The Importance of Trusting Yourself: Nick Cave on the Relationship Between Creativity and Faith
By Maria Popova
“Faith is the willingness to give ourselves over, at times, to things we do not fully understand,” the poetic physicist Alan Lightman wrote in his magnificent recollection of his transcendent encounter with a young osprey. A generation before him, in differentiating it from belief, Alan Watts defined faith as “an unreserved opening of the mind to the truth, whatever it may turn out to be.”
For those of us animated by what Bertrand Russell called “the will to doubt,” who abide by the light of reason and wish to meet reality on its own terms, the notion of faith can be challenging, for it presupposes a leap beyond reason, beyond will — a surrender to the unknown, to the possibly unknowable. And yet to create anything of substance and originality — be it a song or a painting or a theorem — requires that you give yourself over to something you don’t fully understand, in the act of which you better understand yourself and the world. We may call it the divine. We may call it mystery. We may just call it the life-force of a universe that, as Carl Sagan reminds us across space and time, “will always be much richer than our ability to understand it.”
This relationship between creativity and faith is what Nick Cave explores throughout Faith, Hope and Carnage (public library) — his yearlong conversation with music journalist Seán O’Hagan, which was among my favorite books of 2022 and also gave us his reflections on self-forgiveness, the relationship between vulnerability and freedom, and the art of growing older.
Placing at the center of his creativity his “struggle with the notion of the divine,” he reflects:
I think there is more going on than we can see or understand, and we need to find a way to lean into the mystery of things — the impossibility of things — and recognise the evident value in doing that, and summon the courage it requires to not always shrink back into the known mind.
This radical receptivity at the heart of faith is fundamental to creativity itself — out of it arises the ability to be very deliberate about what you are creating and at the same time channel something larger than yourself: a kind of controlled serendipity that produces something greater than the sum of the intentional parts. He reflects:
It seems to me that my best ideas are accidents within a controlled context. You could call them informed accidents. It’s about having a deep understanding of what you’re doing but, at the same time, being free enough to let the chips fall where they may. It’s about preparation, but it’s also about letting things happen… It seems that just by being open, you become a conduit for something else, something magical, something energising.
Though faith is a portal into the unknown, it is also a revelation of truths we know deep down but easily forget in the swirl of everyday life’s cynicisms and shoulds — elemental knowledge that bubbles to the surface in those lovely moments when our own creative process surprises us, reveals us to ourselves.
In music, there is a particularly vivid manifestation of this self-revelation made possible by faith:
There have been moments when I’m singing a line I’ve written and suddenly I am overwhelmed by its intent. It’s like, “Okay! That’s what it’s about.” But that doesn’t mean I have attached an arbitrary meaning to it. The meaning was always there embedded in the song and waiting to reveal itself. It has taken me a long time to get there and have the confidence to do that. It requires a certain conviction to trust in a line that is essentially an image, a vision — a leap of faith into the imagined realm. I’m hoping that the image will lead me somewhere else that will be more revealing or truthful than a more literal line would be. It’s a matter of faith. What’s interesting, too, is that often, when I write a line that is essentially an image, it does something to me physically to write that line down, to articulate that image. I have a physical reaction to it that signifies its importance in the scheme of things.
Echoing Nobel-winning poet Seamus Heaney’s life-tested insistence that “the true and durable path into and through experience involves being true … to your own secret knowledge,” he anchors his advice on the creative life in the importance of trusting that mysterious flow of revelation:
You have to have faith in your own intuitive process. That is really all you can do. I would say this to all people who are trying to become musicians or writers or artists of any kind: learn as much as you can about your craft, of course, but ultimately trust your own instinctive impulses. Have faith in yourself, so you can stand beside whatever it is you have done and fight for it, because if you can invest it with that faith, then it has its own truth, its own honesty, its own resilient vulnerability, and hence its own value.
Complement with Emerson on how to trust yourself and Lewis Hyde on what sustains the creative spirit, then revisit Nick Cave on songwriting, the antidote to our existential helplessness, and his wonderful life-advice to a teenager.
Published October 7, 2023