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Review of "The Van Gogh Blues"

By Eric Maisel
Rodale Press, 2002
Review by April Chase on Jan 21st 2004
The Van Gogh Blues

Caution: If you are a creative person - which in the context of this book means and artist, writer, scientist, mathematician, computer programmer or anyone else involved in the tricky mental process of making something new - then reading this book may be a difficult and painful experience for you. However, try to tough your way through it, because the benefits of successfully completing Maisel's program could mean a personal and professional renaissance for you.

Drawing upon his many years as a psychotherapist and creativity coach, Maisel tackles the tough subject of depression in creative people, which he contends is quite different from so-called normal depression. Although creators can often be helped by conventional treatments including medication and therapy, their depression requires another, special level of care involving a great deal of introspection and honest self-examination (the painful part), plus plenty of hard work.

"Creators have trouble maintaining meaning," explains Maisel. "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 order to combat these "meaning crises," creative people must become "meaning experts" and learn how to make their lives and accomplishments feel meaningful.  Through examining what makes them feel happy (meaningful) and what makes them feel bad (meaningless), Maisel advises that creators develop a life plan to help guide them through the sense of despair that often arises when their projects seem less than satisfactory.  Using this plan, along with the other actions Maisel outlines, the creator can lead a balanced, contented life with a minimum of anxiety, which is, of course, the classic response to a crisis. 

So why must a creative person conquer anxiety? Because, Maisel writes, "Anxiety is causing all of this: the indecisiveness, the mental fog, the physical pain, the loss of energy, the creative blockage, deflections and disappointments of all sorts."

One of the most common ways that anxiety shoots down creativity is through procrastination. "Many of the clients I see complain of procrastination. Instead of starting off a Sunday turning right to their creative efforts, first they write in their journal, then they read the newspaper, then they have a third cup of coffee, then they head out to the Laundromat. It turns out that they will do almost anything to ward off the anxiety they might feel if they said to themselves, 'Time to create!'" From procrastination, it is a short step to feelings of despair and futility severe enough to derail any further creative efforts. The end result of this vicious cycle is depression profound enough to "debilitate any creator, even the most strong-willed and self-directing," writes Maisel.

However, he offers some practical tips for how to circumvent this system and become a self-supporting (mentally, anyway, that is) artist. Foremost among these is simply to be aware of the reactions and thoughts that come up and throw you off course. If you know what to expect, you can probably head it off and avoid a "meaning crisis." In addition, he advises that the creator avoid what he calls "happy bondages" like drug and alcohol use and other addictive behaviors, and that they learn to confront narcissism and develop it only in healthy ways. He includes specific advice on developing relationships (which is often a problem for creators) and remaining true to your creative vision, as opposed to creating what you think other people will want/buy. And then there is the vital last chapter, the point of which is obvious from the title: "Taking Action."

This book was hard to read, for a couple of reasons. First, unfortunately, it starts out slow and is a bit dry in spots. Resist the temptation to put it down, as it gets better.  Second, it hit very close to home on several issues - yes, I procrastinate - and so a sort of denial reaction set in for me, where I said huffily to myself, "This is a very stupid book that could not possibly apply to anyone!" However, once I took Maisel's advice and faced up to my own meaning crises, I had to admit that the book really was rather helpful. My review copy is plastered with dozens of little sticky notes - a sure sign that I found plenty to think about. While even Maisel admits that there may be no way to completely wipe out those bouts of existential angst, The Van Gogh Blues certainly will be a useful tool to help the creator minimize and control them.


© 2004 April Chase

 April Chase is a freelance journalist and book reviewer who lives in Western Colorado. She is a regular contributor to a number of publications, including The Business Times of Western Colorado and Dream Network Journal.

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