Monday, February 25, 2008

From Depression to Meaning: Interview with Eric Maisel

I recently read, The Van Gogh Blues: A Creative Person’s Path Through Depression by Eric Maisel, Ph.D., a foremost creativity coach and creativity expert and am pleased to share an interview with Eric below. The book provides insights into the link between depression in creative people and their role as meaning makers—stating that depression sometimes results when they experience doubts about the meaning of their creative efforts. I very much resonated with this concept and found Eric’s ideas and examples from creative people’s lives helpful in reframing some of the challenges and anxieties I’ve experienced myself as a creative person. I also shared his premise with a writer’s group I’m part of and experienced a kind of a collective sigh of recognition. It’s spurred some lively conversation (two of my group member’s questions are in the interview below).

Here’s the interview with Eric:

A: What is The Van Gogh Blues 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.

A: 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.

A: 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.

A: 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.

A: What I hear you saying is that when creative people in particular maintain a connection to their mission or purpose (you call it a Life Purpose Statement in VGB), a connection to the value of their work, and their own value as creative people in the culture, they will be stronger in their work and in their lives. Is that a fair way to put it?

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.

A: You write about the difference between busyness and action. Could you give my readers a sample of the self-talk an artist needs to being thinking when she steps boldly into action?

E: The first step is to completely stop—not to slow down but to completely stop. Learning how to do this (and it isn’t easy, especially in our culture that promotes speed, fracture, and a short attention span) makes all the difference in a creative person’s life, as internal busyness is completely eliminated if in fact you actually stop, quiet your mind, and allow yourself to calmly grow present. The self-talk is exactly “I am completely stopping,” followed by the idea that you intend to calmly create without worrying about outcomes—that you are just intending to be present and to do your work. If a doubt or a worry intrudes, you dispute it by saying “I’m not interested in that doubt” or “I reject that worry,” return yourself to deep silence, and continue “just working.”

A: When she feels the blues descending, what questions could an artist ask herself to locate the source of her discontent?

E: A medical work-up is a good idea, especially if her depressions in the past have been severe or long-lasting, as the coming depression might possibly be avoided with antidepressants (if it the “right” sort of depression). She can also engage in some simple “home remedies”: exercise is a depression-fighter, as is getting out in the sun. From an existential point of view, what she wants to ask herself is if her current creative work matters to her—if at some level it doesn’t, she will need to reinvest meaning in it by telling herself that she and it do matter; or, if she can’t imbue it with meaning, she will need to turn to other, more meaningful work.

A: I mentioned The Van Gogh Blues to the fiction writer’s group I’m part of and found tremendous resonance with the topic—a kind of collective sigh of recognition. I asked the members if they had any questions for you. Here are two, both from individuals writing novels, both expanding on the idea of self-talk and self-care:

“I like the idea of stopping and using self-talk, but wonder what is the process Eric recommends to get to the place where the self-talk will work? He says we owe it to ourselves to explore whether depression is existential in nature and that seems to be the first-step to developing effective self-talk. I would like to hear his views on how to go into this exploration. Does he recommend sinking into the layers and sitting with each of the deeper feelings in the depression to discover meaning or is it a more surface pushing away of the feelings to exchange depression for meaning. I guess what I am asking is can Eric expand more on the concept of what questions can an artist ask when the blues descend.”

E: The short answer is that what is first required is the paradigm shift to the idea the meaning does not exist until we make it and the follow-up ideas that we must get very good at identifying how and where to make meaning investments, what to do to shore up meaning leaks, and how to grow a personal vocabulary of meaning so that we can talk to ourselves sensibly about our own meaning issues. Once all of this is in place, then we can measure events more quickly and easily as to their meaning quotient and decide, even instantly, that what we are experiencing is, for example, a blue period resulting from too long a winter or from a meaning crisis. As we learn to make these distinctions, then we also begin to learn what we need to do in response: find some sun and some warmth, in the first case, and passionately make a meaning investment or reinvestment, in the second.

A: Here’s the second question from my writing group:

”I would love to hear more about Eric's thoughts about authors receiving a rejection letter (or deep editing of their novel), and the need to instantly reinvest meaning in our choice to write... that if we don't hold that orientation, it is easy to slip into an existential blues. How do we keep meaning that we can be our own advocate, taskmaster, coach, and best friend? In essence, how do you get back on the horse?”

E: First, this isn’t necessary each and every time, since (for no reason we can name) some rejection letters and deep edits don’t bother us. That is a blessing—not every negative event precipitates a meaning crisis! But many do. For these, we need to do all of the following: remind ourselves that our efforts matter and that there is nothing to be gained by giving up our creative life; look our current project in the eye and accept the bite of reality—if the project needs a ton of work, we get ready to lift two thousand pounds; avoid our favorite meaning substitutes, like Scotch or sloth, even if to do that requires a formal recovery program; fall back in love with our work by saying, out loud if you dare, “I love you, work!” (and even if you hate it at that moment); and making sure to show up each day without attachment to outcomes—the daily showing up will take care of a lots of crises.

A: Many of the groups and individuals I work with as a writing coach, workshop facilitator and family constellation practitioner have had their creative voices silenced or marginalized by past abuse, denigration of their creativity, life-altering illness or other challenges (my own voice was silenced in that way for many years.) Even though they often doubt either their ability to authentically and meaningfully tell their stories or the value of their personal stories or creations, they are still profoundly called to write and express them. I love what you say in The Van Gogh Blues about combating and soothing fear, the sorrow of unrealized dreams, envy, having been shamed and more by telling yourself, “I am the beauty in life” and by rushing to yourself with kindness and compassion when facing potential meaning crisis. Would you comment more on how this kind of self support can help heal self doubt and other obstacles to creating and finding meaning in one’s creations?

E: The harm done to us affects our basic healthy narcissism and our ability to stand behind the idea that we matter and that our efforts matter. It then becomes our responsibility to be our own best friend, advocate, and existential advisor and remind ourselves constantly that we have worth and value and that the things we long to do, like write or paint beautifully, are permissible and available. Since that harm keeps us off balance, we have to do the work of maintaining our balance each and every day, most sensibly by instituting a creativity practice: one or two sacred hours, preferably first thing each morning, when we attend to our creative needs and make some meaning. There are no curative pills or magic bullets, only the love and attention that we ourselves provide.

A: You write that “most creators feel miserable if few or none of their creative efforts succeed,” but that people who choose the risky path of creating have a responsibility to feel successful no matter how much the “outer world” notices or visibly values their work. I love the phrase you use that “success is not a measure, but a feeling.” Would you comment on how writers can find meaning and feel successful even when year after year, creative project after creative project, the world does not appear to take much notice or support their creative accomplishments?

E: Actually, I don’t think they can. Ultimately, we do need worldly success. But that success may be a long time in coming, even decades, and so for all those decades we have to measure success in ways that fit our situation, celebrating the fact that we are showing up and writing, calling it a success when we finish a page, a chapter, and especially a whole book, feeling pride and a sense of accomplishment when we honorably revise the book as many times as the book requires, and making sure to feel the clear glow of success from persevering, from writing book one, writing book two, and then writing book three, from fathoming and dealing with the marketplace, and so on. These are all successes, which, however, must ultimately be buttressed by acquiring an audience and feeling THAT sort of success.

A: 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.

A: 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.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

My desire to help people creatively face and transcend life’s challenges, to find the meaning and growth available in them, extends beyond my memoir, Riding Grace. Check out, The idea for, came to me one morning at 4 a.m after 12 years of dealing with chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) and healing the wounds of childhood sexual abuse.

Sitting in the darkness, I found myself thinking about other people facing challenges and waking up in the middle of the night, like me—in pain, feeling sad, anxious or lost. Most of all, I imagined those individuals feeling alone—as so many dealing with challenges do—not wanting to wake a friend or family member, unable to call a therapist , even if they had one. Perhaps they didn't even feel like talking to anyone, but needed help. The idea for the website—something people everywhere could access anytime for support—unfolded in an instant.

Facing illness and abuse had completely altered my life, perspectives and relationships, and taught me as much about living fully and compassionately as about handling adversity. I learned many lessons about issues like forgiveness, grieving, courage, healing, developing a support team and found that they represented universal themes that could be applied to anyone's adversity. These and other topics became categories for The emphasis is on perceiving life’s challenges as opportunities for growth, creativity and transformation.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

A Wholeness Inside

I believe that a wholeness that exists in me and everyone else even in the midst of life challenges that seem to be shattering. There is a light in me, in you, even then. I may not always be able to see it at the end of the tunnel, but it is in me. Right this moment. A wholeness that's untouched by what I’m facing. Maybe it seems very small, a tiny spark. Maybe for a moment, I doubt it's there. But it is. When I take a moment to close my eyes, I feel it there. It's the part of me that already knows how to face the challenge, that's already transformed it and learned from it. It's the part that will lead me to whatever other help and support I might need along the way. This in no way minimizes the pain and confusion of the challenge. It's just that this other piece exists simultaneously and is with me always. I can always tap into it. No matter how alone I feel, ultimately, I know that I’m never alone.