A megalomaniac with extremely low self-esteem

Nick Cave’s songwriting routine

Welcome to the latest issue of Subtle Maneuvers. Previously: Sybille Bedford’s squandered years (and their resolution!)


Nick Cave (b. 1957)

Last week was the Australian musician’s 64th birthday, which gives me an excuse to share one of my favorite artists-at-work quotes in recent memory, published in the New York Times in 2014:

As far as work goes, I’m something of a megalomaniac. But a megalomaniac with extremely low self-esteem.

I imagine some of you are grinning in recognition. Personally, I love the idea of embracing one’s low self-esteem as a creator. So much of the art/literary/music world has always run on bravado; it’s nice to think we could all just stop flexing, or pretending to flex, our outsize confidence and self-regard.

And there’s a nice tie-in here with my favorite subject of routines—they’re a great accompaniment, or maybe even a kind of antidote, to low self-esteem. If you don’t have tremendous confidence in your work, all the more reason to try to automate the process, to do it according to a predictable schedule from which you don’t deviate, lest the whole fragile enterprise collapse.

Here’s Cave describing his songwriting routine, via his wonderful newsletter the Red Hand Files. (Thanks for Kevin M. for alerting me to this last summer.)

The most important undertaking of my day is to simply sit down at my desk and pick up my pen. Without this elementary act I could not call myself a songwriter, because songs come to me in intimations too slight to be perceived, unless I am primed and ready to receive them. They come not with a fanfare, but in whispers, and they come only when I am at work.  

Pen poised, I sit to attention, in my suit, on the edge of my imagination, prepared for the beautiful line to arrive. Sometimes it does, sometimes it does not — either way I am powerless to influence the outcome. So often we stand bereft before our ingenuity, with nothing to show for our efforts. Yet at other times we are ushered in.

There’s more to this passage, including the phrase “yummy butterflies explode in our tummies,” which you can read in full here. As for Cave’s routine, he apparently sits down at his desk with unfailing regularity. He told the New York Times: “I used to go [to the office] six days a week, till I couldn’t stand it anymore. Now I go Sundays as well.”

Cave has addressed other aspects of his songwriting process in the Red Hand Files, too. I particularly like his answer to a reader question about what he does when the lyrics “just aren’t coming.”

In my experience, lyrics are almost always seemingly just not coming. This is the tearful ground zero of song writing — at least for some of us. This lack of motion, this sense of suspended powerlessness, can feel extraordinarily desperate for a songwriter. But the thing you must hold on to through these difficult periods, as hard as it may be, is this — when something’s not coming, it’s coming. It took me many years to learn this, and to this day I have trouble remembering it.

When something not coming, it’s coming!! I’m going to try to remember that this week, as I attempt to meet a self-imposed October 1st deadline for the first chapter of my new book, which, in all honestly, has really not been coming so far. I’ll let you know how it goes!


LAZINESS DOES NOT EXIST?

I was intrigued by a recent episode of the NPR podcast Life Kit featuring the social psychologist Devon Price, who has written a book titled Laziness Does Not Exist. In the episode, Price argues that “laziness is usually a warning sign from our bodies and our minds that something is not working and we really need a break.” For instance:

If you can’t pay attention at 3:00 p.m. every day—which is true for me; I just hit a wall—instead of beating yourself up and thinking that you’re a failure and that you need more coffee and more willpower and more shame, when we all know that doesn’t work, just learn from that: “OK, that is not a productive time of day for me. I’m going to go take a walk, I’m going to go play a video game, I’m going to do the dishes, I’m going to eat a snack”—whatever it is. And that’s true really of any emotion, no matter how inconvenient it is. Whether you’re feeling frustrated or resentful or just really dreading something that’s on your calendar, those emotions tell you that you’re doing way too much and that you’re having a lot of unfair expectations put on you that you can’t keep up with. So honoring those, and working with them as much as you can, can really change your relationship to laziness.

I think this is really good advice! And yet at the same time . . . what kind of writer would I be without coffee and willpower and shame??


SUBTLE ADVICE

I’ve demoted my monthly advice column to an occasional advice column, but you can still read past installments here or try to pique my advice-giving impulse by sending me your creative dilemmas at subtlemaneuvers@substack.com (or just reply to this email).

Here are a few of my favorite dilemmas from issues past:

(Browse all my past advice here.)


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