The Red Elephant (Part Two)

What was your Red Elephant?

What first summoned you into concentration, and inspired in you a desire to create, to build, to lose yourself in impassioned work?

Something led you to pursue, say, medical science: the desire to understand a disease; the elaborate name of a virus; the feeling of your hand on the shoulder of an ailing parent. Something summoned you.

What is it about architecture? Editing? Law? Poetry? Beachcombing? Cross-country skiing? Sculpture? Violin repair? Beekeeping?

There is something in this.

Adam sees animals in the garden — look how they crawl, slither, strut, and swagger! — and their wild beauty and variety compels him to make something of the situation. He is driven to name them. He awakens and sees the woman, and he feels an even more particular drive — not merely to observe, but to engage. Jacob has a dream about a ladder that touches heaven. Revelation. Moses walks around a corner on an ordinary mountainside on an ordinary day and suddenly a shrub is blazing without a puff of smoke, and he perceives the presence of God.

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The Red Elephant (Part One)

I don’t remember the other animals. Only the elephant.

Over my mattress and my baby blankets, a mobile slowly revolved, drawing a merry-go-round of animal shapes to a jingling nursery tune. Without a word in my head, without names to call my parents, without any capacity to help myself, I lay there, wide-eyed and drooling, watching for the Red Elephant to float by again. And again.

It was hypnotic, mysterious — this parade of pillowed characters in primary colors, drifting around and and around. And every time the Red Elephant came around, with his jolly smile and his dark shiny eyes, I felt a surge of desire and reached with all of my might to grab for it.

When I was old enough to wrap my fingers around crayons, I went for the reds. I scribbled shapes with jolly smiles and dark, shining eyes. I wanted now to go beyond reaching for and seizing the Idea that had triggered something in me. I wanted to become a part of it. I wanted to ponder it through the vigorous act of imitation. By focusing on particular parts — a body, a nose, an eye — I was familiarizing myself with elements that were Important.

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Five Questions for Jeffrey Overstreet

You're a film reviewer, music critic, contributing editor, columnist, novelist, and you're married to a poet. You'd be a fun guy to talk to at a party or social gathering.  Do you get lots of invitations?

Why anybody would want to invite me over, I have no idea. Does anybody really want an earful about why the Oscars make me want to smash things, and why today's popular music gives me a headache?

But yeah, Anne and I are part of a fantastic community -- here in Seattle, and online -- that is always throwing parties, going to movies, going to concerts, giving recitals, opening art exhibits, reading original work at local bookstores. It's constantly inspiring. 

And yet, we have to say "No" to almost all of these invitations. If we said yes, we'd probably have to give up our lives as writers.

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Jeffrey Overstreet is the author of "Raven's Ladder," the third book in the bestselling fantasy series, The Auralia Thread. He is also an award-winning film critic and columnist.

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