Friday, February 01, 2008

Looking at the mountain
Looking at the sea...
Autumn evening.
- Kobayashi Issa (1763-1827)

This morning I’m delighted to host a book tour with Dr Eric Maisel, psychologist and creativity coach, who’s just published a book on Creativity and Depression, Van Gogh Blues. My introduction to Dr Maisel was through his newsletter, creativitynewsletter, on yahogroups.
I shall be completely indebted to Phoebe, the gutsy protagonist of some of the parables, for guiding me through a maze of words, ever- so-gently.
I confess I haven’t customized this, with my internal editor on high, I got myself into a complete frazzle about my questions on culture and creativity, the late bloomer and creativity, self doubt and expression, and latent talent.


Q: 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.

Q: 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.

Q: 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.

Q: 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”!

Q: 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.


BookClover said...

Hello! Thanks so much for posting this! did you get that opportunity? Wish I could meet people and interview them for my blog too!;-9

GhostOfTomJoad said...

Hi! To be very honest, I think I have a mental block against these kind of books, which I generally categorise as "management type" :-) But, the title of this one, Van Gogh Blues, is quite interesting, as is the subject.

Constant questioning is a part of the creative process, isn't it? I may have read it wrong but his response here makes it sound almost like an esteem issue.

PipeTobacco said...


Thank you for this interview. I read it and immediately saw parallels with what I had been feeling.

I also now have gone to his website and listened to two of his podcasts. I may likely get the book.


Quin said...

you wonderful person.

read, listened, i see where it will help.

the universe is wonderful in how it brings strangers who aren't strangers into our life paths, isn't it?

i'm lucky there, with your path crossing mine.

Alice Folkart said...

This was just what I needed to hear this morning. I was in despair. I'm still in despair, but know a bit more about it. The best thing about reading and hearing Maisel is that I feel less alone. It's not all in my head - I really am relating in these ways to my writing and there really are ways to look at that relationship. 'Hope' and 'honesty' sum it up.


Loup said...

Is meaning in life and the depression associated limited to only 'creative' people like artists? What is the defenition of creativity?

Just something which popped up in my head.


I can't believe the comparisons!
As usual, Austie, you have helped me in more ways!
Thank you!
I'm off to look for the book!
Best of writing to you Dr. Maisel!


austere said...

First, a BIG thank you to all of you for stopping by, reading, and commenting.

Bookclover- I joined creativitynewsletter on yahoogroups, Dr Maisel asked for volunteers, why don’t you join as well?

Ghosto’: True. But this isn’t a preachy mgmt book. Somewhere I’ve found him identifying the right nerve for ppl who deal with blackbox areas. Read the archives! Constant questioning yes, but constant doubting? I think what this book says is the need for meaning making the some of us have, and investing time, energy and emotions in areas that matter in a completely selfish way. In a way that yes, builds a sense of self.

PT- thank you sir! Meaning making makes sense, the more I read. I loved the way so many areas were left open- ended, so we can find our own answers.

Quin- I’m blessed. Thank you. For being there. And just imagine, a leap off sixsentences!

Alice- DELIGHTED! Welcome welcome! Yes, hope, honesty and at some level a positive selfishness that one matters, and one orients one’s time towards things that matter.

Loup- read the book! No, depression is not limited to creative ppl, but no other lot suffers such intense pangs of doubt, time pulls and inadequacy. Read the archives. Get the book!

Crusty-  thou art most welcome. Makes complete sense on so many levels, doesn’t it?

Baby Island said...

Great questions for your interview!I love this concept. I'm not saying I am the most creative person in the world but as a thinker (creative wannabe) I relate to this idea of making meaning as an active thing.

Very cool! Thank you!

austere said...

babyisland: Of course you're creative, no two why's about that. The book is helping me for sure.

manuscrypts said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
manuscrypts said...

hmm, get some regular doses thanks to creativegarh. hey, you should get in there. its on yahoogroups.

PS. unless of course, thats the group you mentioned, and you are already a member, the silent type, like me :)

Janet Grace Riehl said...

This is an amazing set of comments.

What would be so fun would be, at a later date, to see the "interview questions that got away" on the topics you mention of
-- culture and creativity,
--the late bloomer and creativity,
--self doubt and expression,
--and latent talent.

Even without Eric's answers....perhaps posing these as questions for your readers in the blogesphere, this might prove quite fascinating for all concerned.

Janet Riehl

Linda said...

Austere, stumbled here via 6S and so glad I found your blog. FANTASTIC interview; Dr. M provides a fascinating perspective on existential depression in creative folks. As someone expert in the pharmacologic remedies of depression and other emotional and psychiatric ills, I see more and more the overmedication of our 'dark' feelings rather than an attempt to understand and derive meaning from them. I'm off to read more... Thanks, and peace...

Portia said...

How exciting:)

Dr. Maisel makes perfect sense. Seems like a relativity thing...if we didn't know hope then we wouldn't know disappointment. I'd like to explore his vocabulary of meaning more, but I guess I know where I can find it. I look forward to checking out the newsletter too.

austere said...

manuJI- BUT of course I'm on creativegarh, didntcha hear my footfalls lurkin'?

janet- dyou think I should? I mean, would ppl want to know? Now I've got myself debating whether or not they'd want to know, and therefore read, so now to sort meself out...back shortly.

linda! welcome! In nother avatar, I used to be a pharmacist..Yes, he makes sense, the more you begin to apply to your daily practice, pls pls pls read the archives, and the kind of GOOD you feel yourself committing to your craft, its unbelievable. best.

portia- YES. Its been a while since any of them AMAZING collages, nyet? You will like as well, but I miss that art, seriously.

Janet Grace Riehl said...

Well, I'd want to know...and these are all very rich topics...yes...if this is your interest, do it.

Janet Riehl