I'm so pleased to be able to present this morning Eric Maisel, author of Van Gogh Blues. My interview with Eric took place via e-mail to be hosted today. Be sure to see the other interviews on his tour by accessing the schedule posted on his website, www.ericmaisel.com , or checking back here on mine.
So, on with the interview!
I: 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.
I: 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.
I: Eric, is it your theory that certain of us come “out of the womb” looking for the meaning of life and utilizing our creativity to find that meaning? In other words, because we have come to exist, we must have meaning and create proof of it?
E: Yes. Of course, it may be that everybody or most people come out of the womb that way and then end up denying their own meaning feelings and meaning needs, or it may be that only a small percentage of people pop out of the womb existential. But whichever is the case, for people who do pop out that way they face the everlasting task of keeping meaning afloat, because they know what it feels like to not be living meaningfully—it feels terrible.
I: 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.
I: Having a way to articulate our feelings is of great help in identifying the problem. Do you feel that it would also be valuable to form a creative community to offer support to one another by following the principles in your book and talking out these disappointments that come along and working out how to get back on track when they happen?
E: It would be, if people could rise to the occasion and actually support each other. We are self-interested creatures and it is not so easy for us to provide genuine support for others of the species. What I think might be a first step is for people to speak about meaning more explicitly and clearly, using a vocabulary of meaning, and then they could see to whom they were drawn—that is, people who spoke the “same language” would begin to chat with one another, and that might form the basis of a supportive community. I think that would be an excellent first step on the road to actual mutual support.
I: Your practical examples of creatives in the book are great. I noticed that the examples are primarily of people who have chosen mediums with more long drawn out deadlines. How would you advise the person who has a purpose with tight deadlines, such as being a news reporter or in the advertising field to jumpstart themselves when they find themselves spiraling downward.
E: It depends in part whether what they are doing matters to them and feels meaningful. If it doesn’t feel meaningful, then the answer is that they either need to reinvest meaning in their choice or find other meaningful work—this is true whether we face daily deadlines or annual deadlines. If it is meaningful work, then the trick is to remember to construct a parallel life in which you fashion and enjoy relationships, because one meaning container, even one we love (say, investigative reporting) does not meet all of our human needs. To put this simply, you meet your deadline and then, instead of getting it into your head that you are already onto your next deadline, you say, “Time for love.” You change pace, make meaning in another way, and feel less like you are on a perpetual treadmill.
I: This is the paperback version of The Van Gogh Blues, How was the hardback version received?
E: 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.
I: The book has definitely opened up a dialogue between myself and those around me. Will you be doing any kind of follow-up work-book or cd’s?
E: I am working on a book that I consider a follow-up to the Van Gogh Blues, a book called The Atheist’s Way, which describes how to life a passionate, purposeful, and happy life without gods and without god-talk. That will appear early in 2009. As to an accompanying workbook to the Van Gogh Blues, that is a great idea!—and I may pursue that idea with the publisher, to see if there is interest there. Cross your fingers!
I: 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”!
I: 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.
Thank you, Eric for the opportunity to do this with you again. Very Best of luck with your upcoming projects and I hope we are able to share those here on my blog, also!
Be sure to check out the rest of this virtual book tour by going to www.ericmaisel.com