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Guide The Van Gogh Blues: The Creative Persons Path Through Depression

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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.


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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.

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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. Welcome to Metapsychology. We feature over in-depth reviews of a wide range of books and DVDs written by our reviewers from many backgrounds and perspectives.

The Van Gogh Blues The Creative Persons Path Through Depression

We update our front page weekly and add more than twenty new reviews each month. Our editor is Christian Perring, PhD. Working from my personal experiences of depression, I have positioned my coaching practice to specialize in working with writers and artists who are prone to depression. My tagline, Wrestling the Angel, is an allusion to the existential struggle to create meaning.

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I have always been drawn more to working with the issues of psychology and mental health around creating, rather than teaching craft itself. If you invest a lot of identity and meaning into creating, and then that desire to create is thwarted, it can lead to a depressive state that no productivity technique or pep talk can overcome. I appreciate the way that Maisel integrates a compassionate understanding of the existential challenges of creating with a pragmatic and optimistic approach to dispatching them.

I try to model that approach by listening, empathizing, and affirming the difficulties of creating while also staying steadfast in my belief that these difficulties can be addressed and offering specific techniques and practices to do so. Dealing with depression, doubt, and despair comes up often with the clients I work with.

She was treating her depression with medication and therapy but still struggling with procrastination and overwhelm. Another client has chronic depression and anxiety and other health issues that she is working on with a therapist and physician. One of my important jobs as her coach is to help her hold fast to the meaning of her writing, affirming her persistence and her abilities, helping her recognize her own self-sabotage and make choices related to her projects, her writing process, and her support network.

The fact that it can morph into a physical illness makes it no less formidable. Why bother? I encourage clients to notice these meaning shifts often indicated by feelings of depression or doubt and make new decisions about where to make meaning investments of time, energy, and identity. Are there any exercises that you can develop from this book to use with your clients? Or did the book contain any exercises from the author that you would like to use with clients?

However, some of the concepts do lead into exercises that I use. In dealing with anxiety, I have clients tell me or write down the thoughts and excuses that are keeping them from their creative work. Then we explore together what the underlying anxieties might be that prompt them to use these excuses.


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Difficulty choosing a project, for example, often masks worries that a project will fail or be a waste of time. So we question the definition of failure or come to grips with the real risks and rewards of committing to an idea.

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I also have clients get specific about their goals or desired outcomes for a project, or even their creative career as a whole. This exercise helps us see where their meaning goals are short-term or long-term, goals that can be met in the creative process or only after completion, goals that are within their control or not. Then we can recalibrate to make sure that their needs for meaning are being met immediately, daily, in ways they can influence, so they can sustain their creative efforts.

Would you recommend this book to a client to read? Can you think of a situation when a client might benefit from this book? The Van Gogh Blues is a book I recommend often to clients in conjunction with Rethinking Depression , which includes practical steps for creating a meaning practice. I recommend it specifically if a client mentions a history or symptoms of depression such as anhedonia lack of enjoyment , sadness, or doubt about the significance of their life and work. We had 20 participants, and it was illuminating to see how they responded to reading the book and answering questions about each chapter over the course of six weeks.

Most of all, people appreciated having a safe environment where they could talk about their experience of depression openly, without worrying about stigma or judgment. People appreciated being able to read in a group and think more deeply about the content. Not everyone felt compelled by the book, but it gave us something to react to and work with.

What are your favourite sentences or paragraphs from this book that you would like to remember for all time and quote to your clients?

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I used two quotations from The Van Gogh Blues in my memoir, Pilgrimage of Desire , and they are some of the most frequently highlighted passages in that book, according to Amazon. Creating is one of the ways they endeavour 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. Creating but falling short in her efforts is also depressing because only insufficient meaning is produced if her products strike her as weak or shallow.

The Van Gogh Blues : The Creative Persona's Path Through Depression

Even creating well can be depressing because of the lingering sense that what she is doing is only veneering meaninglessness. They recognize they are victims of increased knowledge, increased awareness, and a paucity of meaning options. Like untouchables? If you are one of these creators, you have to change your mind and heal your heart. It took a whole universe to create me and here I stand, fully human.