On Purple Rhinoceroses

“This tremendous world I have inside of me. How to free myself, and this world, without tearing myself to pieces. And rather tear myself to a thousand pieces than be buried with this world within me.”  Franz Kafka

“Go for broke. Always try and do too much. Dispense with safety nets.” Salman Rushdie


The image above is an illustration from my new children’s picture book The Adventures Of Edison Matthews, a story about a bored little boy who uses his imagination to conjure new adventures. Though it appears toward the middle of the book on page 13, it was the first painting I did for the project — almost two years ago now. But the image of a boy in footed pajamas riding a purple rhinoceros has been in my head for even longer.

A few months before the real Edison was born, I decided to make a series of whimsical paintings to hang in his nursery; a collection of fantastical scenes that would surround his crib, blanketing his playtime and naps in wonder and enchantment. For some reason still unknown to me, the first thing to emerge from the vapors of my mind was the boy on the purple rhinoceros. And, as is so often the case, I sketched out a thumbnail of the painting and put it away in a drawer where it sat untouched and unviewed for a decade.

However, it wasn’t the usual case of “out of sight, out of mind.” Although I never got around to making the paintings for Edison’s room (something that still saddens me because it feels like missed magic), I would frequently think about the purple rhinoceros. It would appear to me at what felt like the oddest times, flashing into my mind like a default screen saver that had just been refreshed. Across the slow parade of years, more and more images grew from its repeated visits until there was a list of paintings. Until there was a simple story to go with them. Like a vine unhurriedly extending its tendrils until it overtakes the entire wall, the evolution from that lone image of the purple rhinoceros to a series of paintings to a picture book happened gradually — sometimes in my conscious waking thoughts, sometimes in the background of all the other enterprises that make up a life. In fact, the image became a metaphor that I used to chide myself when I would take on a creative project that was so big, multi-faceted, or complex that it couldn’t be finished quickly and would have to be set aside for periods of time. “Another purple rhinoceros,” I would exhale with a mixture of relief and discouragement.

Here’s the thing, though. Now purple rhinoceroses are all I want to work on.

Purple rhinoceroses are the creative projects and work that challenge us, stretch us, and involve all the best parts of us because, deep down, they hold the most meaning for us. For that reason, purple rhinoceroses are also rare — like their mythical cousins the unicorns — and you have to keep both eyes open and hunt for them. And when you’re finally face to face with one you’re forced to take your time, partly because there’s so much to do, but mostly because you’re filled with love and gratitude for the opportunity. Just like the violet beast’s purposeful plodding, you’re in no hurry. Even when you’re not actively working on one, you can’t ever really let a purple rhinoceros go because it’s the sort of work where we are most fully ourselves. We are laboring in service of taking something authentic and important from within and placing it out in the world. An ancient legend that I just made up has it that if you look a purple rhinoceros directly in the eye, you will see yourself as you truly are.

My purple rhinoceroses all roam about in the savannas of music, improvisation, poetry, and painting. And when they — and I — are ready, we meet and they take me for a ride on their back.

What are your purple rhinoceroses? Where might they be grazing? When you see one in the wild, will you have the courage to make eye contact? I think you will.

Keep imagining anything …

Matt Geiler Autograph


Imagine Anything

“I believe in the power of the imagination to remake the world, to release the truth within us, to hold back the night, to transcend death, to charm motorways, to ingratiate ourselves with birds, to enlist the confidences of madmen.”
― J.G. Ballard
“Logic will get you from A to Z; imagination will get you everywhere.”
― Albert Einstein

How often do you just let your imagination run wild? We get some stern messaging from the world about indulging our imaginations — unless we’re exercising it for the purpose of increasing productivity or brainstorming solutions (Ugh. To both). But just allowing our imaginations to flow free and uninhibited is where the real magic is. Wading unassumingly into its pool of enchanted waters is where we can discover the stories we need to write, the work that truly captivates us, even the steps we need to take to bring those dreams and visions into being.

One of my earliest memories of this sort of magic recalls endless trips to the bookstore with my mother. I can’t remember a time when visits to bookstores and libraries weren’t a part of the routine of life. A lot of times we wouldn’t even buy anything. My mom and brother and I would just wander and discover. We never needed a reason to go on these book-based adventures. It was just something we did.

When I would get inside the Waldenbooks, or B. Dalton’s, or the Little Professor (Barnes & Noble wasn’t an option way back then), I would become giddy with excitement to plunge into one of my favorite activities: smelling the pages of the new books. For some reason, when I would inhale the scent of fresh pages, I would imagine where all these books came from. I was too little to understand that books were written by people and made by printers. Instead I imagined a vast orchard of trees, each of which had hundreds of books hanging from the branches. I imagined that every tree grew one particular title and that all the copies on the tree were half-covered in a leafy stalk that had to be shucked and disposed of before the book could be shipped. To do this, obviously there was an immense army of book farmers who rose daily with the sun and picked the freshest books, proofread them for mistakes, and packed them in wooden crates to send off to bookstores around the world. All this I knew to be absolutely true from smelling the pages.

How powerful is your imagination that it can conjure a whole world in the time it takes you to breathe? It might just be our most amazing instrument.

The illustration for this article is from my new picture book for children, The Adventures Of Edison Matthews (Sick Picnic Press) and is a whimsical rendering of the imaginary book orchard I’ve been carrying around in my head for years. In fact, the story is a playful dialogue between a father and son that’s meant to demonstrate the most vital power of our imaginations — to remake the world we currently experience into the world as we wish it could be. If you’re so inclined, you can pre-order a copy HERE.

But more importantly, I want to encourage you to let your imagination run wild. Follow those odd inklings until they turn into full-blown flights of fancy. Take the unfamiliar winding path that intrigues you. Spout nonsense at the bank. Crawl through the department store like the racks are a jungle canopy. And, whenever you can, play. Especially when the world around you seems to be saying it’s pointless. Because that’s when the good stuff happens.

Keep dreaming, making, and imagining anything.

Matt Geiler Autograph