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The “accidental dance between collected memory and influence” – Nick Cave’s affectionate honesty (2)

In the previous post, I wrote about how much I enjoy Nick Cave’s Red Hand Files. A recent Red Hand File letter is about the influences on one’s creativity. I have spent quite a lot of time recently wondering about how much of me is in the music and poetry that I write. It seems like everything I make contains bits and pieces of other people’s ideas and words and sounds. How much of it is truly mine?

I often wonder whether anything that I do is completely original and whether I’m not stuck in this sort of derivative mode for which someone is very likely to sue me. I worry that I cannot get rid of the influence of all the “unguilty pleasures” to which Chilly Gonzales refers in his book, Enya – A Treatise on Unguilty Pleasures. (Dealing with copyright lawyers does not make this any less worrying.)

Can you silence the voices of your influences?

With this on my mind, Cave’s response to a reader with similar concerns made me feel a bit better, especially since his point of view aligns with Chilly Gonzales’ view on the creative process.

Basically, what both Cave and Gonzales are saying, is that being “derivative” (meaning being imitative or basing your work on other sources) is inevitable. Whatever is in your head, whatever you know, and love, and have experienced, and will remember, will influence what you create. It is a source for what you want to create. Cave calls this your “vital spirit” and “pneuma”. To be creative, and to, in fact, embrace this perceived barrier, you have to stick to being yourself, you have to be true to yourself, and you must nourish this vital spirit.

What you are, is what you have to work with. Worrying about other things, bearing in mind the impossibility of “shutting up all the voices of all your influences”, as the person who wrote to Cave puts it, will get you nowhere and just stifle your creativity.

Here is Nick Cave’s explanation:

The Red Hand Files
ISSUE #181 / JANUARY 2022
How or when or do you shut the voices of all your influences (your heroes, your parents, your Jesus, your music) to listen to yourself, to become you or to believe that what you create is your own?

Dear John,
Nothing you create is ultimately your own, yet all of it is you. Your imagination, it seems to me, is mostly an accidental dance between collected memory and influence, and is not intrinsic to you, rather it is a construction that awaits spiritual ignition.  

Your spirit is the part of you that is essential. It is separate from the imagination, and belongs only to you. 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. In some this vital spirit burns fiercely and in others it is a dim flicker, but it lives in all of us, and can be made stronger through daily devotion to the work at hand. 

In my view, John, worry less about 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. Bring all your enthusiasm to bear on the development of that good and essential force. This is done by a commitment to the creative act itself. Each time you tend to that ingenious spark it grows stronger, and sets afire the ordinary gifts of the imagination. The more dedication you show to the process, the better the work, and the greater your gift to the world. Apply yourself fully to the task, let go of the outcome, and your true voice will appear. You’ll see. It can be no other way.  

Love, Nick

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