The Van Gogh Blues by Eric Maisel is not a book I would have considered buying, but it was in a bundle of books being thrown away and the subtitle: 'The creative person's path through depression' caught my attention. I believe the book's somewhat badly packaged/marketed; I expected it to be pretty wanky. I certainly didn't expect it to be so resonant for me personally. Maisel's definition of creativity is an inclusive one--he isn't just talking about those that make money from art/music/writing, etc, but also hobbyists or professionals who use creative thinking in their work (eg. research scientists).
Here I've attempted to give a brief summary of the main premise of the book, then a discussion of its meaning to me personally, and finally some notes on ideas it through up for me about fannish creativity specifically.
Maisel examines the high incidence of depression among creators (artists, writers, craftspeople, musicians, etc). His central premise is that they 'experience depression simply because they are caught up in a struggle to make life seem meaningful to them.' He is careful to emphasise that there may well be other causes (biological or psychological) for their depression and that treatment for these through medication, talk therapy or other methods may well bring relief for the symptoms, but it does not address what he refers to as the 'existential depression' that creators face on a daily basis in their work.
Maisel's work is not flawless--I think he generalises too broadly at times. I am sure there are creators who don't manifest depression, even if they struggle with the same 'meaning crises', and I'm sure that there are many people who experience similar existential depressions but who do not view themselves as creators--until recently, I was one of them. (He also uses the masculine and feminine pronouns interchangeably, which I've always found a particularly wanky way of attempting gender neutrality--but that's a side issue.) However, his central premise is a compelling one:
every creative person comes out of the womb ready to interrogate life and determine for herself what life would mean, could mean, and should mean. Her gift or curse was that she was born ready to stubbornly doubt received wisdom and disbelieve that anyone but she was entitled to provide answers to her own meaning questions.
The link between depression and creativity lies, for Maisel, in this matter of meaning creation: 'Creators have trouble maintaining meaning. Creating is one of the ways they endeavour to maintain meaning.' Through their work, they force their lives, life itself, to mean. Maisel explores two examples in detail--a novelist struggling to write a second novel, a working mother trying to justify her creative pastimes. What he encovers is that no matter what circumstances the creator is working under, crises of meaning recur naturally. They may begin with the creator questioning the worth of their work, but they can generalise and grow in scope--the creator starts wondering if it's worth even trying to make their work: was any of their work ever any good? why are they wasting their time? They get consumed by guilt, doubt and fear, and they may be scared to face what this fear is about at it's core: 'The fear, simply put, is that if he investigates meaning, he will be forced to recognise that meaning does not exist. He will be forced to conclude that all meanings are illusions and that there are no compelling reasons to do anything.'
The hopeful message that Maisel gives is as follows: We must investigate meaning even though we wish we didn't have to, even though we pray that meaning would just stay put, and even though we dream of a time when life might simply mean. The good news--the great news--is that having this unwanted conversation about meaning may lead to liberation, not greater depression.
His suggestions for how this could be achieved are deceptively simple. His remedy is to advocate that:
1. the plan of your life is meaningful
2. the work you do is meaningful
3. the way you spend your time is meaningful.
I'm sure only a lucky few of us manage all three simultaneously--and that's what Maisel explores. He stresses that it's natural to struggle to find meaning at these three different levels--you may have meaning in your overall life plan, for example, but still be working at Macdonalds... ;) But actively striving to find meaning in these three areas is Maisel's answer to the existential crisis, and the rest of his book explores supporting steps towards this goal: handling negative self-talk, braving anxiety, creating a support network for oneself, healthy versus unhealthy narcissism, handling addiction (*whistles at the ceiling*), handling relationships with other creators, taking action, and so on.
My own relationship to creativity and depression has been very black and white until recently: depression defined my entire life until age 23; creativity was what I defined my life against. Even as a small child, I regularly destroyed everything I made. I tried lots of things--drawing, pottery, dance, writing, you name it--but ended up hating each (and myself). Even as a uni student, I was drawn to fairly dry, esoteric subject areas. I wrote myself off creatively and rolled my eyes at people who would try to tell me that creative work might be enjoyable or therapeutic in some way. Not for me, I thought. And yet, I loved working with creative people. As an editor, this is probably the No. 1 thing I enjoy about my job--not just working with authors, but working with designers, with intuitive publishers, with creative problem solvers on the production team, etc.
But last year, something changed for me. However strange it might be, it's vidding that's made me think twice about my relationship with creativity. For the first time, I managed to complete something that was uniquely mine and which I was quietly proud of. Oh, I could see the flaws in my first vid--and I knew that a more experienced eye than mine could probably see a myriad more--but they were flaws I was comfortable with because the sheer amazement at having completed a vid at all outweighed them. And I found it addictive! With each vid I've made I've gone through a process of self-doubt and overcome it with a frenzied drive to finish it anyway--in doing so I've ended up in four out of five cases with something I was proud of for my own personal reasons, regardless of how much others enjoyed it. And it was of course an enormous boost to receive positive feedback on the vids--perhaps that validation is so important to creators precisely because they go through such a strong self-questioning process as they create. I've found it exhausting but I can't turn away. It's given me genuine happiness in a way that few things in life ever have. I've found contentment and calm in other ways, but happiness is still elusive--and something about vidding connected with me.
So naturally in reading Van Gogh Blues, my own experiences with vidding were very much foremost in my mind, and Maisel's message resonated very strongly with my own instincts. I certainly identify as someone who struggles with meaning at all levels of life. And in constructing something--in my case, vids--I've found a small level of peace and satisfaction. But only when I really engaged with and pushed through my self-doubt and 'meaning crises'.
At the time I read the book, I had been unable to vid for a week or two. I was 'blocked', you could say. It's probably no coincidence that I started vidding again almost immediately after finishing the book, and I feel immensely better already, although I'm a long way from finished any vidding project. But simply by recognising that the questions that were stopping me from vidding (is this a legitimate reading of X? is anyone really going to watch this? am I good enough to pull off the intricacy of a character study of this nature? etc) were a natural part of the creative process--one I needed to engage with, not pull away from--I overcame my block.
For the personal reasons outlined above, I read this book very much from a fannish perspective and I found myself translating the issues into fannish terms a lot of the time. Doing so was enlightening. It certainly helped me understand that love-hate relationship that so many of us share with both our own work and the canon we draw from. I'm interested to hear what other people's thoughts, but here are some of the things that ocurred to me while reading:
- In fandom we're engaged in a constant dialogue about meaning within our shows (meta). This was my principle fannish activity until recently, and I found it immensely satisfying. I can begin to understand why now--and also recognise why at times fannish discussions have held particularly strong meaning for me (when they connected with larger 'meaning crises' in my own life).
- Fannish creation means drawing on a pre-established creative work (canon). Even though the meaning within that work may be interpreted differently by different people, we often feel that there is there some inherent 'truth' to be uncovered within it--some fannish creators strive to be as close to canon as possible, others use it as a springboard for their own AU works. But perhaps it's easier to understand why so many of us have a love-hate relationship with the creators of our canon show. Of course we do! They dictate meaning--we recognise them as meaning creators, and they threaten our own meaning, the meaning we've drawn personally from the show. Reading Maisel's book helped me understand why it feels like so much is 'at stake' in fannish debates sometimes.
- Maisel's chapter on relationships with other creators was fascinating because it didn't reflect my experience in fandom. It made me see that fandom may be unique in the way it fosters a safe collective creative fandom. Maisel discussed the fact that other creators can spark meaning crises for us--they may be struggling in their own work, or their work may challenge our own. His message seemed to be that these relationships tend to be tempestuous, even if they can also be meaningful, since other creators can empathise with us. He used a few examples of artists in particular disciplines forming support networks, but nothing that approximated the extensive network of fandom. While I can certainly see the threads of conflict that Maisel discussed present in fandom, I was left with the overwhelming impression that fandom was by and large a very freeing and supportive environment (that's no doubt why I hate movements to restrict it!). Or maybe I'm just seeing it through rose-tinted glasses since it's where I 'found' my own creativity.
- The chapter on addiction was also very pertinent to fandom, I thought. Maisel was talking about addictions that threatened creativity like alcoholism and other destructive behaviour patterns. But as we all know, fandom is very addictive. Yet it's also a site of creativity for many of us. Where does that leave us? My own conclusion is to turn back to Maisel's three-part solution. If fandom is purely an escape from the meaning crises we face in our real life, then it's positive effects can only be limited. But if it's part of a balanced meaningful life (the 'way you spend your time' part), then it could be viewed as positive--especially if it's a way for us to engage with the 'meaning crises' that we are facing in our own creativity or our lives more generally. I know I struggle with the balance between RL and fandom, but this book validated my thinking that the time spent vidding is constructive for me. That doesn't mean it should take over my whole life though! But I've found it easier to allow myself some time for it without feeling quite as guilty--and that's ultimately beneficial to my well-being overall. I can also walk away from it easier now, knowing that I will go back to it, that it's something I've made a commmitment to as an ongoing practice. It's something people outside of fandom might struggle to understand, but this book gave me some ways of describing its significance.
There is much more that I could comment on, but I've gone on for long enough. I'd love to hear from other people--is that something that anyone else connects with? is it just me? ;) What have your own experiences with creativity in fandom been--positive, negative or in between?