When I was an undergraduate at UCONN, I took a class called “The Bible as Literature.” It was co-taught by three professors: one who specialized in literature, one in philosophy, and one in religion. It was an absolutely fascinating class, and if it’s still offered there I’d highly recommend it regardless of your spiritual leanings. I remember two things about that class vividly: the philosophy professor’s longish yellow-white hair (his appearance definitely smacked of “raving sage on the mountain”) and something that he said to me.

At one point during our study of the new testament, one of the professors asked the hall whether anyone knew why certain passages in the bible were in red ink rather than black. I was the only one who offered up an answer, and I said – because it’s written in blood?

The philosophy prof’s response: You’re the kind of person who hears hoof-beats and goes looking for zebras!

(In my defense, the red words are the words that Christ is purported to have spoken, so if you want to stretch the metaphor, he redeemed humanity with his death, his “blood,” so you could say that the red words in the bible are a blood-red reminder of that sacrifice and not just an easy way to flip quickly to Jesus’s words – though I admit it’s kind of a reach.) But that comment really stuck with me, because he flung it at me as though it was meant to be an insult, a cry to rein in my obviously overactive imagination.

What I really wonder is this: since when was an overactive imagination a bad thing?

From what I’ve seen and read, one of the questions writers most often are asked is “where do you get your ideas?”

The answer, of course, is that they’re everywhere. Anything can spark an idea. The trick is in listening, in not immediately dismissing the seed of an idea. In letting your mind play, in following your gut.

For example, I went to a lunch last week – in the middle of the corporate work day, the most mind-numbing situation I can imagine – with a few women who do occasional “origami” lunches at which they all do origami together. We made a five-pointed flower/bowl and an elephant while I was there. Just the act of folding paper grew, in my mind, into an elaborate fairy tale about a princess and a poor boy who communicate in secret through folded paper forms.

Or this – a few months ago, the seaside bar in Sharknado – of all things!!! – turned into a story about a siren trapped on land, working in a seaside dive bar and trying to figure out how to get home. That character exploded in my head and, ever since, has been demanding a trilogy and telling me what each book is about.

Ideas are everywhere. Everywhere. You just need to train yourself – allow yourself – to listen, to give them space and let them grow, let them play. Sometimes the hardest part is giving yourself permission to let your mind fly outside the “normal,” the accepted. But just like with anything else, the more you practice, the easier it gets.

That day in class, the professor shut me up with the cutting edge of his remark. I was, I’ll admit, embarrassed. But today I can say that honestly, I’m proud that when I hear hoof-beats, I go looking for the unexpected.

I wouldn’t have it any other way.

2 responses to “Looking for Zebras: on the “overactive” imagination”

  1. Daniel Waltz Avatar

    Love the post. I do the same thing and I guess it’s kind of cool to know there are others out there who do as well.

  2. drew Avatar

    As Pentecostals like to say:
    “Read the red and pray for the power!”

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