Creating connections through the arts and across cultures

Dr. Eric Maisel’s “The Van Gogh Blues” explores premise: Creating connection chases depression in visual artists, writers, and performers by strengthening meaning.

Welcome to Day Two of "The Van Gogh Blues" book blog tour. Day One began yesterday on Gabrielle Swain's "Handmaiden," and there are some good comments building a discussion over there.

In “The Van Gogh Blues: The Creative Person's Path through Depression” Dr. Eric Maisel (pronouced May-ZEL) presents a number of useful tools and concepts. One of the immediately useful ones which I’ve taken into my own life and practice is to have a “vocabulary of meaning” in order to access "language to use so that you know what is going on in your life.”

Maisel introduces ideas and phrases such as “meaning effort,” “meaning drain,” and “meaning container.” I have added “meaning anchor,” for instance. Two of my meaning anchors are my work with my 92-year-old father as creative companion and my mission on Riehlife to regularly create connections through the arts and across cultures and generations.

Riehlife continues that work today in an interview with Eric Maisel, celebrating the release of the paperback version of “The Van Gogh Blues” to great critical acclaim. Here we look more deeply into Maisel’s “meaning agenda” (what makes a creative person create and what are the particular challenges creative people face?) as our conversation focuses on Riehlife's theme of connection.--JGR

The Van Gough Blues by Dr. Eric Maisel
"The Van Gogh Blues," by Dr. Eric Maisel

Here’s where to get your own copy of The Van Gogh Blues! Look at the bottom of the post for more resources on learning further about Dr. Maisel's work. I've been enjoying the podcasts on meaning ("Your Purpose Centered Life" on Personal Life Media).

TOMORROW, "The Van Gogh Blues" blog book tour continues on Wednesday, January 16th....check out Trista Hill's interview with Eric. Trista blogs in general about music, art, and all things creative.


Riehlife: Eric, as you know, "connection" is the theme of Riehlife. 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 “Van Gogh Blues”), 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?

Dr. Eric Maisel
Dr. Eric Maisel in his study

Eric Maisel: 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.

I have come to believe the depression that we see in creative people is best conceptualized as existential depression, rather than as biological, psychological, or social depression. This means that the treatment has to be existential in nature. You can medicate a depressed artist, but you probably aren’t really getting at what was bothering her, namely that the meaning had leaked out of her life and that, as a result, she was just going through the motions, paralyzed by her meaning crisis.

Riehlife: Do you think people creating in American culture have a more difficult time making and holding meaning for themselves and their work than creative workers in Europe, let's say?

Eric Maisel: 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 want 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.

Riehlife: Do you find any difference between creative media in how the process of making and 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?

Eric Maisel: 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: for instance, put on a one-woman show or put out an album of their own music.

These are just a few of the differences that arise among the different genres and disciplines.

Riehlife: On page 176 of "The Van Gogh Blues" 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?

Eric Maisel: 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.


Resource notes: Listen to Dr. Eric Maisel’s ground-breaking work on creativity by subscribing to his two podcast shows, The Joy of Living Creatively and Your Purpose-Centered Life, both on the Personal Life Media Network where you can find a show lists for "The Joy of Living Creatively" and "Your Purpose-Centered Life".

Writers can check out Eric’s new book, A Writer’s Space, which appears this spring which looks at many existential issues in the lives of writers.

Wanna subscribe to a free newsletter, previewing material that ends up in Dr. Maisel's books?

Here are two beautiful websites to find out more about Eric Maisel's books and services: and for "Ten Zen Seconds", presenting tools in mindfulness practice tailored for creative folk.

By all means continue following the blog book tour schedule for “The Van Gogh Blues”, since each host on the tour will be asking different questions, in addition to the basic information on Eric and the newly-released book. Here's the complete tour schedule.

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14 Responses »

  1. Janet,
    Great interview. The connections questions brought a new aspect of Eric's of the things I think he does best. Thanks for your thoughtful work and for showing how Eric's cocahing is vital to any discipline.

  2. Thanks for hosting Dr Maisel's blog tour. Very interesting reading.

  3. Interesting interview, Janet. Especially the part about "self connection." How every part of our lives.

  4. Janet,
    Wonderful interview. Especially interesting the comparison of American creative culture to Europe. Maybe I need to move 🙂

  5. So much of what Dr. Maisel talks of is familiar psychiatric territory. The difference, for me, is in his gift of words that shift the perspective and, therefore, the understanding of depression. Thanks, Janet, for another great interview.

  6. Being aware of my connection to other aspects of myself fuels my creativity. When I allow my consciousness the freedom to unite within me,amazing things appear. As Eric points out, in order to flow freely in my creativity I need to take responsibility for my intent. In doing so I become an expression of my conneceted consciousness and meaning filled self.
    Thanks for the wonderful interview.

  7. Janet and Eric- Very interesting! As an artist and a writer this helped me think about the differences in the audience for art and writing. On the general topics I find that painting with other artists is an upbeat way to connect with creative people, hear about exhibits, and enjoy the process of creating. I will look for the book in a bookstore.

  8. Fascinating - thanks for pointing me to this, Janet. I sent the link on to a couple of writing friends. I also loved your "Year One Report Card" post. You are creating a magazine on your blog - I'm in awe of your ability to bring in other voices and weave a community here in cyberspace, as well as in your gathering room at home. Good for you!


  9. Glad I found my way here. Thanks for the interview...and now I've found more interesting things to read.

  10. Great interview, Janet.

    I came here before as well but was at a loss for words.

  11. Great interview Janet!
    Eric Maisel's insight that each artist has a different task in how to rediscover meaning in their lives is important to understand. Our roles may vary but the idea of taking sole responsibility for meaning making efforts gives artists a vital tool to move forward.

  12. Nice interview.
    Eric's approach resonates with me, even though I may have heard the same information elsewhere. Sometimes it isn't what you say, so much as how you say it that matters.


  1. Interview with Eric Maisel on meaning and depression, by Janet Riehl
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