Well the day has finally arrived ... I've put on my best frock, transformed our living room to give it an intimate 'shabby chic coffee shop/book store' vibe, dimmed the lights, closed the curtains, lit some candles and thought long and hard about what I'd like to ask my VIP guest of honour ... So please come on in, grab a floor cushion, pour yourself a cup of hot chai or a glass of red wine and make yourself at home for this very exciting interview with the king of creativity ... Dr ... Eric ... Maisel!!! [there's a ripple of enthusiastic applause and everyone raises their glasses in Eric's direction].
for Eric's arrival
(c) Persisting Stars and creating in the dark
Me: Hello Eric and thank you so much for [virtually] travelling all the way to this remotest backwater of the internet, otherwise known as my blog, to talk to me about your latest book launch: The Van Gogh Blues.
Eric (shifting back slightly in his chair and scanning the room for his nearest exit): No problem, it's a pleasure to be here.
Me: Could you start by telling me what 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 began to emerge: that creative people stand in relation to life in a particular 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 they aren’t making sufficient meaning in their life, 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—get the blues.
To say this more crisply, it seemed to me that the depression 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.
Me: When a creative person is feeling blue how will they know if it is 'existential depression' that they are suffering from?
Eric: 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 check-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.
Me: So by deciding to be a ‘meaning-maker’ I'm more likely to get depressed by the very virtue of that decision. In addition to telling myself that I matter and that my creative work matters, what else can I do to ‘keep meaning afloat’ in my life? What else helps?
Eric: I think it is a great help just to have a ‘vocabulary of meaning’ and to have language you can use to know what is going on in your life. If you can’t accurately name something, 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.
Me: In chapter 3 of Van Gogh Blues you guide readers through the process of encapsulating their life plan into a single sentence that can be used as a blueprint for keeping us on track and living a life which we find meaningful. How do we know when we've succeeded in crafting a sentence that truly encapsulates what represents meaning for us? My life plan sentence is: 'To make art that 'sings of the page', to help others unleash their own creativity and to find creative ways to live my life so that moments of anxiety are always outweighed by feelings of wonder and purpose' ... how do I know whether I've really got to the heart of what is truly meaningful to me and not just completed the task at an intellectual level?
Eric: There is no way to know except in the furnace of living and by honorably analyzing our own efforts. Nor is it likely that your life purpose statement will last a lifetime, since your circumstances may change, your experiences may cause you to change your mind, and new meanings may arise to supplement or replace old meanings. A life purpose statement is your best guess of this moment as to how you want to represent yourself and what you want to do with your life. It is only that much—but that is still a lot. If your own warning bells go off that your life purpose statement is not exactly true, then you know your job—to bite the bullet and repeat the process! But you may want to first test it out in the crucible of reality, to see if perhaps you have landed on exactly the right statement for the moment.
Me: In Van Gogh Blues (and also in many of your other books) you touch on the problem of temptation and how we as creators (or would-be creators) can get caught in a constant battle against various temptations which we use to sabotage our own creative intentions and which leave us feeling generally pretty rubbish about ourselves. How can I adjust my behaviour so that creativity is the thing that keeps on tempting me rather than all the various temptations and dramas that can all too easily distract me from time to time.
Eric: To say it in an extreme way, we act as if those temptations rise to the level of addiction—an addiction to distraction, an addiction to adrenaline, an addiction to checking emails, or whatever it may be—and determine to enter in a recovery program as solemn, serious, and regular as a recovery program from alcoholism. My co-author Dr. Susan Raeburn and I have described just such a recovery program, one geared to the specific needs of creative people, in a book called Creative Recovery that will appear this Fall from Shambhala. Another 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.
Me: Well the candles have nearly all gone out and our glasses are all but empty so that must mean it's time to let you go on to your next stop on the tour. Thank you for stopping by and even more for providing me with a lifetime of straight-talking inspiration which has been of immeasurable help to me as I stumble along my own path of creative recovery.
[n.b. For any readers of this who are here in the UK ... if you've had any trouble understanding Eric's responses just replace the 'Z's with 'S's and 'Fall' with 'Autumn' and you'll be just fine ;-)
Also if anyone out there is wondering what they could buy me for Valentine's Day, here's a hint ... don't be shy about clubbing together if you need to]