Things are getting more and more eccentric at Casa de la Swain. Changing styles in my textile work, falling in love again with painting and photography...and then there is the ever illusive quest for continuing creativity through working with Eric Maisel. Still on the road teaching, posting now at the Ragged Cloth Cafe and taking the pledge to keep handmaiden up to date.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Interview with Eric Maisel on Van Gogh Blues

It is a great pleasure to bring Eric Maisel to you via handmaiden. Here is our recent discussion regarding his book, Van Gogh Blues. Eric is the author of many books, including Creativity for Life, Ten Zen Seconds and A Writer's Paris.

He also conducts a variety of seminars, week long or shorter weekend workshops. Along with this busy schedule, he also manages to train creativity coaches and coach individual artist personally.

Eric's coaching and invaluable experience working with artist of all disciplines has had a profound effect on my own creative life; as well as, the work itself. So, without further ado,let's start the interview.


G: Eric, can you tell us what The Van Gogh Blues is 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.

G: 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.

G: 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.

G: 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.

G: 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”!

G: 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.

G: In Van Gogh Blues you discuss creating a life purpose statement? Could you explain more about the importance of creating a life purpose/plan 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.

G: You list a number of core questions relating to creativity and making meaning in our lives. Do you feel that over time we will alternate between which question applies to us? Or is finding one question that applies to an artist is permanent, not changing over time?

E: There is no one question, just as there is no one meaning. The meaning-making process is a process of constant re-evaluation and ongoing analysis as we not only provide answers to our own questions but also provide ourselves with the right questions. For one period of time the questions may center on productivity, creativity, career, and the like, and during another period of time they may center on relationships, service, and the interpersonal sphere. Even on a single day, we might switch from asking ourselves one sort of question (about what project to tackle) to asking ourselves another sort of question (about how to help our addicted child or what to do about a community problem). Meaning shifts; and so do the questions that we pose to ourselves about how to make and maintain meaning.

Thank you so much for sharing your time with the readers of handmaiden. More information on Eric and how to contact him regarding coaching or learning how to become a creativity coach can be found at the links below. ericmaisel@sbcglobal.netphone 415 824 2113 for information on Eric Maisel's books and services please visit for information on Ten Zen Seconds, the next step in mindfulness practice.

Van Gogh Blues is only available in paperback at this time. Check out Amazon to get your copy or order from Eric's site.


Janet Grace Riehl said...


I particularly love the "vocabulary of meaning tool" Eric shares in The Van Gough Blues. I've been adding some of my own such as "meaning anchor." For me my creative companioning work with my 92-year-old father and creating connections through the arts and across cultures and generations on Riehlife, my blog, are two major "meaning anchors" for me.

Tomorrow Eric continues his book blog tour on Riehlife and we discuss connection...within oneself and creativity in different cultures.

Hope to see you and some of your readers there tomorrow. Bon Voyage on your teaching road trip.

Janet Riehl

Karoda said...

I hope my library has this book...and I've known for a long time that I have an addictive traits but I also was keenly aware of healthy boundaries, but it is still difficult and challenging when I get into a creative trance, or moreso, it is difficult and challenging for my family.

Moonlightress said...

OMG. OMG. I am flabbergasted.
Take a look at my blog heading and personal profile:
( )
Am I not an absolute personification of what you are talking about??? I try to keep my depression out of my art blog, but my creative imperative and my almost 25-year-long depression are completely intertwined.
I HAVE to get hold of this book. THANK YOU!
Karen in South Africa

austere said...

Great start!
I loved the banner, btw- so beautiful.

Anne Marchand said...

Thanks for a great interview Gabrielle. The idea of a whole vocabulary of meaning (in The Van Gogh Blues Book) with ideas and phrases like “meaning effort,” “meaning drain,” “meaning container,” is a useful and active way of looking at the creative process. Eric, as usual, brilliantly describes these passsages that artists go through, with ideas on, not only how to cope, but how to succeed through them.