Painting by Van Gogh
The Creative Impulse : A Quest through Maisel's ‘The Van Gogh Blues’

The Creative Impulse

A Quest through Maisel's ‘The Van Gogh Blues’

Reflections Along the ‘Creative Person's Path through Depression’

By Chris Dunmire | Updated 2/28/16

The Van Gogh BluesEric Maisel's The Van Gogh Blues: The Creative Person's Path through Depression was a finalist in the Books for a Better Life Award through Rodale books in 2002. In 2008, New World Library released the paperback edition with this introduction:

"Vincent Van Gogh's depression was so severe that he cut off his own ear and has come to be remembered as an icon representing the lives of tortured artists everywhere. And he is not alone. Depression and anxiety seem to come with the territory for artists, writers, actors, and other creative types regardless of the specific medium with which they express themselves."

Maisel, a coach, therapist, and author of dozens of books on creativity and meaning writes, "I believe that depression in creative individuals is best thought of as a meaning crisis caused by chronic, persistent uneasiness, irritation, anger, and sadness about the facts of existence and life's apparent lack of meaning."

Through Van Gogh Blues, Maisel addresses this meaning crisis and the depression it brings. He writes, "In order to counter this kind of depression, creators must become meaning experts, learning to navigate through the terrain of meaning. They must engage in conversation with themselves about what is meaningful — and then work a plan to create that meaning."

Following is a reflective guide I've produced to help readers of The Van Gogh Blues make the most of their journey through the book. Questions are organized by chapter and discuss ideas fleshed out in the text, so an accompanying copy of the book is highly recommended.


Questions for Reflection/Discussion:

Maisel asserts the cliche “creativity and depression go hand-in-hand” is true and that “creators are not necessarily afflicted with some biological disease or psychological disorder … but are caught up in a struggle to make life seem meaningful to them.”

  • Do you agree with these statements?
  • What is your personal experience with creativity and depression?
  • What is your view on the “prevailing theory” of the cause of depression?
  • Does your view support biological or psychological treatment in a severe case of depression?

Chapter 1: Two Meaning Casualties

Questions for Reflection/Discussion:

Maisel writes that as you read this chapter “you will come to understand what a meaning expert is, what she does, and why you must become one.”

  • Was that understanding fulfilled by the end of this chapter?

Maisel states that a meaning expert would tell a client that “the task of meaning making rests squarely on their shoulders” and they have to “come to grips with what they intend their life to mean in order for their depression to lift.”

  • If you are currently in the ‘depressed client’s’ shoes, try to slip on the ‘meaning expert’s’ shoes to fully understand what this means.
  • How has your perception changed?

Chapter 2: Reflecting on Meaning

Questions for Reflection/Discussion:

Regarding a “vocabulary” centered on meaning issues, Maisel uses terms such as: meaning crisis, meaning restoration, leaky vessel, meaning containers, and meaning problems.

  • Do you understand what these terms imply? (If not, use the glossary in the back of the book to help you.)
  • What strategies can you employ to address issues involving them?

Maisel invites you to engage in a self-reflection about the meaning of your life.

  • Can you do this, being mindful towards “discarding the easy answers?”

Chapter 3: Meaningful Life, Meaningful Work, Meaningful Days

Questions for Reflection/Discussion:

Maisel provides four intentions that must be held in order for you to live an authentic, meaningful life.

  • Based on his explanation of each, how can you “articulate” answers for the first three intentions?
  • What types of questions or guidance do you need in order to articulate a life plan that feels meaningful, work that feels worthy, and time (the seconds, hours, weeks, and years in your life) made to feel meaningful?
  • How would you put the first three intentions into practice in a coordinated way?

Chapter 4: Sounding Silence

Questions for Reflection/Discussion:

Maisel shares a “simple model used in cognitive psychology for dealing with the serious problem of negative self-talk.”

  • How can you use this three-step program model?

Maisel sums up the chapter with the powerful conclusion that “you are what you think,” and describes the deep work and self-training needed to make meaning-making possible.

  • What do you think you are?

Chapter 5: Opting to Matter

Questions for Reflection/Discussion:

Maisel explains that “opting to matter” means seven things, and lists them.

  • How do you feel about each of these ideals in application to yourself?

Maisel argues against accepting “postmodern meaninglessness” by answering with compelling reasons why we have to “come back to mattering.”

  • Can you offer additional reasons that support this argument?

Chapter 6: Reckoning with the Facts of Existence

Questions for Reflection/Discussion:

Maisel addresses the question “What are the facts of existence with which a creator must reckon?”

  • Based on this description, can you name some “facts of existence” that you wrestle with?

Maisel draws a parallel between the myth of Sisyphus and how it is possible to “reckon with the facts of existence” as a creator in a cruel universe.

  • How does this parallel impact your own “reckoning with the facts of existence?”

Chapter 7: Braving Anxiety

Questions for Reflection/Discussion:

Maisel describes the fundamental “anxiety cycle” at play in creative people’s lives.

  • How will being aware of this cycle help you?

Maisel discusses a common linguistic trick we play called the “yes, but” trick.

  • Do you use this trick often?
  • How will becoming more aware of it in yourself and others help you to be more honest and truth-telling?

Chapter 8: Nurturing Self-Support

Questions for Reflection/Discussion:

Maisel offers the affirmation “I am the beauty in life” to help creators change their mind and heal their hearts.

  • What do you think about this affirmation?
  • Is it true for you? Explain.

Maisel writes, “A vital aspect of self-support is reminding yourself that success is not a measure but a feeling.”

  • How thought-transforming is this new attitude for you in a downward-spiral of success-measuring?

Chapter 9: Disputing Your Happy Bondages

This chapter details how addiction, like depression, is a meaning problem, and that “restoring meaning is the centerpiece solution to the problem.”

Questions for Reflection/Discussion:

Maisel describes the usual “path” to an addiction.

  • How will understanding the precipitators to this path aid you in dealing with your addictions?
  • What is an addiction?

Maisel discusses why a “happy bondage” is anything but happy and outlines the “Addicts Task” if you are to dispute your happy bondage and prevent the addiction from winning.

  • What further suggestions can you make if you’re struggling with an addiction?

Chapter 10: Confronting Narcissism

Questions for Reflection/Discussion:

Maisel distinguishes between healthy narcissism and unhealthy narcissism. Note that both can contribute to meaning problems and depression.

  • Can you gauge any type of narcissism you exhibit?

Maisel lists eight ways to reduce unhealthy narcissism and increase healthy narcissism.

  • Choose one (or two) and describe how you will address them?

Chapter 11: Repairing the Self

Questions for Reflection/Discussion:

Regarding the chance to repair oneself, Maisel states, “It is on your remaining freedom that you must bank everything.”

  • How do you characterize that freedom?

Maisel sums up the chapter with pointed questions about self-repair.

  • How would you answer them?

Chapter 12: Forging Relationships

Questions for Reflection/Discussion:

Maisel states that “intimacy is neither a myth nor impossibility.”

  • Do you agree? Explain.

Maisel brings out that “Unfriendly relationships between two artists is all too common,” but yet, “there will be more meaning in a creator’s life if they forge relationships with other creators.”

  • If you are an artist (of any kind), what is the benefit in forging these relationships?

Chapter 13: Meaningfully Creating

Questions for Reflection/Discussion:

Maisel notes, “The centerpiece of a meaningful life for creators is meaningful creating.”

  • How do you know when you are engaged in meaningful creating?

Maisel describes the state of “soulfulness” that creators regularly feel when they fully engage in the creative process.

  • Can you identify with this feeling?
  • Can you describe how it felt the last time you were in this state?

Chapter 14: Taking Action

Questions for Reflection/Discussion:

Maisel states that “There is no meaning without action,” and “meaning does not exist until it is made and that life has no meaning until a meaning is forced upon it.”

  • Have you resisted taking action? How will you begin taking action?

Maisel illustrates several ways he might assist clients to “act out” singing, painting, or writing in order to “enact a problem in real time.”

  • Will you consider doing something like this on your own?

Chapter 15: Making Meaning

Questions for Reflection/Discussion:

Maisel makes note of a “practiced response” that will be needed to thwart off meaning threats and meaning crises“ or else paralysis and depression will set in.”

  • Do you have the courage form these practiced responses?

Maisel introduces the concept “for the sake of the peach.”

  • What does this illustration bring up in you?
  • How will it help you?

About Chris Dunmire

Chris is a deeply engaged creative spirit, lover of wit, words, and wisdom, and the driving force behind the award-winning Creativity Portal® Web site. [...]

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