Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Eric Maisel and The Van Gogh Blues

I’ve always intended for this blog to be not just about visual comedy, but to use what I’ve learned as a professional fool to inspire creative people and to share resources that have been helpful to me. Today we have an interview with creativity coach and author Eric Maisel who is visiting Think Foolishly on his blog tour to spread the word about his book, The Van Gogh Blues:The Creative Person’s Path through Depression.

I have had my own bouts with depression over the years, most recently at the end of this past summer and into the fall, set in motion by some major professional set-backs and criticism, causing me to question my career as a performer. Eric Maisel would call this a meaning crisis and it was re-reading this book that helped me to crawl out of that depression and accomplish some of the things I thought I just didn’t care about anymore. Was I thinking foolishly or what?

Of course, we have the cliché of the crying-on-the-inside clown, and the apocryphal story of the famous clown being told by his doctor (who didn’t recognize him) to cheer himself up by going to see that famous clown playing down the road (who happened to be the patient). Imagining that to make people laugh, one has to be sad and troubled is one of those romantic stories that often does more harm than good. You can draw from those experiences for humor and inspiration, but perpetuating them can quickly snuff out the creative flame.


Q: What is The Van Gogh Blues 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.

Q: Are you saying that whenever a creative person is depressed, they have existential depression? Or could that person be depressed in other ways?

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.

Q: What else can help a creative person to keep making meaning?

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.

Q. How do you see using humor and embracing absurdity playing a part in making meaning and fighting depression?

E: This is an actually a very tricky question, because if we don’t approach life with a certain requisite seriousness we won’t manifest enough “metal” to actually make our meaning, but at the same time we want to experience joy and fun and we are obliged to embrace our “absurd” condition. Isn’t this yet another one of our amazing life tasks, taking life seriously while honoring its absurdity? If we had to fall out of balance in either direction, however, I think falling in the direction of humor might do us the most good!

Q. When I was working on my first solo show, my acting teacher helpfully told me to remember that when I am rehearsing in the studio, no one cares that I am there. Instead of getting depressed, I took great power from that advice and continue to use it with joy. What makes the difference between perceiving something seemingly negative with despair versus empowerment?

E: The main difference is that we recognize that the thing we are doing is an integral part of our meaning-making efforts and not a meaningless or mindless pursuit of no interest to anyone, including ourselves. If I am thinking, “This practice time is pointless,” then I will get depressed, but if I am thinking, “This practice time is a necessary link in the meaning chain I am constructing,” then I will at least get on with it, whether or not it is bringing me complete joy. If a task actually does serve our meaning-making needs, then we need to remind ourselves that it is doing that work and sanctify it that way.

Q. Actors/Performers are often told they are their own instruments. That lack of separation between themselves and their work can often make them more vulnerable to criticism and meaning crises than the artists who can distance themselves from their books or paintings. What can performers do who feel they just gave a bad performance and think that they have no choice but to take it personally ("They didn't like me!")?

E: Immediately switch “They didn’t like me” to “What do I think of my performance?” You return that arbitration to yourself. If you liked the performance, then the issue is settled (though of course you may still have to gauge whether the sort of thing you are doing is wanted, even if it is good). If you didn’t like the performance, you can analyze the matter and work to get better or you can slough it off as one of those performances that just didn’t work. The main thing is to return the matter to your own honest but kind arbitration, with you the sole arbiter of whether or not what you are doing makes sense to do and is turning out well or poorly.

Q. Do you have any foolish (wisely unorthodox) tactics that you use with your creative clients or yourself to help solve artistic problems?

The one that comes to mind is making risk more palpable, to remove its sting. We all know that a creative life is a risky life and so we now that we must take uncomfortable risks in order to succeed. Often we are scared of taking those risks without knowing that we are scared. To rid yourself of that fear (which you may not even know is there), stand at the edge of your rug and imagine plummeting into a great chasm—and then step off the rug. Take the plunge. Feel the fear—and the exhilaration. It may look to the world foolish to be leaping off your rug into the Grand Canyon, but you’ll know why you’re doing it!

Q: 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.

Q: 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”!

Q: How else can my readers find out about 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.


Lois J. de Vries said...

As a perfectionist,it's very hard for me to think of my writing or gardening activities in terms of "practicing." I love Eric's comment about links in the meaning chain.


austere said...

You have very nice questions.

And I loved the movie, thank you.

Janet Grace Riehl said...

Drew, I love the tag line for your blog: "Visual Comedy and Creativity blog for performers and artistic problem solvers. There is an art to foolery and foolery in all the arts."

Your questions to Eric about balancing silliness and seriousness, practicing and performing are so important. The work you are doing is instantly transferrable to other art forms, and indeed, to the art of living a graceful life.

Thanks for the thoughtful questions you posed which led to such interesting answers.

Janet Riehl

Trista Hill said...

Hey, fellow OU grad! Do you miss Athens? My sister lives there now so I get to visit...

I loved your questions, and relate very much to those about performing. So hard to take your passions and not become attached to them in a way that feedback becomes personal and debilitating. Continuing to put your good work out in the world -- and believing someone will benefit because its fromn the heart -- sounds like exactly what you are doing.

Love your work; keep it up. Glad to have "met" you.