Even though we live in a fourth floor condominium, lizards sometimes find their way into our living room or kitchen. My husband (who has somehow developed the ability to think like a lizard) is usually able to catch and release them.
So it made sense to call him on my cell phone last week when I got off the elevator and saw a lizard in the hallway. I asked him if he could please come and rescue the lizard – and quickly. It’s a busy spot, and I didn’t want to have to play hallway policeman if a neighbor wanted to use the elevator.
Moments later Charlie was squinting in the dim light at the other end of the hallway. “Where’s the lizard?”
I pointed. “About eight feet in front of you.”
More squinting. “I don’t see it. Are you sure it hasn’t moved?”
“I’m looking right at it.”
Charlie inched ahead, ready to flop onto the carpet if the lizard made a move. And then – at the same instant – we both realized we were trying to rescue a stain on the carpet.
I said a silent prayer of thanks that I hadn’t stopped any hallway traffic to save the life of a carpet stain. Charlie’s reaction was different. He walked over to where I was standing and stared at the spot.
“That’s an amazing optical illusion!” he said. “It really does look like a lizard. I can even see the head. ” He paused. “I wonder if military camouflage experts study this kind of thing – something flat that looks three dimensional.”
Charlie makes these mental leaps all the time. In fact they’re one of the reasons his gardening columns are so popular. For example, when he was writing about plant preferences, he included a reference to Gilligan’s Island: “Right or wrong? Chocolate or vanilla? Ginger or Mary Ann?” (He prefers Mary Ann.)
Most good writers have that same knack for mental leaps and connections. And there’s something else that goes with it: The ability to slow down, watch yourself think, and follow a stream of ideas to its ultimate destination.
Psychologists have a name for that kind of self-awareness: Metacognition – often defined as “thinking about thinking.” It’s a highly useful practice for both writing and everyday life. Often, when I’m reflecting on how I handled a sticky situation, I’ll remember that a hunch or insight flashed in my brain – and was gone before I could grab it and make use of it.
I really need to spend more time thinking about thinking. And maybe we should do something about that carpet stain.