Thoughts on Thoughts

TAoN 75: Helpful metacognition from Subtle Maneuvers' Mason Currey. PLUS: Speaking to the absent, a new Missing Word, and more

Probably a lot of you already know about the newsletter Subtle Maneuvers. But if not, you should. It’s written by Mason Currey — author of the terrific books Daily Rituals: How Artists Work and Daily Rituals: Women At Work — and extends his ongoing explorations of creative processes.

What he unearths and shares through his research is always entertaining and useful, ranging from Machiavelli’s routine while writing The Prince to Alison Bechdel’s labor-intensive cartooning process (just to cite two recent examples). More recently, Subtle Maneuvers has also added a monthly advice column on “creative dilemmas,” which is an idea I’m really jealous of.

In short, Mason is steeped in knowledge of the full panoply of individual practices that fuel creativity. And to me, a great payoff of his work is how it reveals that there is no single process or secret strategy — everyone has to discover what works for them. I find this encouraging.

Given all this, I thought I’d ask Mason if he had an idea for a prompt or assignment or tip to offer TAoN readers. So I reached out, and indeed he did! He replied:

“The other week I was listening to a podcast where the guest mentioned, in an offhand way, that researchers have found that 80 percent of the thoughts we think are the same from day to day. This blew my mind — and not in a good way! Here I was going around believing I was a curious, engaged individual thinking novel, interesting thoughts. Nope! Just the same old garbage, day in and day out.

“Ever since, I’ve been trying to pay more attention to my everyday thoughts, to determine if the ratio is really this dismal. And I think it … is? I can truthfully say that a lot of my thoughts are more or less the same from day to day, and that a lot of them are expressions of fretful underconfidence: that I’m not getting enough done, not (at this rate) going to achieve the things that I’ve set out to achieve.

“A depressing realization, yes — but also potentially freeing. I’ve been wondering: Am I thinking these thoughts because they’re true … or because I’m just in the habit of thinking them? And if it’s the latter case, then maybe I can let those thoughts float away, and make room for more genuine, in-the-moment reactions to what’s happening in my everyday life?” 

This is a great prompt — and maybe especially so right now.

Thinking about thinking is sometimes referred to as metacognition, often in the context of education: encouraging students to notice which mental processes and tactics really help them learn. What Mason is getting at here is not unrelated: challenging yourself to pay attention to your own thinking sounds to me like a great strategy for weeding out not just repetitive thoughts, or lazy ideas we need to challenge, but also full-on counterproductive rumination that is better avoided altogether.

Ideally, thinking about what we’re thinking about can help guide us to what we want to be thinking about. And this current moment — when so many of us are considering or re-considering what we want to prioritize, whether striving for a personal zero hour, or simply emerging from dormancy — seems like the perfect time to do that. So, you know: Think about it!

I highly recommend Mason’s books, and subscribing to Subtle Maneuvers, here; thanks, Mason!


Speaking to the Absent

In recent weeks I have had a highly enjoyable exchange with Christine Kortbein, who sent me the book Grief Reimagined: 50 Creative Strategies to Build Resilience, which she wrote with Catherine Tyink. (For more info, see her site.)

One entry in particular jumped out at me: the “Wind Telephone.” Some years ago, Otsuchi, Japan, resident Itaru Sasaki, deeply missing the conversations he used to have with a cousin who had passed away, began visiting an old phone booth with a (disconnected) rotary phone and a view of the Pacific. There, he would have conversations with his cousin. He explained that the wind was carrying his voice.

After the March 2011 tsunami hit, others grieving those they lost in that tragedy began to do the same thing, and that phone booth became famous. There’s a documentary about it, The Phone of the Wind. And here is a short Reuters video from earlier this year:

Kortbein and Tyink saw something here that others could use as part of a grieving process: “Having conversations with those who have passed can bring hope and healing,” they write. And now — this is my favorite part — Christine tells me she and others involved in a Free Little Art Gallery in Sebring, Florida, pictured below, have added Wind Phone Wednesday to the gallery’s rotation. More here.

The prompt: Speak to someone who is absent

(I can’t resist mentioning: Christine adds that the Wind Phone is an example of the “experience” strategies she and Tyink emphasized in Grief Reimagined. “That’s what I love about TAoN — it is a ‘doing’ book, not just a read! We have become a culture of ‘scrollers’ instead of ‘doers.’” A high compliment! Thank you all around Christine!)


  • Dictionary of Missing Words is an exercise in paying attention to phenomena you encounter — sensations, concepts, states between states, feelings, slippery things — that could be named, but don’t seem to be. More here and here.

This week’s missing word is from reader Rayma Farlow, who (writing in the comments back in May) described teaching art at a private school that kept in-person classes going since last August:

I must wear a mask the whole day, and it was difficult to adjust to at first. Just wearing a mask made me feel like I could not breathe. I've since adjusted. But my missing word would be describing the first big breath of fresh air you take after you can remove your mask.

Obviously mask rules have eased up in the U.S. in the last couple of months, but I think many of us can still identify with this feeling. I wonder if we will remember it, and for how long. Thank you, Rayma!

What else should we add to The Dictionary of Missing Words? Leave your suggestion — or respond to this one — in the comments.

Leave a comment

Next week: a new icebreaker. (The Dictionary of Missing Words series now alternates with Icebreaker of the Week, and Something to Notice.)


In Other News

  • This project pushes a lot of my buttons: Artist Jan Is De Man asked residents of an apartment building to identify a treasured possession — then painted an image of that possession on the side of the building. More images on Street Art Utopia.

  • Speaking of Street Art Utopia: They’re collecting images of guerilla gardens and green street art; check it out.

  • The Peter Principle. A newsletter by Peter Rubin, about people named Peter — Dinklage, Mayhew, etc.

  • “Just as the Red Sox were beginning a top-of-the-eleventh rally against the Rays, my smart TV decided to ask me a question of deep ontological import: Are you still there?I still love Nicholas Carr’s blog.

  • Fan wiki for cult 1970s TV show that … does not exist.

  • This is old but I just came across it and find it delightful: “Between 1968 and 1979, On Kawara created the series 'I Got Up', in which he sent picture postcards to friends and family, noting his time of getting up, the date, the place of residence and the name and address of the receiver.”

  • Spot the baby leopard.


Okay that’s it!

As always, I value your feedback (suggestions, critiques, positive reinforcement, constructive insults, etc.), as well as your tips or stories or personal noticing rituals, things we need a word for, and of course your icebreakers: consumed@robwalker.net. Or use the comments!

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All this by Rob Walker PO Box 171, 748 Mehle St., Arabi LA 70032 

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