I am delighted to interview Dr. Eric Maiseltoday, about his recently published book, The Van Gogh Blues- The Creative Person's Path through Depression. In this book, psychologist, creativity coach and successful author, Eric Maisel offers resources for artists who deal with depression. I have read several of Dr. Maisel's books including Fearless Creating and Ten Zen Seconds. I hope you will also enjoy getting to know this insightful author.
AM: Eric, can you tell us what The Van Gogh Blues is about?
EM: 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.
AM: Are you saying that whenever a creative person is depressed, (s)he is looking at existential depression? Or might that person be depressed in “some other way”?
EM: 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.
AM: So you’re saying that a person who decides, for whatever reason, that (s)he 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?
EM: 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.
AM: As well as having a vocabulary of meaning available, how else can an artist sustain meaning?
EM: Love rekindles meaning: falling back in love with art or with your own art replenishes meaning. Having other meaning avenues available helps: possessing meaningful relationships and meaningful pursuits other than art-making are good things. Taking action helps: getting to the studio even if the blues have descended and working, even without enthusiasm, can help restore meaning, if not the first day then the second or the fifth or the eleventh. Having success helps: if you can’t find the wherewithal produce, it might be exactly the right moment to redouble your marketing efforts, so that success occurs, which success becomes a meaning boost. And accepting the rhythms of the creative process helps: knowing that the process comes with periods of time when you are lost, or not producing in your voice, or fulfilling commissions that don’t move you, and remembering that tomorrow or next week a sea change in meaning may come.
AM: Artists approach making art for all kinds of reasons. Some artists seek truth as a vehicle in the creative process. The search for truth seems similar to the search for meaning. How does the process of discovery, which itself is meaningful, reconcile with a more active stance of making meaning?
EM: If there is a paradox there, it is probably a linguistic one. You make meaning by announcing to yourself what you want to value, what principles you want to uphold, and how you want to represent yourself in the world. If what you decide to value and uphold is “the creative process,” then you are honest about what that process entails, including its substantial quotient of “not knowing,” and honorably turn yourself over to that process. You are “making meaning” and at the same time “engaged in process,” a process which you do not force. The force you exert is in the initial decision to make meaning this way and in the subsequent efforts you make to keep meaning afloat, should a given painting turn out poorly, not sell, or otherwise become a meaning drain. You do not exert force in the process itself, which, as you point out, is more a matter of mysterious engagement than of “making something happen” by dint of will.
AM: This is the paperback version of The Van Gogh Blues, How was the hardback version received?
EM: Very well! The reviewer for the Midwest Book Review called The Van Gogh Blues “a mind-blowingly wonderful book.” The reviewer for Library Journal wrote, "Maisel persuasively argues that creative individuals measure their happiness and success by how much meaning they create in their work.” I’ve received countless emails from artists all over the world thanking me for identifying their “brand” of depression and for providing them with a clear and complete program for dealing with that depression. I hope that the paperback version will reach even more creative folks—and the people who care about them.
AM: How does The Van Gogh Blues tie in with other books that you’ve written?
EM: 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”!
AM: What might a person interested in these issues do to keep abreast of your work?
EM: 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.
AM: Thank you Eric for sharing your insights with my readers today.