Investing meaning in our art
- an interview with Eric Maisel

by Douglas Eby

In the Introduction to his book The Van Gogh Blues: The Creative Person's Path Through Depression, Eric Maisel, PhD writes:

African Canvas: The Art of West African Women"Creators have trouble maintaining meaning. Creating is one of the ways they endeavor to maintain meaning.

"In the act of creation, they lay a veneer of meaning over meaninglessness and sometimes produce work that helps others maintain meaning.

"This is why creating is such a crucial activity in the life of a creator: It is one of the ways, and often the most important way, that she manages to make life feel meaningful. Not creating is depressing because she is not making meaning when she is not creating."

In this interview, he addresses some questions about topics in the book.

Q: You note in the book that "Most creators feel miserable if few or none of their creative efforts succeed."

Many screenwriters never see their hard work produced as a movie, and many actors never get to perform to the level they aspire and train to reach.

How do you counsel artists like these to make meaning, when they seem to depend so much on public awareness and acceptance of their creative work?

Eric Maisel
: A lack of success and a lack of recognition are profound meaning crises that must be addressed just as any meaning crisis must be addressed, with all of our heart and all of our energy.

We have the following options. We reinvest meaning in our art and reinvest meaning in our marketing efforts and make a new go at doing excellent work and also at becoming an excellent advocate for our work, in the hope that this time recognition and success will follow.

That is, we try again, only harder and smarter.

In addition, we invest meaning elsewhere, in other meaning avenues and other meaning containers, and especially in intimate relationships (Van Gogh was happy for one year, when he was in such an intimate relationship).

There are no other existential answers: we try again (perhaps differently and hopefully with a better payoff) and/or we try something new. 

Q: The kinds of anxiety we call stage fright, or fear of the blank canvas (or blank page) -- can these also be related to meaning issues? In what ways, and how do you counsel an artist facing that stage or blank page?

Eric Maisel: When we fear that we do not matter or that our efforts do not matter, we get depressed.

Similarly, the places where we make large investments of meaning, for instance in our performances, paintings, or books, are places of great anxiety, because there is more than our ego on the line, there is our very sense of the meaningfulness of our life.

If the world is not interested in our paintings, for instance, we will be hard-pressed to maintain meaning there; so, when we come to the blank canvas, we can already be a little (or a lot) frightened that a negative reaction to this as-yet-unborn painting will precipitate a meaning crisis.

There is a remarkable dance that is necessary to perform in order to deal with this precise dynamic: we must invest meaning in our effort while at the same time detaching (or divesting meaning) from the outcome.

That is, we say to ourselves, “I will show up—that is what I demand of myself”—and at the same time we say, “I have no way to control the creative process, so I have no way to guarantee an excellent outcome here; all I can do is try.” 

We make the meaning investment in the effort, not in the outcome; and in that way we reduce our experience of anxiety.

Q: Artist Caroline Bertorelli is quoted in the book: "I get depressed quite regularly and often. It used to distress and frustrate me that I have such a tendency. But as I grow older, I see my depression as a valuable time for introspection and deep thinking about life."

Do you find that others are able to experience depression or anxiety as something with positive meaning and value?

Eric Maisel: Many artists try. I believe that it serves us best to learn how to reduce or eliminate both depression and anxiety from our lives, as I do not hold them as useful in any way.

I think that pain is overrated.

That isn’t to say that the following might not happen: you work honorably and well on a creative project, you finish it, you are depleted and no new project wants to come forward, and after a certain amount of time the blues strike, since you aren’t making sufficient meaning and don’t feel quite up to making new meaning.

This sort of depression can creep up on any working artist. The depression is not useful in and of itself but it is a clear signal that the time has come to see if new meaning can be made.

It is the time to get back on the horse and back into the studio. Maybe there is nothing there yet and maybe you will experience days or weeks of nothing particularly generative happening.

Be that as it may, the depression was not a gift; it was merely the warning sign that a meaning crisis was brewing or had erupted—and that action, even if futile at first, was now required.

Q: You write of the "special relationship to addiction and addictive tendencies" of creative people, because the "pressure to make meaning minute-in and minute-out can send anyone scurrying away in full retreat, away from the struggle and toward alcohol, drugs, sex or some other powerful meaning substitute."

In my article "Gifted, Talented, Addicted" I speculate that a number of people with exceptional creative abilities have used drugs and alcohol as self-medication to ease the pain of their sensitivity, or as a way to enhance thinking and creativity.

Beethoven reportedly drank wine about as often as he wrote music, and was reportedly an alcoholic or at least a problem-drinker.)

Can there be some positive, meaning-enhancement uses for what you list as meaning substitutes?

Eric Maisel: In my vernacular, no, because a meaning substitute is just that—not meaningful. It is a “poor substitute” for making intentional meaning.

That isn’t to say that it might not have tremendous blandishments and rewards, activating our pleasure center this way or numbing our pain that way.

But, especially over time, the dangers are profoundly great, as witnessed by the number of creative and performing artists ruined by addiction.

A drink is not a problem; turning to drink as a way to deal with meaning challenges is a problem.

Shopping for a tie is not a problem; turning to acquisition as a way to deal with meaning challenges is a problem.

To the extent that a creative person uses anything or does anything as a way to avoid the challenge of making sufficient meaning, that is a problem—maybe not the first time he does it, maybe not the second time, but certainly when it becomes habitual and a place of dependency.

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Book - The Van Gogh Blues: The Creative Person's Path Through Depression.

Related podcasts by Eric Maisel: Your Purpose-Centered Life.

Related video interview on the page Depression and Creativity.

Interview by Janet Grace Riehl: Eric Maisel's "Van Gogh Blues" Explores Connection and Meaning-making as Treatments for Depression.

Also read interview On his book "Ten Zen Seconds"

Image at top from book: African Canvas: The Art of West African Women, by Margaret Courtney-Clarke.

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Eric Maisel, Ph.D. holds Master's degrees in Creative Writing and Counseling, and a Doctorate in Counseling Psychology. He is a California licensed marriage and family therapist, a creativity coach and trainer of creativity coaches, and teaches through lectures, workshops, and teleseminars.

Dr. Maisel is widely regarded as America's foremost creativity coach and has taught thousands of creative and performing artists how to incorporate Ten Zen Second mindfulness techniques into their creativity practice. See his site for ebooks and more information on his work.

Eric Maisel, Ph.D., is the author of more than thirty books - some titles at right.

Also see more articles by Eric Maisel.

The Van Gogh Blues

Your Best Life in the Arts with Eric Maisel

E-Books by
Eric Maisel

Becoming a Creativity Coach

 The Power of Sleep Thinking
Phoebe Starts Her Novel: 28 Secrets of the Creative Life