Giving a friend a tour of Otterbein University recently, my wife and I guided her into its Science Center, mostly so I could re-visit its plexiglass aviary of parakeets just off the lobby. A subject of study by faculty and students, the birds, of the sort sold in countless pet shops, are native to Australia and are properly called budgerigars. Otterbein’s dozen budgies flit about in an array of colors and patterns: traditional greens, spritely blues, luminescent yellows.
“These birds all look different,” I said to our guest. “But all of them have something in common. Can you see it?”
A mathematician, she accepted this empirical challenge and circled the aviary. The birds took scant notice, accustomed to visitors. After she gave up, I said, “They’re all males.” The only giveaway is that, in the traditional patterns, males have a vivid blue cere, a patch of flesh, above their beaks.
Thus the chance to explain that Otterbein academics have duplicated a fraternity house—because a female-only budgie flock would fight. (And surely all hell would break loose if the academics had mixed males and females.)
“But why do they make that noise?” she asked me. “What are they saying?”
We listened to the birds’ chortling—an endless, repetitious but pleasing boy chorus. Why indeed? A traditional survival-of-the-fittest answer: they’re claiming territory. A prelude to war. But surely the best answer—and equally Charles Darwin’s—is: because female parakeets like the sound. Furthermore, they’re favoring males who are sociable enough to flock together to produce such background sound for them to enjoy.
The latter answer isn’t my Romantic notion but arrives courtesy of a remarkable new book, The Evolution of Beauty: How Darwin’s Forgotten Theory of Mate Choice Shapes the Animal World—and Us.
One day late in the semester just ended, I ran into Shelby Page, a former student. I was leaving Otterbein University’s Art and Communication Building, and Shelby was going in. When she was a freshman, I had taught her and 13 other whip-smart honors classmates in my themed composition class, “Tales of Dangerous Youth.” I hadn’t seen her since our class. She told me of her upcoming senior exhibit, which I’ve now attended. I was impressed by Shelby’s work and by her brief Artist’s Statement on the wall. Her thoughts on artmaking addressed her work as a visual artist, but they apply to writing and probably to making anything:
“Artwork tends to take on its own life as it is worked on and the basic composition is set up. With each piece, it is a compromise between the life of the piece that has been created and what has been intended for the piece.”
There’s hard truth in Shelby’s insights here, and there’s hope. The truth is that what you envision in a flash hasn’t really been planned, though it may feel that way, and it sure isn’t done. What you sensed was glorious completion was pure possibility. Nothing more, nothing less. A glimmer. The first step is to act on it or to let it go. Let’s say you begin, fired with intention. As Shelby says, your intention quickly meets the reality of what’s emerging.
Art is a field of geniuses, but I presume that, like me, everyone gets humbled. In writing, no one is smart enough to foresee where actual words and sentences will send your notion. And of course the writer is struggling with what s/he’s capable of—at that moment, with that material—and so on into the future. But because art flares during creation, as Shelby says, also lends hope. Especially when, however cheerfully you began, you proceed in fear and trembling. What happened to my plan?
I’ve become a fan of prompts and borrowed structures for this reason—they thwart intention. By raising or lowering the stakes, they bleed off preexisting intention and some anxiety. When I write something with a fully realized intention, it risks being superficial, boring. Without friction, it isn’t deep enough: there hasn’t been enough discovery. I sense this sometimes in others’ work as well. For me, intention, in the sense of chasing a germinal idea or feeling, is vital—but not in the sense of hewing to a predetermined plan, of transcribing what you already “know.”