"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.” Eric Maisel
When I met Eric Maisel at a local writing conference in 2007 I was making every excuse not to write daily. I was the master of procrastination, anxiety, and self-doubt. Maisel's keynote address was on the importance of writing every day, yes, seven days a week, and building a platform as a writer. This speech in addition to my work with one of his creativity coaches prompted me to start and continue a practice of daily writing. After reading The Van Gogh Blues: The Creative Person's Path Through Depression I have a deeper understanding of the fear and depression that can stop the creative process. Eric Maisel's book gives hope to creative people struggling to find meaning with their creative work.
WN: Eric, can you tell us what The Van Gogh Blues is about?
Eric Maisel: 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.
WN: Can you explain the ways that a creative person may experience depression?
Eric Maisel: 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.
WN:In the chapter on Nurturing Self-Support I was really struck by the statement "When you don't experience yourself as the beauty in life, you attempt small suicides every day". What are the long term effects of this negative behavior?
Eric Maisel:The most usual is not getting any creative work done. Because it is so hard to get in the right frame of mind to create and to keep in that frame of mind, it is creating that often falls off the table and becomes the way we commit those ‘small suicides.’ We also get ill, become indifferent, and so on. When we are not are own best friend and advocate, we play that distaste and despair out in every aspect of our life.
WN: I sometimes feel paralyzed when faced with all I want to do creatively, so I read the chapter on Braving Anxiety over and over. What is the first step you tell your clients to take to break the pattern of feeling overwhelmed by their anxieties?
Eric Maisel: Deep breathing. It is the simplest, most available, most effective strategy known to the species. Taking several long, deep breaths alerts the body to the fact that you want to feel differently and that you are mindfully dealing with your stress. If you also drop in a useful thought into that deep breath, a thought like “I am completely stopping,” that is even better. I teach this technique in my book Ten Zen Seconds.
WN: Working with one of your creativity coaches was one of the first steps I took in finding meaning, can you explain how working with a coach can make the difference between just thinking about a creative life and acting on it?
Eric Maisel: A creativity coach can offer support, which is in short supply in a creative person’s life, and can also offer compassionate accountability, holding the client to deadlines, asking the client to set and achieve goals, and so on. These are the twin pillars of coaching: support and accountability. Creative folks often fall short at providing either for themselves.
WN: This tour celebrates the paperback release of The Van Gogh Blues, How was the hardback version received?
Eric Maisel: 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.
WN: How does The Van Gogh Blues tie in with other books that you’ve written?
Eric Maisel: 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”!
WN: Where can my readers go to find out more about your work?
Eric Maisel: Writers 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.
More of Eric Maisel's books especially for writers:
Deep Writing: 7 Principles That Bring Ideas to Life
Living the Writer's Life
A Writer's Space: Make Room to Dream, to Work, to Write
Eric Maisel's Podcast Purpose- Centered Life.
Visit Eric Maisel's site and sign up for his newsletter.
Eric's next stop on his blog tour.
Labels: creativity and depression, creativity coach, Eric Maisel, help for depression, Van Gogh Blues