Friday, February 15, 2008

Tenderness and Depression in Creative People

This is a second interview with Dr. Eric Maisel who was here at the Cafe yesterday. Today we're talking more about Eric's book The Van Gogh blues: the creative person's path through depression along with the notion that self-care and care for others - that is, love and tenderness - can help fight depression and anxiety in creative people.

Hi, Eric, and welcome. It's great to have you back. Let's talk more about this great book. In the introduction you say that virtually 100 percent of creative people will suffer from episodes of depression. In the book you describe the complete meaning-making process and vocabulary but can you describe a snapshot of how to handle a meaning-making crisis?

E: Love rekindles meaning: falling back in love with art or with your own art replenishes meaning. Having other meaning avenues available helps: possessing meaningful relationships and meaningful pursuits other than art-making are good things. Taking action helps: getting to the studio even if the blues have descended and working, even without enthusiasm, can help restore meaning, if not the first day then the second or the fifth or the eleventh. Having success helps: if you can’t find the wherewithal produce, it might be exactly the right moment to redouble your marketing efforts, so that success occurs, which success becomes a meaning boost. And accepting the rhythms of the creative process helps: knowing that the process comes with periods of time when you are lost, or not producing in your voice, or fulfilling commissions that don’t move you, and remembering that tomorrow or next week a sea change in meaning may come.

Q: 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.

Q: 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.

Q: Do you feel that it would 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.

Q: How can we cultivate an attitude of attention towards our creative dreams and goals? How do you suggest we focus love and attention on our creative work when there are so many other things completing for our attention?

E: One approach is to institute a regular, seven-day-a-week creativity practice, where we show up at the same time every day (at five in the morning, say), and create a habit that is so sturdy that distraction has no way in. I describe the details of such a creativity practice in The Creativity Book.

Q: Can you tell us more about the sense of commitment and your use of the word "force" in the sense that we can choose to make a commitment to force meaning on our lives? How can we think about this process in a way that helps us actualize our dreams and our best idea of ourselves?

E: I believe that it is very important that, as a species, we engage in a paradigm shift from seeking meaning to making meaning. “Forcing life to mean” is a phrase that the novelist Hermann Hesse used in his journals and it captures what I believe is our central existential task, to decide what cherished principles we want to uphold and how we want to represent ourselves in the world and then to act accordingly, whether or not what we have decided looks meaningful, proper, or appropriate to anyone else. The individual is the only arbiter of meaning in his or her life—there are no legitimate meaning police and we ought not allow there to be any meaning police of any sort. Rather than “looking for meaning in all the wrong places,” or even in the right places, we reflect on how we want to be and then live life that way, making our own meaning
as we passionately create ourselves.

Q: As creativity coaches we frequently hear from artists who need a "second job" to pay the bills and that the second job drains them of time, energy and spirit which they would otherwise devote to their creative lives and, worse yet, the second job drains meaning from their life, dragging down their hope and their spirit. Do you have any suggestions for restoring meaning?

E: As it happens I am working on a new book that is all about making meaning. To answer the question, there are only a handful of possible choices, none of them perfect. The first is to see if we can reinvest meaning in our current meaningless job by identifying any parts of the job that do feel meaningful and focusing our energy and attention there, insofar as we can. For instance, if you are a teacher and love your classes but hate faculty meetings, you reinvest meaning in your classes and plead a headache as often as you can and get out of as many meetings as possible—or spend the meetings dreaming of Tahiti or plotting your novel. The second is to see if, by investing meaning elsewhere (say, in a creative project), you can create enough meaning capital that you can stand the meaninglessness of your day job. The day feels different if you go off to work or if you write for an hour on your novel and then go off to work. In the latter case you may have built up enough meaning capital that the rest of the day can be endured. Third, you find your way out: you bite the bullet and announce to yourself that your meaning needs come before you financial needs and that you really must find another line of work. Reality bites; and we must meet its bite with our full endowment, which sometimes means getting the heck out.

Q: You note in the book that "Most creators feel miserable if few or none of their creative efforts succeed." What do you recommend to an artist facing this situation, struggling to find acceptance of their creative work and to make meaning in their life?

E: A lack of success and a lack of recognition are profound meaning crises that must be addressed just as any meaning crisis must be addressed, with all of our heart and all of our energy. We have the following options. We reinvest meaning in our art and reinvest meaning in our marketing efforts and make a new go at doing excellent work and also at becoming an excellent advocate for our work, in the hope that this time recognition and success will follow. That is, we try again, only harder and smarter. In addition, we invest meaning elsewhere, in other meaning avenues and other meaning containers, and especially in intimate relationships (Van Gogh was happy for one year, when he was in such an intimate relationship). There are no other existential answers: we try again (perhaps differently and hopefully with a better payoff) and/or we try something new.

Q: Do you think there's value in toughing it out through our anxiety and depression?

E: Many artists try. I believe that it serves us best to learn how to reduce or eliminate both depression and anxiety from our lives, as I do not hold them as useful in any way. I think that pain is overrated. That isn’t to say that the following might not happen: you work honorably and well on a creative project, you finish it, you are depleted and no new project wants to come forward, and after a certain amount of time the blues strike, since you aren’t making sufficient meaning and don’t feel quite up to making new meaning. This sort of depression can creep up on any working artist. The depression is not useful in and of itself but it is a clear signal that the time has come to see if new meaning can be made. It is the time to get back on the horse and back into the studio. Maybe there is nothing there yet and maybe you will experience days or weeks of nothing particularly generative happening. Be that as it may, the depression was not a gift; it was merely the warning sign that a meaning crisis was brewing or had erupted—and that action, even if futile at first, was now required.

Q: Let's visit the topic of addiction. In chapter 9 Disputing Happy Bondage you say, "Creators are prone to addictions because an addiction is an ineffective but tempting way to handle meaning crises" and "the pressures of meaning-making cause us to seek pleasurable meaning substitutes."

For many alcoholics and addicts the use of chemicals or behaviors or other forms of addiction are ways of lessening feelings of loneliness, sensitivity, lovelessness and other existential crises. Can there be some positive, meaning-enhancement uses for what you list as meaning substitutes?

E: In my vernacular, no, because a meaning substitute is just that—not meaningful. It is a “poor substitute” for making intentional meaning. That isn’t to say that it might not have tremendous blandishments and rewards, activating our pleasure center this way or numbing our pain that way. But, especially over time, the dangers are profoundly great, as witnessed by the number of creative and performing artists ruined by addiction. A drink is not a problem; turning to drink as a way to deal with meaning challenges is a problem. Shopping for a tie is not a problem; turning to acquisition as a way to deal with meaning challenges is a problem. To the extent that a creative person uses anything or does anything as a way to avoid the challenge of making sufficient meaning, that is a problem—maybe not the first time he does it, maybe not the second time, but certainly when it becomes habitual and a place of dependency.

I just finished writing a book on the subject (co-written with an addictions specialist, Dr. Susan Raeburn), in which she and I present what we think is the first addiction recovery program specifically geared to artists. Addiction is often a meaning substitute in a creative person’s life—it is a quick fix way to deal with existential depression but it ultimately becomes an additional source of depression as the artist loses control and begins to suffer large negative consequences of his addictive use, including often enough an inability to create regularly or well—or at all. Wish there was more room to chat about this!—but the book, Creative Recovery, comes out from Shambhala during the Fall of this year.

Q: In chapter 4 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.

Q: 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.

Q: In chapter 8 Nurturing Self-Support you say "you have to change your mind and heal your heart" and then what follows is a beautiful list of examples where you recommend whispering, "I am the beauty in life" as a way to heal shame, fight fears and mend sorrows and soothe all manner of human anguish.

Can you talk more about this?

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.

Eric, thank you so much for sharing your inspiring ideas and writing here today.

Dear visitors, that's all for now. Remember, if you decide to re-invest as the meaning-maker in your life The Van Gogh blues: the creative person's path through depression will gently and wisely walk you through the introspection and action steps to carry you to a new level of meaning-making in your life. To support you in that process and provide you with language for the journey there are "60 Terms for a Vocabulary of Meaning" at the back of the book to get you started, for meaningful self-talk and to communicate meaning-making with others.

Eric's book again is The Van Gogh blues: the creative person's path through depression just out in paperback by New World Library. You can learn more about Eric and his work from his web site at

Good luck and enjoy the journey whenever you possibly can.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Love Helps Heal The Blues

Welcome, everyone! I'm very pleased today to introduce to you Dr. Eric Maisel. Today and tomorrow Eric will be here talking with us about his book The Van Gogh blues: the creative person's path through depression just released in paperback by New World Library. Eric is an internationally known expert on the creative process, a workshop leader, a psychotherapist, and the author of more than 30 books including Coaching the Artist Within, Fearless Creating, Ten Zen Seconds, a Writer's Paris to name a few.

Pamela: Eric, welcome back. It's great to share news about another of your great books. When I was thinking about this interview I was drawn to focus partly on, well - love. It is Valentine's Day after all but my focus is on romancing the self rather than another person and by that I mean love from the perspective of a creative person's need for very healthy doses of confidence and self-love, and how to create that self-love. So, Eric, please tell us what The Van Gogh Blues is about.

Eric: 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.

P: 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.

P: 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.

P: I'm so impressed with the tenderness for creative people that shows up in The Van Gogh Blues and indeed in all your other books. I think there's a great need for that sort of tenderness because our culture tends not to nurture artists. Do you think people creating in American culture have a more difficult time holding/making meaning for themselves and their work than creative workers in Europe, for example?

E: Yes. The very construction of European society, where people have more days off and more freedom to sit in a caf‚ and write, draw, dream, or chat, makes it easier for people to deeply consider how they what to represent themselves and how they want to make themselves proud. That is why European movies are "more meaningful" than American movies: our culture is dominated by the idea of happy endings and by clich‚d and superficial examinations of the facts of existence. Because of our insidious pop culture, mass media, and bottom line-driven dynamics, it is harder for a creative person here to feel motivated to do the kind of meaningful work that is in his or her heart to do.

P: It seems from the stories in your book, as well as stories from artist friends, my creativity coaching clients and my own experiences as an artist that a good portion of the depression you talk about in the book is caused or worsened by self-criticism and even much harsher kinds of self-denigration that creative people seem to assail themselves with. Do you think creative people are more harshly critical of themselves than other groups of people and if so does that arise from our personalities or culture or both?

E: Most people are self-critical and most people fear criticism. Because they know this about themselves, they decline to do the kinds of work that will get them criticized. They opt for accounting rather than performing or civil service work rather than writing. They make a calculation, somewhere just out of conscious awareness, to hide and, by hiding, avoid any more criticism. Creative people, by contrast, bite the bullet and risk constant criticism. Because they take this risk, they must deal with more criticism than the next person: they are putting themselves out there and must deal with consequences of going public. A gallery owner can criticize; the artist must bear the brunt of the criticism. An editor can criticize; the author must bear the brunt of the criticism. It isn't that the gallery owner or the editor is any less self-critical or any less afraid of criticism, it is just that they have put themselves in the position of doing the criticizing - a nice one-up power position.

P: In the hierarchy of self-care for creative people can you tell us in one or two sentences how important it is for us to learn and practice thinking, speaking and dealing with ourselves in ways that are respectful, confident and loving?

E: We keep waiting for someone to be our marketplace advocate and supporter and dream of being discovered, forgetting that we must be that advocate and supporter first, last, and all the time. If we are not confident, we will not take the necessary steps to find those advocates and supporters; if we are not self-respectful and self-loving, it will not matter if we do find those advocates and supporters, as we will ruin our success (as so many artists do) through ongoing negative self-talk and ongoing self-sabotaging tricks.

P: Do you find that this habit (habitual good self-talk, love and tenderness), if we can make it a habit, really does result in creative people achieving a happier more productive creative life? In other words being tender produces or increases the likelihood that we'll achieve the successful results we dream of and truly want?

E: It is very hard to get our work accomplished if we are hating our efforts and hating ourselves. It is one thing to have a splendid idea for a novel and get highly excited; that excitement will only last a very little while and then, as Virginia Woolf put it, "resignation sets in," that resigned sense that the novel is going to be hard work and not a lark. To see ourselves through that hard work, which may take years, we must not get too down on ourselves or too down on our novel: when we get too down, we stop-and maybe stop for good. That tenderness you speak of is the way that we keep ourselves gently in love with our work, our efforts, and our very self: if we are hard-hearted rather than tender and see only difficulty, darkness, and our putative faults, we are almost sure to quit.

P: 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.

P: 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.

P: 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"!

P: Eric, thank you so much for sharing your work at the Creative Circle Cafe today. I'm excited to pick up this conversation again tomorrow. I hope a thousand artists working in any medium will read this blog and renew their love and honor for themselves and their creative work and renewed energy for their creative dreams and goals. Let's cross our fingers for that, eh?

Well, everyone, please join us again tomorrow when the topic will be The Link between Tenderness and Depression in Creative People. We'll look more at The Van Gogh Blues and the topic of self-love for creative people. I'll pick out some of my favorite passages from the book and we'll talk about the purpose and power of writing a life meaning statement. Please join Eric Maisel and myself again tomorrow, Friday, February 15th. That's also my birthday-what a great way to celebrate!