Sliding Back is Moving Forward
Written by Jim Knight.
December 13, 2010

In his fascinating book, the Biographia Literaria, Samuel Taylor Coleridge compares the act of creation to the movement of a bug skimming across the water against the current on a stream.  To move forward, Coleridge explains, the insect pushes hard and propels itself forward. Then after jumping forward, the insect lets the current move it backwards for a while, before it pushes itself ahead on the stream again. This little process, moving forward and drifting back, continues as long as the bug skims across the water.

Here is how Colderidge describes it:

Most of my readers will have observed a small water-insect on the surface of rivulets, which throws a cinque-spotted shadow fringed with prismatic colours on the sunny bottom of the brook; and will have noticed, how the little animal wins its way up against the stream, by alternate pulses of active and passive motion, now resisting the current, and now yielding to it in order to gather strength and a momentary fulcrum for a further propulsion. This is no unapt emblem of the mind’s self-experience in the act of thinking.

For Coleridge, creativity involves both the forceful, intentional push forward, followed by a passive drift backwards. Both are important. I’ve come to believe that this means that taking a break is just as important as pushing ahead and producing.

Over the holidays, I plan to take the great poet’s advice.  Starting today, I will take a short break and allow my brain to drift like the bug on the stream.  And like Coleridge’s bug, I intend to push forward again as soon as the holidays are over. The next Radical Learners post will be January 2.

I hope you have a wonderful holiday, and that you too get a chance to do some drifting too.  Our children need your best creative mind, and you deserve a break.


  1. Jennifer Sikes

    I like to think of the drifting back as time for reflection! Only through reflection can we crystalize our creative thoughts for the next push! Have a great holiday! I plan to drift around the Mexican countryside finding pockets of hopeful creativity during these tumultuous times. The holiday season usually brings out the best in people–I hope that is what I find during my drift.

  2. Jenny

    I love Coleridge! I was working night shift at the hospital, and I discovered a book he wrote–something about civility, I think–and really enjoyed what he had to say. I love the idea of active and passive motion. When you start looking for it, you see it at work everywhere, even in government.

  3. Brandon

    Remember that advice in your marathon training too. 🙂

  4. Jim Knight

    Thanks Brandon, right now I’m recuperating from broken ribs, so my running is on hold. I hope to be able to pick it up in a week or so. Feel free to send me any and all tips.


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