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By Will Marshall
Over the last few decades, there have been few songwriters as enduring or influential as Nick Cave. Originally of the anarchically violent post-punk band The Birthday Party, he subsequently formed the seminal Bad Seeds and has been releasing critically acclaimed music for four decades. He’s also a poet, a novelist, a screenwriter, and a film composer, sharing as much creative DNA with authors and visual artists as his cohorts in the post-punk movement.
Because he’s as much a writer as he is a songwriter, Cave is unusually articulate. In recent years he’s written extensively about his creative process and artistic philosophies. He has also famously been featured in two documentaries that dive deep into his personal life and creative processes, One More Time with Feeling and 20,000 Days on Earth. I’m not going to get into the wealth of talking points that come from these filmic meditations on practice and praxis; you can watch them yourself.
About a month ago I read Cave’s prose poem, The Sick Bag Song, which was written on airplane sick bags while he was on tour in the United States. It’s a long, surreal piece, slipping constantly between reality and fiction, and deals primarily with his own psychology and self-image. But hidden within it are a few absolute gems of practical advice for musicians, including a breakdown of his songwriting process; a commentary on his relationships with his own idols, like Johnny Cash, Elvis, and Bryan Ferry; and a mantra he calls The Bedevilments of Creativity.
The 9 Primary Bedevilments of Creativity are the following:
- Procrastination through fear.
- Procrastination through indecision.
- Procrastination through perfectionism.
- Procrastination through waiting for inspiration.
- Procrastination through chaos and misadventure.
- Procrastination through illness and tiredness.
- Procrastination through raising a family.
- Procrastination through superstition and religion.
- Procrastination through madness and suicide.
These bedevilments in the form of procrastination immediately connected with me, and they’ve been wandering through my mind for several months. I’m currently finishing the first EP for my new solo project, and they’ve been constantly useful in helping me navigate the vagaries of my own creative working process. They function a bit like Zen Buddhist koans — little reminders of the traps we tend to allow ourselves to fall into, so that we can take daily steps to retrain those same reflexes.
What immediately jumped out at me is that Cave makes two deeply important points:
- Procrastination is the only real impediment to creativity.
- Procrastination can take a variety of forms, many of which seem like something else entirely.
This is a powerfully universal idea that pinpoints actually writing as the real key to creativity and frames anything that impinges on creativity as not writing. I am not going to expand on each bedevilment, but a few of them stood out to me as having personal relevance, and I think these offer the best opportunity for communal reflection. Let’s talk about procrastination, shall we?
Procrastination through Fear
Of all of Cave’s bedevilments, this is probably the most universal. Fear is insidious; it crops up in unexpected places and wears countless different masks. The decisions we make out of fear often seem entirely rational at the time, but they make little sense in hindsight. So learning to spot them can be a vital, life-long pursuit.
“Making art is a fundamentally scary activity.”
The human mind is a slippery creature. We’re masters at post-hoc rationalization, and we often justify our decisions to ourselves with stories that have little to do with our true motivations. Making art is a fundamentally scary activity. It is inherently vulnerable, it often fails, and its process leads us straight toward our deepest insecurities. In many ways, our minds would almost rather do anything else, and may even go to elaborate lengths to avoid creativity.
Here’s a video I really like that Soundfly made in partnership with composer and course instructor Tim Hansen. It covers similar territory about overcoming our crippling fear of our own creativity.
Artists, no matter how successful, struggle with insecurity and self-doubt throughout their lives. Fear is a perpetual companion. All we can do is cultivate the art of identifying, accepting, and then ignoring it.
The hardest part of facing our fears is learning to identify when we’re afraid. Sometimes it’s obvious, but fear can sneak up in disguise, and most of us are prone to making fear-based decisions without being fully aware of it. These can be entirely mundane or trivial:
- The plumber is coming in an hour, so I might as well wait until she’s gone before heading into the studio.
- I’m hungover, so there’s no point in writing today.
- I don’t think I’ll sing well today, so there’s no point in trying.
Fear-based procrastination can be about wasting time, but it commonly manifests as opting to focus on “useful” activities that are less scary and displacing creativity entirely. Of course, these activities can also be potentially useful — like updating your website or manually going through and checking that the links on your press page are still active. The question is, Are you doing them out of necessity, or to avoid something scarier?
Many artists are perpetually preparing to create, without actually creating.
Personally, my fear-based procrastination tends to center on engineering, which I’m naturally good at, and tends to be quantifiable and emotionally safe. I’m always reading about recording or mixing techniques, experimenting with new plugins, and learning about weird new instruments. It’s tricky because these activities don’t feel like procrastination (I’m working hard, and I’m getting important stuff done) but it can take up so much time that I don’t actually get anything written, sometimes for weeks.
We all have places we feel safe, and it’s easy to find ourselves spending too much time there. All we can do is cultivate self-awareness. Ask yourself:
- What activities are fundamental to your art?
- What activities support your art?
“Many artists are perpetually preparing to create, without actually creating.”
Procrastination through Indecision
Indecision, or dithering, is a fantastic way to avoid achieving anything. It’s usually driven by fear, and manifests as an inability to decide what to do, making it impossible to do anything. Fundamentally as artists, we all find ourselves retreading the same ground and worrying about making the “wrong” choice.
Indecision often manifests right before starting something: a new project, a day in the studio, new sketches for a composition, even new band photos. In the absence of a clear plan, we can find ourselves uninspired, cycling between possibilities, unable to commit to any of them. Helmuth von Moltke the Elder, a Prussian general, famously said:
“No battle plan ever survived first contact with the enemy.”
One could equally say: “No plan ever survived first contact with reality.”
Few finished projects bear much resemblance to their creator’s initial intentions, and most great ideas are discovered in the thick of the creative process, or through open-ended collaboration, or even through letting go of the privacy of a work-in-progress to show it to a mentor or coach for critical feedback. From the outside, a finished song might seem like a grandly-conceived, coherent idea, but in reality it was likely the result of incremental experimentation and good editing, and its author probably had little idea what they were doing when they started.
“If you’re not sure where to start, just start somewhere.”
Putting off beginning something until we’ve decided what to do is mostly futile. We need to start in order to generate new ideas, and great work can have surprisingly banal beginnings. If you’re not sure where to start, just start somewhere.
It’s easy to put off difficult decisions, leaving them unsolved for days, or weeks. Practically, the only remedy is to force a decision. It’s crucial to remember creativity is not an exam and there’s no “right” answer. If you’re torn between A and B, try both; if there’s no clear winner, flip a coin — provided the decision made allows you to keep working.
Procrastination through Perfectionism
Voltaire once wrote:
“Perfect is the enemy of good.”
This is much discussed in artistic circles, and an idea you’re probably already intimately familiar with. If you’re someone who falls victim to paralyzing perfectionism, it’s important to train yourself to notice it when it starts to take hold, and call it out so it doesn’t stay rooted in your mind.
Perfectionism is often linked to what’s called “the nirvana fallacy” — the tendency to make comparisons with unreal, idealized alternatives. As artists, we’re driven by a personal vision of a work that exists in a crystalline state. But this isn’t tangible, and it is inherently unattainable. Looking at our own work, we can’t help but see endless flaws. If we’ve written a strong, simple melody, we can convince ourselves it’s insufficiently clever. If we’ve written a complex, intricate rhythm, we might convince ourselves it’s too fiddly and precious.
But when we examine the work of others, we don’t draw on this built-in, fictional comparison. So their work tends to seem intentional and complete in a way that ours almost never does. But we must accept that our work will never seem finished and that there are always changes that could be made, and we must become comfortable publishing it anyway. We also need to to realize that others certainly don’t hear our work the way we hear it; they hear a finished work.
Listeners give artists the benefit of the doubt. They assume that if we’re publishing something it means we consider it “done,” and therefore it must be done.
As an experiment, try listening to a song you love as if it was your own. Can you put yourself in an ambivalent, critical mindset, and find some way to be unimpressed? Understanding that any art can seem flawed from a certain perspective, it becomes easier to accept flaws in your own. We need to accept those flaws as elements of our own identity, and perhaps even learn to love them.
Will Marshall is the instructor for Soundfly’s Songwriting for Producers course. Preview the course for free to see if it’s a fit for you, or let us know about your musical goals and we’ll pair you with a personal Mentor directly for a four-week session to help you reach them!
Will Marshall is a singer, composer, producer, pianist, synthesist, engineer, and educator. Will has engineered for artists such as Oscar-nominated film composer Nicholas Britell, Grammy-nominated jazz musician Patrick Gleeson, R&B singer Vudajé, experimental composer Augur Duende, and electronic acts Ill Gates, Freq Nasty and the Fungineers. He is currently a consulting mix engineer and producer for Sennie Records in San José. As an educator, Will taught at Pyramind in San Francisco from 2015-2018 and is a well-known authority in the creative applications of music technology.