A selection from The Van Gogh Blues
By Eric Maisel, PhD | Posted 9/15/07 | Updated 5/8/23
In order for you to live an authentic, meaningful life, which is the principal remedy for the depression creative people experience, you must feel that:
These are three separate but related tasks, each with its own logic, demands, and obstacles.
Because these three tasks are truly separate, it is entirely possible to construct a simple life plan that makes meaning sense to you — say, that you will write truthfully and love deeply — as you embark on a difficult writing project that consumes you but that you can't bring to fruition and find that your days feel meaningless because your creative efforts are failing and your intimate life is on hold. In this scenario, your life plan feels meaningful but your actual work and your actual days do not.
Conversely, an earthquake may strike your city and cause a great catastrophe that forces you to let go of your life plan and dive into rescue efforts. Oddly, these days are likely to feel more meaningful than your days struggling with your writing did, as helping others carries with it built-in meaning. In this scenario, your days feel meaningful, but at night you will be struck by the feeling that you are "merely" living since you are not doing your chosen work or living according to your life plan.
All sorts of permutations and combinations of these three tasks are possible. The ideal combination, of course, is that your life plan feels meaningful to you and you actually live it; that the work you've chosen to do feels meaningful to you and you actually do it; and that your days, spent primarily doing your work and living your life plan, feel filled with meaning. To reach this goal, you must consciously hold the following four intentions:
The more abstract our life plan, the easier it will be to feel good about it but the harder it will be to know concretely what we are affirming. The more concrete our life plan, the easier it will be to know what our tasks are but the more likely we are to overwhelm ourselves with tasks and narrow our possibilities.
If my life plan is "to love and to create," I have a strong, affirmative guiding principle that I can easily remember. But I still must flesh it out if it is to have any real meaning. If, conversely, my life plan is "to write an excellent novel every year, selling and promoting each one after it is written, marry and have three children, have lots of friends and make music with them, investigate every subject that piques my interest, and stand up for truth, beauty, and goodness while convincing others that truth, beauty, and goodness are the highest ideals," then I have set out with considerable clarity what I intend to do with my life, but I have also boxed myself into a corner. Now I need not only children, but three children and not only many novels written and published, but one a year and each a success. This specific life plan, with its many hard-to-achieve goals, practically guarantees a regular and maybe even constant upsetness with the facts of existence.
Given that both approaches entail difficulties, which is better to put into place, a short, abstract life plan sentence or a long, detailed one? If you were holding just one intention, to live your life plan, then a detailed life plan would prove necessary. But because you must hold four intentions — to live your life plan, to do worthy work, to make your time feel meaningful, and to coordinate these three tasks — you should create a brief life plan sentence that allows for maximum flexibility and that provides a memorable reminder of your goals on Earth. Then add details and necessary complexity when you flesh out your other intentions.
You want to articulate your life plan in a single sentence that includes a statement about your personal ethics, a statement about realizing your potential, and a statement about relationships. The life plan sentence you craft might sound like one of the following:
Creating a sentence of this sort and using it as the actual blueprint of your life are profoundly important tasks. They help keep you on track so that when a particular sculpture fails, you can say, "I made a mess. But I know what I have to do next, which is simply to try again. I can start now or I can resume tomorrow and do some other worthy thing for the rest of today, like love or be of service." The ruination of one sculpture counts for very little in the context of your firmly held life plan.
Your life plan provides an internal yardstick against which your current behaviors can be measured. Instead of not knowing in a given situation whether, say, to speak up or keep silent — whether to tell off a particular literary agent or hold your peace, whether to march against a government action or merely shake your head ironically, whether to withdraw your support from a project or shut one eye and accept the moral imperfection of the situation — you remind yourself of your life plan sentence, test the moment against your plan's intent, and intuitively recognize what path to take.
The very existence of your life plan has a deeply calming effect. Just as a believer is calmed by his belief in a supernatural being who is on his side or, if not on his side, at least not indifferent to his existence, a creator is calmed by having something to believe in that he himself has affirmed. His life plan sentence is his announcement that he intends to mean, and while it does not spell out specific meaning intentions, it provides an outline that is no more vague or less momentous than a believer's belief in gods.
When a person creates, he has many goals in mind. To focus on just two, he wants to do masterful work, and he also wants to do meaningful work. These are not only different goals, but they often stand in opposition. It is possible to master a small corner of a particular intellectual discipline but not find it meaningful to restrict oneself to that corner. It is possible to master a certain painting style but not find it meaningful to endlessly repeat oneself in that style. It is possible to perfect a literary formula and at the same time hate your lack of writing depth. It is possible to create a technology business that makes money and runs beautifully and simultaneously find your product pointless.
The painter Robert Farber, confronted by the reality of his HIV disease, reported in Andrea Vaucher's Muses from Chaos and Ash:
Three years ago I was doing only large abstract work, color fields. It was very impersonal and influenced by landscape. Then I got tired of all of that; I wanted to change everything around artistically. In therapy I was exploring the dysfunctionalism of my family. I decided that I wanted to explore nightmares that were always part of my experience, a horror I was always drawn to. At the same time, I wanted to tell the story of what it was like to use drugs in the seventies and eighties. So I started doing completely different work, figurative work. I tried to capture not only the horror of that kind of voracious pleasure seeking but the craziness of it. But intermingled with that were also personal demons that I was exorcising. This culminated with a major piece that I felt said it all: what it was like to be on drugs, the downtown scene, the pleasure and the sex and all the craziness of it.
There is no good way for a creator to answer the question of whether he should move from abstraction to realism or from realism to abstraction, from poetry to prose or from prose to poetry, from collage to film or from film to collage, except by understanding his meaning intentions and by fathoming what he considers worthy work. It isn't that he must be able to articulate what constitutes worthy work, since it is difficult to put our thoughts into words as clearly and eloquently as Farber does in the preceding passage. But he needs to cultivate an intuitive sense of what he means by worthy work and to learn how to measure whether the creative work he means to tackle meets his own standards.
Is his budding idea for a novel worthy in his own eyes? Are his scientific pursuits worthy in his own eyes? Is his software product worthy in his own eyes? First, he must want to know. That is, he must hold the intention to investigate whether the creative work he undertakes is worthy in his own eyes. Second, he needs to actually know, to be able to distinguish in his own mind, quite imperfectly but nevertheless in a real way, between worthy and unworthy projects.
The subject of worthy creative work will occupy a later chapter. The point to remember for now is that it is vitally important that creative people put on the table the fact that they are intending to create worthy work. They can still compose musical comedies, investigate abstract mathematical ideas, paint all-red paintings, or write romances — but only if they consider these activities worthy and approach these activities righteously. By consciously announcing to themselves that they have set the bar high and intend to take their creative lives seriously, endeavoring to do work that is both masterful and meaningful, they take a giant step in the direction of forcing life to mean.
Q: What is The Van Gogh Blues about?
A: 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, we are looking at existential depression? Or might that person be depressed in "some other way"?
A: 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: 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?
A: 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: Could you explain more about the importance of creating a life plan sentence/statement?
A: 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.
Q: 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?
A: 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.
Q: 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?
A: 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.
Q: 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?
A: 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.
Q: Do you think people creating in American culture have a more difficult time holding/making meaning for themselves and their work than creative workers in Europe, let's say?
A: Yes. The very construction of European society, where people have more days off and more freedom to sit in a café and write, draw, dream, or chat, makes it easier for people to deeply consider how they what to represent themselves and how they want to make themselves proud. That is why European movies are "more meaningful" than American movies: our culture is dominated by the idea of happy endings and by clichéd and superficial examinations of the facts of existence. Because of our insidious pop culture, mass media, and bottom line-driven dynamics, it is harder for a creative person here to feel motivated to do the kind of meaningful work that is in his or her heart to do.
Q: Do you find any difference between creative media in how the process of losing meaning can happen? Do painters and writers or musicians and actors have a substantially different experience, or is the core of the experience the same?
A: There are many angles to this question, but let me focus on just two. Visual artists often produce one-of-a-kind products and have a hard time finding it meaningful that just one person will own that product, whereas writers can reach multiple "customers" with their creations. So the visual artist has to make personal sense of this issue and figure out how to let it "still be meaningful" that her painting may end up on the wall of a doctor's waiting room or as one among many paintings in a collector's back room. On an entirely different note, re-creative artists like actors and musicians often have to deal with the feeling that they are "only" serving the meaning needs of others — the composer, the screenwriter, the director — and often decide that they must also create as well as re-create: put on a one-woman show, put out an album of their own music, etc. These are just a few of the differences that arise among the different genres and disciplines.
Q: You mention some of the difficulties that can occur in creative communities when creators attempt to come together and connect with one another. You also refer to "marvels of relating," a phrase I love. What are some steps we can take to improve our chances of giving and receiving these "marvels of relating" within creative community?
A: The most important internal movement is toward the belief that other people exist and that other people count. It is very easy to drift from taking sole responsibility for your meaning-making efforts, which is good thing, to a grandiose, arrogant, selfish, and narcissistic place where "only you count." On the other side of the coin, if you grew up in an environment where the messages you received were about being seen and not heard, about blending in and not standing up for yourself, and so on, then you need to find the courage to stand up for yourself, to maintain healthy boundaries, and to exert your power as the meaning-maker of your own life. One artist may have as his central task treating others better; another artist may have as her central task standing up taller.
Q: 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?
A: 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."
Q: When she feels the blues descending, what questions could an artist ask herself to locate the source of her discontent?
A: 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.
©2007 Eric Maisel. All rights reserved.
This series is based on The Van Gogh Blues: The Creative Person's Path Through Depression. Copyright ©2007 by Eric Maisel. Published with permission from NewWorldLibrary.com.
Eric Maisel, PhD, is the author of more than fifty books in the areas of creativity, the creative life, coaching, life purpose and meaning, writing, and critical psychology and critical psychiatry. ...