Nick Cave on Creativity, the Myth of Originality, and How to Find Your Voice

“Your imagination… is mostly an accidental dance between collected memory and influence… a construction that awaits spiritual ignition.”

Two years before she fused her childhood impression of a mechanical loom with her devotedly honed gift for mathematics to compose the world’s first computer program in a 65-page footnote, Ada Lovelace postulated in a letter that creativity is the art of discovering and combining — the work of an alert imagination that “seizes points in common, between subjects having no very apparent connexion, & hence seldom or never brought into juxtaposition.”

Her father — the poet Lord Byron, rockstar of the Romantics — embodied this in his own work, fusing influences* as diffuse in time, space, and sensibility as Confucius and Virgil, Erasmus Darwin and and Mary Shelley, Greek tragedy and Galilean astronomy, to compose some of the world’s most original* and enduring poetry.

Rilke was a poet revolution and one century after his death. He captured the combinational nature of creativity and contemplated how to make anything beautiful and substantial.

All poets — “poets” in Baldwin’s broad sense of “the only people who know the truth about us,” encompassing all artists, all makers of beauty and knowledge, all shamans of our self-knowledge — understand this intimately, and therefore understand the most elemental truth about creativity: that *these two words are chimeras of the ego.

Nature shows me my soul.. One of artist Margaret C. Cook illustrations for a rare 1913 English edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. Available as a printed version.

It is impossible to create original works without a blank canvas. Because everything has an influence on it, nothing is unique. However, everything can be made original by the imagination of others. Everything we bring is everything that we love and have loved. It all becomes the mosaic of who we are. Being an artist means being fully aware of the whole of life and open to its possibilities.

This is the essence of it all Nick Cave, part Byron and part Baldwin for our own time, explores in an issue of his Red Hand Files — the online journal in which he takes questions from fans and answers them in miniature essays of uncommon insight, soulfulness, and sensitivity, opening up improbable backdoors into those cavernous chambers where our most private yet common bewilderments about art and life dwell, and filling those chambers with the light of sympathetic understanding.

Nick Cave by JooHee Joon

Cave answers a neighboring fan’s question about how he suppresses his influences to be able to hear and believe his inner voice. He then responds with his trademark poetics of numinous pragmatics.

Everything you make is yours, but it’s all yours. It seems that your imagination is more a result of combining memory and influence. Your imagination isn’t something you are responsible for, but a construct waiting to be ignited spiritually.

Spirit is the part that makes you feel alive Is essential. This is distinct from your imagination and only you can have it. This formless pneuma is the invisible and vital force over which we toss the blanket of our imagination — that habitual mix of received information, of memory, of experience — to give it form and language. This vital spirit can burn fiercely in some people, while it flickers in others. But it exists in everyone and it can be strengthened by daily dedication to the task at hand.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak, 1973 Brothers Grimm edition.

M.C. Cave, Black Mountain College poet and clayist Richards’s lovely notion of creativity as the poetry of our personhood and with anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson’s concept of “composing a life” — which captures with such poetic precision the fundamental fact that our very lives are the ultimate creative work — Cave adds:

Be less worried What you make — that will mostly look after itself, and is to some extent beyond your control, and perhaps even none of your business — and devote yourself to nourishing this animating spirit. All your passion and energy should be directed at the creation of this essential, good force. It is possible by being committed to the creative act. You can help that creative spark grow stronger each time you give it your attention. You will be more successful if you give your all to this process. You will find your true voice when you put all of yourself into the task. You’ll see. You won’t find any other way.

There are echoes here of Whitman, who declared in his “Laws of Creation” for “strong artists and leaders… and coming musicians” that to create means only to “satisfy the Soul”; there are echoes, too, of Mary Oliver and her invocation of “the third self” — that crucible of our creative energy, which demands of us to give it both power and time.

Begin with Cave about music, feeling, transcendence and the age of algorithms. Then, revisit Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem on creativity and outsiderdom. John Coltrane talks about how this is a way to find originality. John McPhee speaks on self-doubt and originality. Paul Klee speaks on what an artist looks like in a tree.

Giving = Being Loving

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