It's winter in the Midwest of the United States, and that can mean bleak, endless gray days that cast a lot of us into some form of depression. But according to Eric Maisel, PhD, the author of the book The Van Gogh Blues, actively making and maintaining meaning is the "creative person's path through depression" regardless of the time of year.
Below is an interview with the author, a San Francisco-based creativity coach who is the leading expert about the creative life and make-up of the creative person. The following interview is part of the "blog tour" for the paperback version of the book that just came out (click here for the interview about his last work, Ten Zen Seconds). See the tour schedule to read other interviews about The Van Gogh Blues -- some questions are repeated from interview to interview while others are unique to the blog on which they are posted.
Please tell us what The Van Gogh Blues is about.
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.
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”?
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.
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?
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.
A main strategy to averting debilitating depression 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.
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?
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.
Depression has many negative connotations. How might depression help bring to light issues that other more positive states of being may not?
It isn’t so much that depression brings to light these other states. It is rather that, at least at this point in the evolution of our species, to don the mantle of personal meaning maker, which is the righteous and proper thing to do, means that you look life squarely in the eye and do what it takes to manifest your potential and act as the hero of your own story—and by accepting all this you open the door for depression, since it can be depressing to see the truth about reality and depressing to struggle so hard to bring forth beauty and good works. The depression isn’t any kind of blessing or positive state, but it may be an inevitable by-product of our decision to live honorably.
Based on the premise that creative people inevitably will experience depression because they regularly experience doubts about the meaningfulness of their work, how might having a strong religious/spiritual faith both benefit and hinder the struggle to find and make meaning?
This is a tricky question for me because I am both an atheist and an anti-religionist who believes that god-talk is a betrayal of our common humanity. As soon as you inject that a god has told you something, you have trumped any rational discussion of a subject. Naturally, a believer may find it easier to avoid feelings of meaninglessness because he can take comfort in his beliefs and in this sense he may have an easier time maintaining meaning. To my mind, to make meaning is to accept that you are the sole arbiter of what is going to count as righteous and meaningful in your life.
How does The Van Gogh Blues tie in with other books that you’ve written?
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”!
What might a person interested in these issues do to keep abreast of your work?
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.