An Interview with Eric Maisel author of The Van Gogh Blues - The Creative Person's Path through Depression
M: 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.
M: 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.
M: 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.
M: Could you explain more about the importance of creating a life plan sentence/statement?
E: 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.
M: 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?
E: 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.
M: What I hear you saying is that when creative people in particular maintain a connection to their mission or purpose (you call it a Life Purpose Statement in VGB), a connection to the value of their work, and their own value as creative people in the culture, they will be stronger in their work and in their lives. Is that a fair way to put it?
E: Yes. Even before you can make meaning, you must nominate yourself as the meaning-maker in your own life and fashion a central connection with yourself, one that it more aware, active, and purposeful than the connection most people fashion with themselves. Having some ideas about purpose is not the same as standing in relationship to yourself in such a way that you turn your ideas about purpose into concrete actions. Self-connection—understanding that you are your own advocate, taskmaster, coach, best friend, and sole arbiter of meaning and that no one else can or will serve those functions for you—is crucial.
M: 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?
E: 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.
M: Do you find any difference between creative media in how the process of losing meaning can happen? Do painters and writers or musicians and actors have a substantially different experience, or is the core of the experience the same?
E: There are many angles to this question, but let me focus on just two. Visual artists often produce one-of-a-kind products and have a hard time finding it meaningful that just one person will own that product, whereas writers can reach multiple “customers” with their creations. So the visual artist has to make personal sense of this issue and figure out how to let it “still be meaningful” that her painting may end up on the wall of a doctor’s waiting room or as one among many paintings in a collector’s back room. On an entirely different note, re-creative artists like actors and musicians often have to deal with the feeling that they are “only” serving the meaning needs of others—the composer, the screenwriter, the director—and often decide that they must also create as well as re-create: put on a one-woman show, put out an album of their own music, etc. These are just a few of the differences that arise among the different genres and disciplines.
M: In VGB you mention some of the difficulties that can occur in creative communities when creators attempt to come together and connect with one another. You also refer to "marvels of relating," a phrase I love. What are some steps we can take to improve our chances of giving and receiving these "marvels of relating" within creative community?
E: The most important internal movement is toward the belief that other people exist and that other people count. It is very easy to drift from taking sole responsibility for your meaning-making efforts, which is good thing, to a grandiose, arrogant, selfish, and narcissistic place where “only you count.” On the other side of the coin, if you grew up in an environment where the messages you received were about being seen and not heard, about blending in and not standing up for yourself, and so on, then you need to find the courage to stand up for yourself, to maintain healthy boundaries, and to exert your power as the meaning-maker of your own life. One artist may have as his central task treating others better; another artist may have as her central task standing up taller.
M: I found the chapter Braving Anxiety to be 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.
M: In the chapter Sounding Silence you discuss Negative Self-Talk and it's role in meaning crises, do you think as creatives we sabotage ourselves and our abilities?
E: Yes, all the time. We are continually saying things to ourselves (though often just out of earshot) like “It’s too late for me” or “There’s too much competition” or “I don’t really have what it takes.” These negative thoughts need to be heard and disputed, and then more affirmative thoughts need to be substituted. More insidiously, as we are tricky creatures and because we don’t want to know to what extent we are disappointing ourselves by not creating, we couch our negativity in language that sounds true but that really isn’t. Today, the two most common phrases of this sort are “I’m too busy” and “I’m too tired.” We say these things because we know that they have enough grains of truth in them that we can believe them without examining them too closely. If we want to change this dynamic, we need to begin to say things to ourselves like “I’m very busy, but not too busy to spend twenty minutes on my novel.” In this way we honor the truth of our situation while at the same time not avoiding our existential responsibilities.
M: You write about the difference between busyness and action. Could you give my readers a sample of the self-talk an artist needs to being thinking when she steps boldly into action?
E: The first step is to completely stop—not to slow down but to completely stop. Learning how to do this (and it isn’t easy, especially in our culture that promotes speed, fracture, and a short attention span) makes all the difference in a creative person’s life, as internal busyness is completely eliminated if in fact you actually stop, quiet your mind, and allow yourself to calmly grow present. The self-talk is exactly “I am completely stopping,” followed by the idea that you intend to calmly create without worrying about outcomes—that you are just intending to be present and to do your work. If a doubt or a worry intrudes, you dispute it by saying “I’m not interested in that doubt” or “I reject that worry,” return yourself to deep silence, and continue “just working.”
M: When she feels the blues descending, what questions could an artist ask herself to locate the source of her discontent?
E: 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.
M: 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.