Eric Maisel’s The Van Gogh Blues: an important book

Eric Maisel’s The Van Gogh Blues has just been released in paperback. I bought it in hardcover a couple of years ago, and reading it provided insights that have been incredibly helpful to my life. I only wish it had been available earlier! But it’s here now, and has the potential to help other people find their way more easily through a few thickets that I nearly got stuck in.

This post is part of a blog tour [PDF schedule] for the book’s release although I’m not following the general format for the tour. Many of the participants in the tour have been asking Eric specific questions relating to their own realms of creative work and you might find both the questions and the answers interesting.

My post follows a different path because I have lots to say on the topic myself. This discussion will be long, even for me, but if you’re not interested you can come back in a couple of days when I’m talking about something else . . . and if you are interested it won’t seem long enough and you’ll need to go find the book, too!

Here’s the book, in the two versions that I own. I love the new paperback cover, which to my mind more accurately reflects what’s inside. The full title is The Van Gogh Blues: The Creative Person’s Path through Depression. The paperback edition comes from New World Library, an independent publisher.

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(Yay for independent publishers! Most of today’s publishing is done by
five international media conglomerates. I love the fine work that the
feisty independents do. All independent publishers are feisty by
definition; they have to be to survive.)

This is actually an opportune time for The Van Gogh Blues to be brought back to my immediate attention. I’ve danced with depression since my late teens, and even though I generally like winter the cold and dark times have been more challenging for me the past few years.

I suspect it looks from the outside like my life has had a plan and a direction. That’s only true when it’s viewed retrospectively. From the driver’s seat, it looks like I’ve taken one fork in the road after another, sometimes making my best guess about which direction to go and sometimes compelled by the need not to continue with the path I was on mostly because I wasn’t sure I was going to survive if I didn’t make a dramatic change.

That’s where The Van Gogh Blues comes in as helpful in helping me see why I’ve felt like I needed to head out cross-country in my life’s choices instead of taking the interstate or even a well-paved two-lane highway, when either of the latter two choices would have been a heck of a lot easier. Still would be. As I said a few days ago, "Sometimes I wonder why I sit in my basement for long hours almost every
day, editing and laying out and checking and producing and publishing
books on traditional fiber knowledge." That’s not all I do with my life—and some of the other parts may be even more important—but it’s a big part of it. It’s not exactly a career path that would show up on any vocational test.

Okay. Let’s talk about Eric’s theories and his book for a bit. While it’s well written and easy to read, the ideas take a little time to wrap a brain around because they cast some familiar concepts in new frameworks.

___

Psychologist Eric Maisel—also a novelist, and thus a creative spirit in many dimensions—has spent his professional life as a counselor and coach working with artists and other creative people (including those who create in non-arts fields, like science and math). After some years of this work, he postulated that a certain percentage of the population consists of people who are born with a need to be creative and that if they don’t find a way to honor that necessity they’ll be plagued by depression.

He also noticed that that these people’s depression could not be resolved with the treatments that are ordinarily effective, even though those treatments might provide temporary or partial relief.

Over time, as he looked at the incidence of depression in creative people, he pinpointed a potential cause: an inborn need to make meaning, to live a "meaningful" life—yet where that "meaning" could only be determined by the individual, not by adherence to anyone else’s standards or beliefs.

He called the frustration of this need—for whatever reason—a meaning crisis, and conceived of it as an existential crisis, or a crisis pertaining to why the person experiencing it even exists. He saw a particular type of depression as a symptom of this meaning crisis.

The Van Gogh Blues explains this in depth, and much better than I can.

What I can say is that these insights have enormous implications for some people’s lives, including mine. Through luck and stubbornness, I haven’t succumbed to my experiences with depression, although I’ve weathered divorces, transcontinental moves, years of counseling, prescription medications, and other things that might have been avoided (even just moderated a bit would have been nice) if I’d known what I was up against and how to deal with it . . . both of which are explained in this book.

When I discovered The Van Gogh Blues, I had many AHA! moments and finally felt like maybe I wasn’t nuts. (High-functioning nuts, but nuts.) By writing this book, Eric helped me understand that I wasn’t just a misfit who simply couldn’t manage a "normal" life.

As you might imagine, I’m grateful he wrote it and I found it. If any of what I’m writing here sounds interesting to you, I strongly urge you to get a copy and spend some time developing an understanding of its concepts and practicing its suggestions.

Book overview, with quotes and comments

Note: Eric balances his pronouns between masculine and feminine. The selections I have chosen happen to overrepresent the feminine alternatives. Because I grew up in an era of omnipresent masculine pronouns, I think that’s okay.

Introduction

  • "[V]irtually 100 percent of creative people will suffer from episodes of depression. . . . Because every creative person came out of the womb ready to interrogate life and determine for herself what life would mean, could mean, and should mean. Her gift or curse was that she was born ready to stubbornly doubt received wisdom and disbelieve that anyone but she was entitled to provide answers to her own meaning questions. . . . What is clear is that some people grow up doubting and questioning while the majority don’t. These meaning investigators are our creators, and they are prone to meaning crises and consequent depression by virtue of the fact that they find meaning a problem and not a given." (p. 4)

Eric sets this type of depression in context and relates it to our understanding of the biological and psychological depressions that can be concurrent with meaning-related depression: "Creators have trouble maintaining meaning. Creating is one of the ways they endeavor to maintain meaning" (p. 5).

But of course creating itself is difficult, and I’d add that in many contemporary industrialized societies it is severely undervalued (even more so as creators’ copyright protections are being eroded and payment for creative work is diminishing). There have been times and places in history when it was feasible to make a living as painter or a poet without the assistance of both hard work (which is under personal control) and a miracle (which is not).

1. Two meaning casualties

  • "Depression in creative people is essentially a meaning problem and must be handled by a meaning expert: you. . . . If you don’t . . . you will find yourself unhappy, regularly uncreative and unproductive, and sometimes even suicidal" (pp. 23-24).

This stuff matters. The suicidal instincts may be obvious or not. One of mine manifested as anorexia; some people do drugs or alcohol to numb themselves. Eric shows how meaning crises can play out in people’s lives.

2. Reflecting on meaning

Meaning problems can be extremely complex. They aren’t easy to unravel or resolve. The solutions we come up with may depend on whether we believe or don’t believe in a higher power—neither belief nor unbelief saves a creative person from the work of making meaning.

  • "We must investigate meaning even though we wish we didn’t have to, even though we pray that meaning would just stay put, and even though we dream of a time when life might simply mean. . . . What a creative person may learn from her inquiry is that, despite the fact that she has no choice but to experience pain and suffering, on the one hand because she is alive and on the other hand because she is determined to create, she can nevertheless make sense of her time on Earth by deciding to take life seriously" (pp. 42-43)

3. Meaningful life, meaningful work, meaningful days

Not only the overall life needs to feel meaningful, the work we do has to feel meaningful and the tasks that we do each day also need to feel meaningful.

Although I didn’t know it, this awareness—not articulated—has been pushing me since I graduated from high school. I can do really boring things (like making big spreadsheets of wool qualities, or pushing type around in a layout program a quarter-point at a time . . . there are 72 points or 288 quarter-points in an inch [2.5 cm]) as long as the bigger project I’m working on has meaning.

  • "Creative people . . . do not experience time as something to be happily squandered but as successive chunks that they will either force to mean or carelessly waste."

Some of us can only stand to watch television if the program relates to our personal meanings and we can knit or spin while we’re watching! (It’s a curse, I tell you.)

  • "It turns out that it is fiendishly hard to carry out the intention of living your life plan, creating worthy work, and making everyday time feel meaningful. Can anybody do this? The only person who has a chance of pulling off what amounts to a miracle is someone who has recognized that the universal silence is primarily punctuated by one sound, the sound of his own thoughts. If his thoughts further defeat him, he has no chance. But if he can enlist his own thoughts on his own behalf, then the realization of his intentions becomes a possibility." (p. 63)

(Aside: Although The Van Gogh Blues is complete in itself, another of Eric’s books, Ten Zen Seconds, is especially useful with regard to enlisting our own thoughts on our own behalf.)

4. Sounding silence

So we have to learn to listen to ourselves.

  • "If we had the consciousness of a cat or a dog, we would have it in us to become perfect Zen masters. . . . But we are human beings, and we possess that odd duck—human consciousness." (p. 65)

More about how to unsnarl the mental bonds and have enough courage to change thought patterns so we’re not sabotaging ourselves. (It might be a blessing, if I can figure it out.)

5. Opting to matter

  • "Brooding about meaning is depressing and unproductive. But stepping back . . . and examining meaning . . . as an observer of your predicament and not the subject of a cruel joke, helps enormously." (p. 77)

Taking control of this mess involves a seven-step process. It’s do-able, but it takes courage.

  • "A painter facing a blank canvas, a writer facing a blank computer screen, an actor facing a cattle call audition, a researcher facing a mass of data all face this postmodern question: ‘Do I or my efforts matter?’ . . . Maybe we are trivial creatures in a trivial universe. Will you allow that suspicion—even that fact—to paralyze you?" (p. 87)

6. Reckoning with the facts of existence

  • "What are these ‘facts of existence’ with which a creative person must reckon? At a minimum, they include the shape of each creative discipline, the nature of the creative process, and the nature of the species." (p. 90)

A subsection here is "Dreaming large while reality-testing." This dual focus is crucial.

One of my biggest challenges has always been how to be responsible to
family and society while doing the creative work that both drives and
grounds me. I don’t know that I’ll ever get that problem resolved,
although I’m doing better each year at balancing between these
requirements.

And no, I don’t have answers, except for myself, except for today, and then only provisionally, because if I don’t make a provisional decision, nothing will get done and depression takes over. "One day at a time" helps a lot, although only if there’s a big picture as well to give that one day a chance of connecting to bigger work. "What’s the best thing I can be doing right now?" is how I move from one handhold to the next.

7. Braving anxiety

  • "Primary existential anxiety . . . is the anxiety we experience when we doubt our motives, our beliefs, and other core elements of our existence." (p. 104)

This is exactly what we face when we pick up a brush or begin to choreograph a dance or think we might have the temerity to create anything.

  • "Creative people are anxious not because they are neurotic but because the meaning crises they experience precipitate anxiety. . . . The second most potent anxiety-producer is inner conflict." (p. 106)

A subsection in this chapter is "Managing your many anxieties."

8. Nurturing self-support

  • "If you naturally enlist your own support and proceed with your creative efforts like a pair of good friends on an outing—you and your self-support arm-in-arm—you are very lucky. It is far more likely, however, that you are self-unfriendly and reluctant to grant yourself real permission to create." (p. 116)

For those of us in the second group, there are ways to take care of ourselves, and sometimes that involves reaching out to others to keep the depression at bay.

9. Disputing your happy bondages

  • "Creators are prone to addictions because an addiction is an ineffective but tempting way to handle meaning crises." (p. 128)

Eric shows me how to perceive addictions in a more understandable and more humanly complex way than I’d seen them before. They’re coping mechanisms that don’t work very well—most of us know that. But his view of the reasons they’re attractive and the reasons they don’t work is fascinating. You’ll need to read the book for his full perspective, but here’s a snip of his conclusion:

  • "In actual fact, this bondage is anything but happy. . . . The addicted creator is a wounded creature who is made ferocious by his felt lack of meaning. . . . If you are not addicted or if you have not experienced the lure of an addiction, you may believe that you are not at risk. . . . Every creator is susceptible . . . because the pressure to make meaning and to continue making it minute-in and minute-out can send anyone scurrying away in full retreat . . . toward . . . some . . .  powerful meaning substitute." (pp. 135, 137)

10. Confronting narcissism

  • "Every creator is a mixed narcissist—part healthy narcissist and part unhealthy narcissist. He must confront and work on his unhealthy narcissism while reckoning with the meaning issues that his healthy narcissism provokes. Healthy narcissism is an asset but presents a set of real problems; unhealthy narcissism is a curse and presents even more serious problems." (pp. 139-140)

There are lots of challenges in balancing our need to create with the ways we interact with the world and with others. Some folks manage this better than others; Eric gives tips for walking the beam without falling off (too often).

11. Repairing the self

There are other personal issues that can get in the way of creating, and they’ve formed who we are and how we approach our meaning challenges and crises. Sometimes we need to do deeper work to free ourselves.

12. Forging relationships

Egads, and then there are the other people in our lives! We need solitude to do our creating, and we have responsibilities, and we get moody, and sometimes we fall in love with (or give birth to) other creators, whose needs bump into ours. . . . And we have more relationships with the people who help us publish or sell our work, so we can eat and pay the rent. . . .

  • "Creators know they should create—creating is in their blood. They are less likely to recognize that they have an equal need to relate. Cyril Connolly declared, ‘In my religion, all would be love, poetry, and doubt.’ We creators already have the poetry and the doubt; now we need the love." (p. 177)

13. Meaningfully creating

  • "A creator needs to know what constitutes meaningful creative work for her, and she needs to do that work if she is to keep meaning alive. . . . Just as needs collide . . . so meanings collide. . . . A writer is offered a book to write. Will it or won’t it constitute meaningful work?" (p. 181)

How to choose between creative projects—and how to deal with the fact that we can never know for sure that we’ve chosen correctly.

14. Taking action

The difference between being busy and taking action:

  • "It is especially the act of creation that requires bravery. Our ability to make and maintain meaning is threatened by the intrinsic hardness of creative work. It is odd but true that most creators do not recognize this reality." (p. 199)

15. Making meaning

Even with all the discussion of making meaning, Eric realizes that we may not quite get it. He brings up the heroism of creating, of making meaning, despite feeling like we’re in a fog and don’t quite get it. He also talks about the mess that is life, and how we can muddle through anyway. Those are my words. What I’m saying is that he doesn’t oversimplify either the difficulty of understanding what we’re up against or the challenge of making it through every day.

  • "In order to deal with existence as she finds it and in order to make sufficient meaning, a creator faces difficult tasks which, by virtue of their difficulty, require true heroism on her part. She must brave anxiety. She must rebuild her personality and choose worthy creative projects. She must bear up under the pain of not creating well enough or often enough and the pain of losing vast amounts of time to work done to pay the bills. . . . I understand that part of you would like your depression to be something other than existential." (pp. 215-217)
  • "Perhaps making meaning is just an illusion, a trick you play on yourself in order to go on. What if it is?" (p. 218)

Conclusion

  • "You were not taught at home or in school . . . to think about meaning, but you can’t use your lack of training as an excuse. The stakes are too high. . . . You may be a great painter, . . . [b]ut if you haven’t learned how to effectively deal with meaning crises, you will be depressed. Your next hundred paintings will not be enough to save you: look at van Gogh." (pp. 224-225)
  • "What will save you is your expert work at forcing life to mean." (p. 225)

Appendix: Your vocabulary of meaning

Because these ideas require thinking about experience in ways with which we aren’t familiar, Eric offers sixty terms as a starting point for processing experience within this framework. For example, "24. Meaning investment. Possible usage: "I’m about to make a big meaning investment in the idea that psychological research can be meaningful by choosing to get a doctorate in social psychology. . . . 27. Meaning leak. Possible usage: "The rejection letter that arrived yesterday produced a serious meaning leak and made me want to abandon writing. But I licked my wounds and made an immediate meaning reinvestment in the enterprise of writing."

What I think about this book

If any of what I’ve written and quoted above rings a bell with you, please find this book.

It would be best if you buy yourself a copy. The paperback is only $14.95, which is cheap for what it is, and then you can mark it up and practice with it and find it on your shelf in a year, or two years, or five, when you need it again. And each time you read it you can congratulate yourself on how much better you are doing now than you were when you first encountered it, and you can get even better at managing your life and your creative journey.

And I’ll end with a similar sentiment, brought to my attention on Monday, February 4, by the 2008 Wild Words from Wild Women calendar:

  • "I’ll walk where my own nature would be leading; it vexes me to choose another guide." —Emily Bronte
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9 thoughts on “Eric Maisel’s The Van Gogh Blues: an important book”

  1. Hi Deb,

    Nice post. I’ve found that making the trade-off between fitting in and being myself had no positive outcome, whereas making my own meaning has paid happiness dividends over and over.

  2. Thank you, thank you thank you for this incredibly well-time “smack upside the head”. I’ll be searching out two copies–one for me, one for my middle, adult child who really needs to hear this now.

  3. Deb,
    Love your approach on this post…comprehensive and also in-depth. I’m glad it is moving folks to buy the book. Here’s my favorite quote from your own self-revelation (and, I so enjoy how fluid your writing is):

    “From the driver’s seat, it looks like I’ve taken one fork in the road after another, sometimes making my best guess about which direction to go and sometimes compelled by the need not to continue with the path I was on mostly because I wasn’t sure I was going to survive if I didn’t make a dramatic change.”

    Many, many of us can certainly relate to that!

    Janet Riehl
    http://www.riehlife.com

  4. Thanks Deb, I have really enjoyed visiting your blog for my first time, and you are a fantastic writer! I love your approach, the way you think, your thorough assessment of the book, and the way you so effortlessly describe that you read and what you believe. I look forward to reading your upcoming book?
    – brenda johima –
    creative nudge ceativity coach

  5. Deb,
    How fascinating it is to me to discover that Maisel is a psychologist! I used his book “The Art of the Book Proposal” to advantage several years ago and often recommend it to writers getting started on their own book. I noticed the Ph.D. after his name, but his bio on the book’s back cover says only that he coaches creative people, so that Ph.D. could mean anything! “Practically Shameless” is my own story of depression linked to creativity unexpressed, and now perhaps I understand better why his book on proposals worked so well for me.

    I want to comment on one passage you quoted from Maisel’s “Van Gogh Blues”: “Perhaps making meaning is just an illusion, a trick you play on yourself in order to go on. What if it is?” Years ago I read “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” by Thomas Kuhn, a book that turned the world of science on its head by suggesting that the scientific theories that reign supreme (he was the person to coin the terms “reigning paradigm” and “paradigm shift”) don’t reign because they reflect The Truth About The Universe but because they work for what we want to get done at that point in time. When we need steam engines, we’re governed by Newtonian physics. When we want to go into space, we switch to Einstein. When we want computers, we accept quantum mechanics.

    I personally believe there is meaning in everything; that’s part of a Jungian’s creed. But even if I didn’t (and for 20 years I was an atheist) I would still agree with Kuhn that if believing that life has meaning *works better for you in your life,* then I say, Go for it.

    Three family members suffer from recurring, crippling depression, and I’ve noticed that one thing they really struggle with is hope. It becomes so painful to hope if you believe your hopes might be dashed one more time that eventually it becomes too risky to hope at all. Finding meaning in life gives me hope every day.

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