As this professor learned, creative ideas flourish when we slow down, stop the chatter, and allow silence.
Outside my study’s windows, my garden rests through winter. The rosebush remains green, but other plants retreat from view, refueling for the long growing season ahead. In other seasons, the largest, a sprawling Turk’s cap, fills my window frame with bright, emerald leaves and scarlet blooms that draw butterflies and hummingbirds. I spend a lot of time watching those visitors, delighted by each fluttering swallowtail that lingers there. I like seeing a black-chinned hummingbird or her more decorative mate drain the nectar from each blossom on the huge bush.
Outside my study’s windows, my garden rests through winter.
After the first frost, I find myself staring out into memory, and a particular afternoon last August comes to mind. On this day, as I was hard at not-working, my hummingbird came directly to the window, hovering and looking inside with what seemed, from my guilt-ridden perspective, a reproach to my unproductive state. After a few seconds, she zipped off, with a metabolism I envied.
Oh, to always be as energetic and productive as that hummingbird: the perfect example of a work ethic that hovered over my own academic consciousness, always demanding evidence of time “well spent.” But then I remembered that I’d seen that same bird stop, sit, and rest in the branches of the trees for five minutes or more, an eternity in hummingbird time.
Like many academics, I usually started my summer with elevated production goals: I can write more, I’d think, because I teach less in summer sessions; time expands and seems to slow enough for savoring ideas, developing new projects, or moving steadily to complete others. But in the midsummer heat, my productivity always slowed to a languid crawl—despite my best intentions. Then, suddenly, it would be the end of July, with too much still undone.
Perhaps to compensate for my own languor with my written work, I’d find myself filling time in the classroom, asking my students more questions, answering them as quickly, filling the silence with my own talk, until that moment when I experienced an out-of-body observation and saw myself yammering on, working to be “teaching”—doing what appeared to be the work of education by filling the hour. I was buzzing through the daily syllabus and checking off each reading with vigor. But a voice inside my head said “you’re just talking.”
In this moment of realization, I saw that though I could make my classroom look more productive by filling the time with my own talk, we were no closer to developing real insight at the end of the day. I understood that I needed to slow down, to add my silence to the classroom in order to do the other required work of teaching: encourage the practice of thinking. Instead of rewarding only the quick thinkers, allowing silence created an opportunity for the students who preferred to mull over their ideas before sharing them. As class time slowed, more students became involved; they generated more answers and ideas from their own minds, instead of relying on my chattering to fill the time we had together.
Of course, what I needed to do in the classroom was also what I needed to do at my desk. Since last summer, I have taken time to understand my own pattern, to allow my own process to work, to learn not to force what’s not ready to be. I see that my productivity arcs while the garden rests, rising in the fall, with ideas flourishing through the winter and into spring, before declining into the summer.
In his book Creativity, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi points out that the creative process involves five steps: preparation, incubation, insight, evaluation, and elaboration. He also notes that this is not a simple linear process, but a recursive one in which a person cycles through the steps at variable rates: “Incubation may last for years; sometimes it takes a few hours. Sometimes the creative idea includes one deep insight, and innumerable small ones.”
I understand that in those longer silences, larger ideas are forming, deeper insights shaping.
Into my own creative process, then, I welcome the stillness during my summer rest, but I can also try to cultivate the quiet daily. Establishing the habit on the smaller scale familiarizes me so when longer silences come, I need not fear this quiet stage of my creative cycle. Instead, I understand that in those longer silences, larger ideas are forming, deeper insights shaping.
I’ve long since given up resolutions, with success or failure determined by the keeping or breaking of unbending resolve, but as many people do, I like to start my year with certain ideas of what might be accomplished in the months ahead. To create what seems to be forward movement, I may catch myself filling time with little tasks and worries, as if by anxiously having things to do, I can become a model of productivity. And yet, if I calm my busy mind, still my pursuit, I can hear with my breath the true direction in which to move. I’ll remember, instead, to let my hummingbird sit.