Well, I was pretty pleased when Eric Maisel dropped by my little blog to talk about his book Ten Zen Seconds. It was the first time I had a bone fide celebrity visit. Well, it looks like he enjoyed it too because he agreed to come back and talk about his book The Van Gogh Blues.
JA: 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.
JA: 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”?
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.
JA: 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?
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.
JA: Could you explain more about the importance of creating a life plan sentence/statement?
EM: If you agree to commit to active meaning-making, you need to know where to make your meaning investments, both in the short-term sense of knowing what to do with the next hour and in the long-term sense of knowing which novel you are
writing or which career you’re pursuing. Having a life purpose statement or life plan statement in place serves as an ongoing reminder of the sorts of meaning investments that you intend to make, both short-term and long-term, and helps you make the right “meaning decision” about where to spend your capital and how to realize your potential.
JA: In the book, you say, "The centerpiece of a meaningful life for creators is meaningful creating." In aiming to achieve this, do you think there are benefits for people to create outside their "usual" medium? (i.e., artists try their hand at writing; writers dabble in a visual art project, etc.)
EM: There are; and obvious dangers, too. Our first job is to make meaning in a particular discipline over time, because this gives us the best sense of continuity and completion and is the best way to make ourselves feel proud, existentially speaking. If we are a writer, we want to write well and regularly—other mediums come second. If we are a painter, we don’t want to
neglect our painting because of some momentary meaning enthusiasm. So, first things first: our lifelong apprenticeship in one discipline. That having been said, it can be wonderful to work in another discipline, especially if your primary one is at the mercy of others: for instance, if you are an actor waiting to be hired, it can be grand to get your performance piece written and produced. So the short answer is yes—but beware that you don’t shortchange your primary discipline.
JA: You list a number of core questions relating to creativity and making meaning in our lives. Do you feel that over time we will alternate between which question applies to us? Or is finding one question that applies to an artist is permanent, not changing over time?
EM: There is no one question, just as there is no one meaning. The meaning-making process is a process of constant re-evaluation and ongoing analysis as we not only provide answers to our own questions but also provide ourselves with the right questions. For one period of time the questions may center on productivity, creativity, career, and the like, and during another period of time they may center on relationships, service, and the interpersonal sphere. Even on a single day, we might switch from asking ourselves one sort of question (about what project to tackle) to asking ourselves another sort of question (about how to help our addicted child or what to do about a community problem). Meaning shifts; and so do the questions that we pose to ourselves about how to make and maintain meaning.
JA: What strategies about making and maintaining meaning can we expect you to discuss in your book to assist creative people in averting debilitating depression?
EM: A main strategy is simply to become aware of the concept that meaning does not exist until you make it and that it does not stay afloat unless you actively maintain it. A corollary idea is that without a vocabulary of meaning, it is very hard to think about and talk about meaning issues, which is why I include such a vocabulary as an appendix to the book. When you have phrases like meaning investment, meaning crisis, meaning spark, meaning leak, and similar terms to employ internally, you have a new way of speaking to yourself that reminds you about your central obligations and helps you actually become a passionate meaning-maker.
JA: You mention that intimacy and personal relationships are as important to alleviating depression as are individual accomplishments. What is the link between the two and are they forged in similar ways?
EM: It is important that we create and it is also important that we relate. Many artists have discovered that even though their creating feels supremely meaningful to them, creating alone does not alleviate depression. If it did, we would predict that productive and prolific creators would be spared depression, but we know that they have not been spared. More than creating is needed to fend off depression, because we have other meaning needs as well as the need to actualize our potential via creating. We also have the meaning need for human warmth, love, and intimacy: we find loving meaningful. Therefore we work on treating our existential depression in at least these two ways: by reminding ourselves that our creating matters and that therefore we must actively create; and by reminding ourselves that our relationships also matters, and that therefore we must actively relate.
JA: What do you suggest we do if we sense the blues are descending? What questions could an artist ask themselves to locate the source of their discontent?
EM: A medical work-up is a good idea, especially if her depressions in the past have been severe or long-lasting, as the coming depression might possibly be avoided with antidepressants (if it the “right” sort of depression). She can
also engage in some simple “home remedies”: exercise is a depression-fighter, as is getting out in the sun. From an existential point of view, what she wants to ask herself is if her current creative work matters to her—if at some level it doesn’t, she will need to reinvest meaning in it by telling herself that she and it do matter; or, if she can’t imbue it with meaning, she will need to turn to other, more meaningful work.
JA: Should you fight the blues or let them come?
EM: It is my opinion that we should fight them, though not necessarily in the first five minutes or the first hour. Being in “that space” for a little while may be unavoidable and even necessary, but remaining in that painful place of inaction and despair has nothing really to recommend it. As soon as we can—and if we have gotten in the habit of disputing the blues, this will be sooner rather than later—we stand up tall, remind ourselves that we make the meaning in our life and that there is no meaning until we make it, and decide where we want to make our next meaning investment: in a new project, in the business of art, or in another sphere like relationships. If we can nip the blues in the bud before they even come by making that next meaning investment before meaninglessness even has a chance to rear its head, so much the better!
JA: 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.
JA: 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”!
JA: 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.
Thanks Eric. It has been wonderful to be able to talk to you again. I know you are on a tight schedule, so I won't hold you up. Thanks again.
How special was that???
p.s. the drawings in this post don't really have anything to do with the interview. I thought they might just demonstrate how simple it can be to make meaning. It does sound like a 'big' thing to do at times. But I've had my own copy of Van Gogh Blues for a number of years now, and I highly recommend it, and through it I've found that it was important to remind myself that when I make meaning (which for me means 'make art') that it is my meaning and that it is art for me - me alone in the first instance. I've also discovered the second instance takes care of itself.