, and twenty-two roses.

People came. Newspaper reporters and television cameras were there. The story and the pictures were fed into the news networks of the world. And passed back to Vedran Smailovic that he might know his music had been heard and passed on. Others have begun to play in many cities. In Washington, D.C., twenty-two cellists played the day our new president was sworn into office. Who knows who might hear? Who knows what might happen?

Millions of people saw Vedran’s story in The New York Times. Millions have seen and heard the continuing story picked up by the media.

Now you, too, know.

Tell it to someone. This is urgent news. Keep it alive in the world.

As for the end of the story, who among us shall insist the rest of the story cannot come true? Who shall say the monument in the park in Sarajevo will never come to pass? The cynic who lives in a dark hole in my most secret mind says one cellist cannot stop a war, and music can ultimately be only a dirge played over the unimaginable.

But somewhere in my soul I know otherwise.

Listen.

Never, ever, regret or apologize for believing that when one man or one woman decides to risk addressing the world with truth, the world may stop what it is doing and hear.

There is too much evidence to the contrary.

When we cease believing this, the music will surely stop.

The myth of the impossible dream is more powerful than all the facts of history. In my imagination, I lay flowers at the statue memorializing Vedran Smailovic — a monument that has not yet been built, but may be.

Meanwhile, a cellist plays in the streets of Sarajevo.

Tip #8: Nothing worth doing in life is easy

It is far too easy to be distracted from the important things in life, in the age of the internet. Feeling bad about not having done your holiday homework? Ah, perhaps you’ll do it after a few clickety trips to YouTube or Buzzfeed. Three hours later, you’re suitably entertained (because it’s that easy to be entertained), and your homework still isn’t done. Is entertaining yourself too easy, with the internet? Definitely. So, don’t entertain yourself to death.

If you’re feeling unhappy about something school related, do something about it. It’ll probably be difficult, but nothing worth doing in life is easy. This one’s for the adults too — it’s too easy for adults to (metaphorically and literally) sit down and grow fat, instead of getting up and getting stronger or fitter.

I like to use my music to illustrate the value of hard work to my students. I can play the guitar fairly well (a student once said that my playing was “perfectly calibrated” :D), but that my singing needed work. Well, of course. I’ve spent a decade and a half playing the guitar, but I only started to take my singing more seriously a few years ago. To be honest, I probably need to take it more seriously if I want to get better. And it’s the same for studies, or work, or life. Nothing worth doing in life is easy.

It may sometimes be tiring if we keep on pushing ourselves, but it eventually will be rewarding. I remember trying to read John Milton’s Paradise Lost when I was an undergraduate, and feeling absolutely lost. Here’s a taste (you can skip it if you want to):

OF MAN’S first disobedience, and the fruit
Of that forbidden tree whose mortal taste
Brought death into the World, and all our woe,
With loss of Eden, till one greater Man
Restore us, and regain the blissful Seat,
Sing, Heavenly Muse, that, on the secret top
Of Oreb, or of Sinai, didst inspire
That Shepherd who first taught the chosen seed
In the beginning how the heavens and earth
Rose out of Chaos: or, if Sion hill
Delight thee more, and Siloa’s brook that flowed
Fast by the oracle of God, I thence
Invoke thy aid to my adventrous song,
That with no middle flight intends to soar
Above the Aonian mount, while it pursues
Things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme.
And chiefly Thou, O Spirit, that dost prefer
Before all temples the upright heart and pure,
Instruct me, for Thou know’st; Thou from the first
Wast present, and, with mighty wings outspread,
Dove-like sat’st brooding on the vast Abyss,
And mad’st it pregnant: what in me is dark
Illumine, what is low raise and support;
That, to the highth of this great argument,
I may assert Eternal Providence,
And justify the ways of God to men.

If you understand that, congratulations. You’re coping better than I did when I was just in university. But since I had to understand this book-length epic poem, I slogged my way through it. I checked the brilliant Oxford English Dictionary for any word that I didn’t understand. I read and re-read passages to make sure I understood them. When the semester was done, Paradise Lost became one of my favourite texts of all time. I still read it now and then.

Nothing worth doing is easy. I spent months trying to understand one of the most brilliant epic poems in the world, and when I started to understand what was going on, it felt like my brain was exploding with fireworks and radiant light. Yeah, Paradise Lost is very, very awesome.

If you’re a student, something like Paradise Lost would be a little bit irrelevant (unless you’re, say, consistently getting A’s for your English, and feeling bored with modern prose). You might want to set a goal worth achieving, like cycling 100km in a day, or finishing your homework on time for an entire year (whoa), or cooking a meal for your entire family, or studying early for all your exams in the coming year (whoa).

Remember, don’t entertain yourself to death. It’s too easy.

Are you looking for an English tutor? For one-on-one lessons or group lessons, please send an email to kevinseahsg@gmail.com, or call/SMS/whatsapp 97700557 (Singapore only). I’m not always at my phone, so if I don’t pick up, please leave me an SMS to let me know you’re looking for a tutor.