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!