What Can Starlings Teach Us About Creativity?
A starling is a beautiful thing.
They mimicry music by Beethoven. They dance phenomenal patterns in the sky. One may have inspired Mozart’s opening theme to the third movement in his Piano Concerto No. 17 in G major, K. 453. Some sources say the composer taught his pet starling to sing that progression of notes. Either way, they’re quite the bird.
But what do starlings have to do with creativity? Maybe a better question is what don't they have to do with creativity?
For one, starlings have incredible memories. They mimicry, or imitate sounds, with extraordinary ability. They’ve been known to imbed noise from their surroundings into their own songs. Nothing is too mundane for the call of starling. A car horn might be their muse. Some starlings take on human speech patterns.
Doesn't creativity require us to integrate the songs around us? Doesn’t making something new ask us to find the ingredients of everyday life? John Cage wrote a pice of music called 3’44’’, or 3 minutes and 44 seconds. He composed it entirely of empty space. For the duration of the piece, musicians rest their instruments. The silence encourages the audience to listen to the music around them. In Silence: Lectures and Writings, Cage writes: “There is no such thing as an empty space or an empty time. There is always something to see, something to hear. In fact, try as we may to make a silence, we cannot.”
Speaking of a sight to see, have you ever seen a starling murmuration? That’s the name for what starlings do before roosting at night. Together, hundreds of starlings perform an balletic pattern in the sky as if they exist as one wing. Why do starlings choose to fly in their serpentine configurations? One theory is that of emergence. Just as a crystal forms, or avalanches happen, the starlings’ simultaneous twisting and turning emerge as part of a physical system. On the same principle, ants, while they have a queen, do not take orders from her. Instead, they self-organize. Each ant reacts to stimuli in the form of chemical scents from larvae, other ants, and intruders. The emerging system of ants is complex, but no centralized governance exists.
What does that self-organising murmuration have to do with the creative process? For one, it’s a mystery. Science doesn't have a hold on why starlings murmurate any more than they have a hold on why creativity emerges. There’s a lot of theories, but at heart, no one knows. But, I believe, at heart, both murmuration and the creative process are participatory acts involving more than one individual creature.
While I can only speak for myself, in my creative process, I need to leave room for things to emerge. In my experience, the creative impulse resists taking orders from a hierarchical queen of the mind. Things emerge though the act of making something. When I engaging in creative practice, I take cues from the sounds and shapes around me. Sometimes, an idea emerges in the midst of making something. Sometimes, it’s a social process of collaboration. Even when I write or dance in solitude, I know a hundred hands have come together to allow me to create in the ways I do. A hundred turning hands, like the turning wings of starlings, twisted together to make my creative practice possible. My hands are part of that elaborate twisting and turning – a murmuration.
Maybe murmuration works on another level. When I watch the starlings murmurate, (is that a word?), I am dumbfounded. Astonishment, I think, is a form of creative impulse. In the state of awe, our soul murmurs and whatever stimulates that awe inspires us to create. We start asking questions. Asking questions is part of the process.
But maybe astonishment is another word for love. In If You Want to Write, Barbara Ueland describes Vincent van Gogh’s creative practice in the following way:
“If you read the letters of the painter Van Gogh you will see what his creative impulse was. It was just this: he loved something—the sky, say. He loved human beings. He wanted to show human beings how beautiful the sky was. So he painted it for them. And that was all there was to it.”
So, my dear starlings. What do you love? And who do you want to tell about all that you love? What mystery is out there for you to inquire? What forms are there to delight in? Might you, like Mozart, hear the call of a starling and note that song down in your records? Or like a starling, might you mimicry the notes of a concerto and mix it in with some car horns honking? Or like Van Gogh, may fall in love with the yellow sunflowers and the blue postman and the starry night? I bet you already have. I bet you’re no less in love with life than Mozart or Van Gogh. I bet you're dying to let the world see the things you love, to witness all the murmuring things of your heart. I bet you want to share that love.
No, go on starlings – go murmurate.