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Review of "The Van Gogh Blues"

By Eric Maisel
New World Library, 2007
Review by Mary Hrovat on Feb 17th 2009
The Van Gogh Blues

Depression is a bewilderingly multifaceted problem, with links to biochemistry, lifestyle, environment, relationships, and past or recent experiences. If you're depressed, choosing how to frame your experiences and feelings and what to focus on can help you decide how to approach the problem and deal successfully with it. If you happen to be a creative person, you may find Eric Maisel's The Van Gogh blues uniquely helpful. Maisel examines the subject from a very specific viewpoint: the existential crises that he believes lie at the heart of a creative person's depression.

Maisel recognizes that antidepressants, lifestyle changes, psychotherapy, or other types of therapy may well help alleviate depression and advises readers to consider such methods and use them if they do help. However, he thinks that for creative people, more is needed. The central problem for them is that they have trouble maintaining meaning, and are prone to crises involving their understanding of what their lives mean, or should mean. They use their creative efforts to impose order and meaning where none existed before, and are vulnerable to depression when the quest for meaning runs off the rails somehow.

A psychotherapist and creativity coach who has worked extensively with creative people, Maisel has written numerous nonfiction books on the creative process, as well as novels. Thus, he draws on years of experience. He interprets creativity broadly, addressing not just artists and writers but anyone who expends mental effort to produce original work, including scientists and other academics.

The underlying assumption of the book is the existentialist belief that we must make up for ourselves the meaning our lives should have. While this point of view involves significant freedom, finding and living with a personally crafted meaning can require strength and courage. Maisel believes that for a creative person, the task of shaping and refining life's meaning is a central and ongoing process. Meaning can suddenly drain or slowly leak out of life: when a major work is completed, when a new work won't gel, when a decision must be made about the multitude of possibilities for a project, when the meaning being created wears thin and meaninglessness starts to seep through, or simply in the inevitability of moments dedicated to something other than creating (working a day job, tending to chores, even taking much-needed breaks).

To deal with depression, then, creative people need to become experts on the psychological mechanics of how meaning is generated, grows, and fades, so that they can learn how to manage the meaning-making process more effectively, especially at moments of vulnerability. Maisel acknowledges that cultivating and maintaining meaning can be a difficult challenge, and that creative people must often work hard to rise to meet the challenge. He offers plenty of help and support, though, providing tasks and questions to consider that are aimed at helping people commit to making their lives mean something and follow through on the commitment. Vignettes and quotes describing the experiences of artists and academics help make his points clear.

The book covers fairly standard depression-related topics such as anxiety, old emotional wounds, addiction, and relationships, but with a special emphasis on how they are affected by the deep need for meaning that drives creativity. While this approach is not for everyone, I think it can be extraordinarily useful for the book's chosen audience. The identification of the central concerns and processes involved in depression rang true for me, while also providing new insight that helped me begin to recast my own experiences in a different, more hopeful, light. The understanding and encouragement conveyed by the book are stronger for being realistic and for placing responsibility on the reader.

A section at the end of the book provides a "vocabulary of meaning," a list of phrases designed to help readers contemplate, understand, and manage the ebb and flow of meaning in their lives. Maisel gives examples of how each term might be used, and invites readers to consider for themselves how they might cope with a meaning disruption, seek out meaning adventures, or deal with meaning risks. For the creative person, working with this list and digesting the lessons of the book may well provide, as the title promises, a path through depression.

© 2009 Mary Hrovat


Mary Hrovat is a freelance science writer and editor; she has written about science and information technology for Indiana University's Research & Creative Activity magazine, Indiana Alumni Magazine, and Discovery Online. She also posts news items, book reviews, and articles on the Thinking Meat Project [], which deals with brain science, psychology, human evolution, and related topics

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