Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Eric Maisel on The Van Gogh Blues

Today I catapult myself, as someone once said, from local to worldwide obscurity :) As promised, my guest is Dr. Eric Maisel, internationally-known creativity expert. Not only is he a prolific author and a major mover in the field of creativity coaching, but very generous to fellow artists. I am delighted to be part of his blog tour. I very much enjoyed reading his new book, The Van Gogh Blues, and have noticed that I have been questioning my negative self-talk in terms of meaning lately. It's a very interesting shift, and takes a lot of power out of the judgments I make about whether an action is worthwhile or not….

Eric’s website, with information on his books and trainings, can be found at

Q: Eric, can you tell us what The Van Gogh Blues is about?

E: For more than 25 years I’ve been looking at the realities of the creative life and the make-up of the creative person in books like Fearless Creating, Creativity for Life, Coaching the Artist Within, and lots of others. A certain theme or idea began to emerge: that creative people are people who stand in relation to life in a certain way—they see themselves as active meaning-makers rather than as passive folks with no stake in the world and no inner potential to realize. This orientation makes meaning a certain kind of problem for them—if, in their own estimation, they aren’t making sufficient meaning, they get down. I began to see that this “simple” dynamic helped explain why so many creative people—I would say all of us at one time or another time—get the blues.

To say this more crisply, it seemed to me that the depression that we see in creative people was best conceptualized as existential depression, rather than as biological, psychological, or social depression. This meant that the treatment had to be existential in nature. You could medicate a depressed artist but you probably weren’t really getting at what was bothering him, namely that the meaning had leaked out of his life and that, as a result, he was just going through the motions, paralyzed by his meaning crisis.

Q: Are you saying that whenever a creative person is depressed, we are looking at existential depression? Or might that person be depressed in “some other way”?

E: When you’re depressed, especially if you are severely depressed, if the depression won’t go away, or if it comes back regularly, you owe it to yourself to get a medical work-up, because the cause might be biological and antidepressants might prove valuable. You also owe it to yourself to do some psychological work (hopefully with a sensible, talented, and effective therapist), as there may be psychological issues at play. But you ALSO owe it to yourself to explore whether the depression might be existential in nature and to see if your “treatment plan” should revolve around some key existential actions like reaffirming that your efforts matter and reinvesting meaning in your art and your life.

Q: So you’re saying that a person who decides, for whatever reason, that she is going to be a “meaning maker,” is more likely to get depressed by virtue of that very decision. In addition to telling herself that she matters and that her creative work matters, what else should she do to “keep meaning afloat” in her life? What else helps?

E: I think it is a great help just to have a “vocabulary of meaning” and to have language to use so that you know what is going on in your life. If you can’t accurately name a thing, it is very hard to think about that thing. That’s why I present a whole vocabulary of meaning in The Van Gogh Blues and introduce ideas and phrases like “meaning effort,” “meaning drain,” “meaning container,” and many others. When we get a rejection letter, we want to be able to say, “Oh, this is a meaning threat to my life as a novelist” and instantly reinvest meaning in our decision to write novels, because if we don’t think that way and speak that way, it is terribly easy to let that rejection letter precipitate a meaning crisis and get us seriously blue. By reminding ourselves that is our job not only to make meaning but also to maintain meaning when it is threatened, we get in the habit of remembering that we and we alone are in charge of keeping meaning afloat—no one else will do that for us. Having a vocabulary of meaning available to talk about these matters is a crucial part of the process.

Q: A depressive since adolescence, I suffer from mild manic episodes as well and find it difficult to concentrate on creating in the middle of one. Can bipolar disorder be considered a meaning crisis? How might the context of meaning be used to make sense of mood swings?

E: The manic side of the bipolar swing has to do with the hope that meaning can be made—it is not so much an optimism as a pressure to try again, to throw oneself into life and to make some meaning by any means possible, often without any concern for the bite of reality or how reality might prevent you from succeeding. The person flings herself into some enthusiasm—and soon enough reality strikes: perhaps the work isn’t as good as she hoped it would be, perhaps it can’t be marketed, perhaps it was only meaningful in the contemplation and not in the execution. So depression follows—the meaning crisis that was always lurking there, waiting to be activated. The best way to avoid this dynamic of pressurized hope followed by sad retreat is to step back and recognize that making meaning is not a sprint but a marathon, that it is the lifelong pursuit of activities worth investing in and requires the discipline and patience of any lifelong practice. You don’t rush out and make some kind of super meaning this week—you make meaning day in and day, month in and month out, decade in and decade out, in a steady, heroic way.

Q: The chapter on Braving Anxiety is very compelling, in particular procrastination and its relation to anxiety. Can you explain how anxiety and procrastination can be debilitating to a creative person?

E: Because creating tends to make us anxious—and it does, by virtue of the fact that it is more anxiety-provoking to go into the unknown than to stay in the known and more anxiety-provoking to demand excellence from ourselves than to do things which are more ordinary—we react as people react when they get anxious: they avoid the anxiety-inducing situation. If you fear flying, you stay far away from the airport; if painting makes you anxious, you stay away from the studio. You may not know that this is why you haven’t gotten to the studio for three months—but it likely is. The anxiety produces the avoidance and we fail to get our work done. The answer is to recognize the place of anxiety in the process and not let a little anxiety keep us from working. We bravely work anyway; and we use our anxiety management tools, like a little deep breathing, to help us dispel any anxiety that wants to well up.

Q: How does The Van Gogh Blues tie in with other books that you’ve written?

E: I’m interested in everything that makes a creative person creative and I’m also interested in every challenge that we creative people face. I believe that we have special anxiety issues and I spelled those out in Fearless Creating. I believe that we have a special relationship to addiction (and addictive tendencies) and with Dr. Susan Raeburn, an addiction professional, I’ve just finished a book called Creative Recovery, which spells out the first complete recovery program for creative people. That’ll appear from Shambhala late in 2008. I’m fascinated by our special relationship to obsessions and compulsions and am currently working on a book about that. Everything that we are and do interests me—that’s my “meaning agenda”!

Q: What might a person interested in these issues do to keep abreast of your work?

E: They might subscribe to my two podcast shows, The Joy of Living Creatively and Your Purpose-Centered Life, both on the Personal Life Media Network. You can find a show list for The Joy of Living Creatively here and one for Your Purpose-Centered Life here. They might also follow this tour, since each host on the tour will be asking his or her own special questions. Here is the complete tour schedule. If they are writers, they might be interested in my new book, A Writer’s Space, which appears this spring and in which I look at many existential issues in the lives of writers. They might also want to subscribe to my free newsletter, in which I preview a lot of the material that ends up in my books (and also keep folks abreast of my workshops and trainings). But of the course the most important thing is that they get their hands on The Van Gogh Blues!—since it is really likely to help them.

(Thanks to Megan Warren for her excellent question about anxiety and procrastination…)


Lea Schizas - Author/Editor said...

Truly enjoyed this in-depth interview. Eric, your work and research sounds fascinating. Continued success.

Lea Schizas

darlene said...

Fascinating. I have a high opinion of my perspective on creativity (he he) and was surprised to LEARN SO MUCH in this interview! So glad of this gentleman and so glad you posted this, Valerie. THANKS.

Linda M. said...

Hi Valerie - thanks for your comment yesterday on my blog! It's good to meet another artistic Tucsonan.I'll start checking out your blog on a regular basis.

Linda in Tucson

Janet Grace Riehl said...

Maisel: "The best way to avoid this dynamic of pressurized hope followed by sad retreat is to step back and recognize that making meaning is not a sprint but a marathon, that it is the lifelong pursuit of activities worth investing in and requires the discipline and patience of any lifelong practice."

Yes, I currently believe that the farmer-artist is my model of creativity...which presupposes endurance as a key quality.

Janet Riehl

Valerie K said...

I like that...farmer-artist. Not a lot of us are farmers anymore, that's why we don't have slow and steady growth as a model...

Thank you all for stopping by!