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Dare I Disagree with Eric Maisel?

In the September issue of The Romance Writers Report, the monthly magazine of The Romance Writers of America) there is an article by Eric Maisel about Beating the Writer’s Blues.

Eric Maisel is a renowned author of 30 books, most about creativity and writing. He’s a psychotherapist, who now confines his practice to creativity coaching. He has an impressive resume and I liked a lot of what he said about dealing with the depressive feelings that often plague writers.

Maisel is careful to advise a medical evaluation for depression that continues or seems severe, and that is good. He acknowledges the existence of depression that his biologically based and the efficacy of antidepressant medication.

Before I became a romance author, I was a mental health therapist in a County mental health program for senior adults. Statistics show that nearly 25 per cent of people over age 60 experience some sort of depression, so I had quite a bit of exposure to depression and its treatment. I am certainly not putting myself forward as an expert on depression but I did have enough experience to develop my own point of view on the subject.

Maisel says: “(Creative people) experience depression simply because we are caught up in a struggle to make life meaningful to us. People for whom meaning is no problem are less likely to experience depression.” Maisel suggests that creative people–writers–are different; their depressions are rooted in “meaning” problems. I just don’t agree with this. I don’t think that writers are “special.” I think we have special skills, the skill of story-telling, but so do mechanics have special skills. I don’t think that only creative people search for the meaning of life.

How can I say that a mechanic does not have problems with the meaning of his life? Why would a mechanic not have a journey similar to the example Maisel gives of an author whose crisis of meaning tumbles him into depression? I’ll bet I could come up with a scenario for a mechanic that would mirror that example. Or a salesclerk. Or a factory worker.

I’m not fond of hearing authors (mostly literary) speak as if their creativity somehow makes them different from the rest of the world. I see that tone a lot in the daily literary quotes that show up on my Google page. On the other hand, I understand this feeling, this need to be special, and to value the skills that are perhaps only shared by a minority of mankind. It’s just that I believe that there are many ways to be special and writing is only one of them. If I were a mechanic, I would hope to feel very proud of my mechanical skills.

In 1946 Viktor Frankl, one of the early thinkers in existential psychology, wrote Man’s Search for Meaning, a work that came from his experiences in a Concentration Camp. Frankl observed that all people search for meaning in their lives, and that even in that hellish, hopeless environment, people still had choices. They could still choose their attitude, how they thought about what they experienced, the meaning they attributed to their life. He quotes Nietzsche’s words, “He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how.”

So I’m with Frankl. We all search for meaning in our lives.

Nor do I believe that being a creative person, like a writer, means that one is more prone to depression than the general population. I went looking on the internet to see what the current thinking is on this and especially to see what research has found. Apparently some studies link creativity and bipolar illness (manic-depressive illness; one of the depressive illnesses), but there appears to be no clear link between other forms of depression and creativity.

I do suspect that the creative writer is better able–and more likely–to describe his or her experience.

One thing was clear in the articles I read. Treatment enhanced creativity in depressed creative persons. I think it would be a treat to have a creativity coach like Maisel, but, really, a good psychotherapist should be able to help.

I promise I won’t “talk psychology” a lot on this blog but this was a topic I could not resist.

So….what do you think? Do you think that creative persons’ depressions are a crisis of meaning that is different than what other people experience? (Or dare you disagree with Diane???) Do you have any theories or beliefs about depression?

Remember to check out my website which has been updated for September.

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Elena Greene
14 years ago

Hey, Diane, I agree that it’s too black-and-white to say creative people are the only ones who care about meaning, but from what I’ve observed, they are generally more concerned with it than people who are satisfied with jobs that involve producing products or providing services already recognized as valuable.

I think there are a lot of people who don’t actively search for meaning–or not until there’s a life event that shakes them up and forces them to. I know people who just do what they think is expected of them at a particular age: when to marry, when to have kids, etc… Maybe some of them are inwardly depressed; I think it explains why a person who seems to have it all together suddenly falls apart in a midlife crisis.

But creative people, simply because they can’t follow an established path, may hit that existential crisis in a more direct or overt way.

I think another factor is how creative people are perceived by families and society. Messages are sent to the kid who daydreams in class (“you’ll never get anywhere”) or the adult who pursues a creative profession (“when are you going to get a real job?”) Those messages, combined with the inner doubts that are natural when creating something new (which may or may not prove successful), make creative people more vulnerable.

Louisa Cornell
14 years ago

I am sure almost everyone searches for meaning in their lives at some point or other. Some people simply find it or decide not to look further sooner than others. It’s possible creative people are simply more overt and vocal about that search as an outgrowth of their creative efforts.

Those people who do search for meaning and fail to find it may well sink into depression. Sometimes that depression is overt with symptoms right out there for the world to see. Many musicians do that as we tend to throw EVERYTHING out there for the world to see. Exhibitionists to the core! LOL

Others live those lives of quiet desperation as they search and we may never know what they suffer. In turn some of those really lucky people who find the “why” and live it every day may never show it off overtly. Those are the people who glide through life with that serene expression that may be mistaken for stupid placidity. I always look at those people very carefully. More often than not they have answered the “why” and are perfectly happy with it. Not every “why” has to be some grand scheme.

Does any of this make sense? It is early in the AM!

janegeorge
14 years ago

I had the exact same reaction when I read Maisel’s article. I’m hypersensitive to the “artists are sensitive” label. LOL.

Happiness for me is a decision I make every morning. It’s aided by watching my kittens and hampered by staying up late reading vitriolic blog discussions on the election. (I actually feel dirty this morning.)

Elena Greene
14 years ago

I’m hypersensitive to the “artists are sensitive” label. LOL.

Ugh, yes, know what you mean. This sort of thing can lead to stupid stereotypes (“all writers are depressed”) or a confusion of cause-and-effect, as if creativity caused the depression. My own take on it is that it’s the opposite, that channeling one’s creativity the right way can do a lot towards dispelling depression.

And re the societal influences I mentioned earlier, I wasn’t saying they should be used as an excuse. At some point you have to stop blaming your 3rd grade teacher and move on. But recognizing the problem helps.

Yes, I am Elena, I am a self-help junkie. But I had a very productive writing session today so I am OK with that. 🙂

Amanda McCabe
14 years ago

For a college paper I did on Caroline Lamb, lo many years ago, I read a book called “Touched With Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperment” that explored some of these issues, and discussed creative artists who WERE depressed. (There were many, of course, but I would think far more are perfectly well-adjusted, LOL). I guess the “artistic temperment” is a subject that can be endlessly explored from many different viewpoints!

Diane Gaston
14 years ago

Elena, I think you make some very good points. I could probably debate them all, though! Louisa makes a good point about people who have found meaning–those may be ones who are satisfied with their jobs. That’s their meaning.

About creativity being stifled in schools…that is a terrible thing, but I’ve also seen other skills devalued in schools. The speaker at my daughter’s high school graduation talked as if every senior in that room was destined for college. He didn’t consider the minority who weren’t going to college and thus devalued their skills, those who were going on to be mechanics or electricians or hair stylists or even salesclerks.

Oh, Janegeorge, I was reading the political diatribe myself, but I had to give it up because it upset me too much.

Amanda, I’ve heard Kay Jamison, author of Touched With Fire, speak on several occasions. I love that she investigates the case histories of creative people to find evidence of manic-depressive illness. This isn’t empirical research exactly, though, because there may have been a brazillion creative people who weren’t manic depressive who were simply not investigated.

I do think we creative people are special…I just think everyone is special!

Janet Mullany
14 years ago

One of my favorite quotes is (paraphrased) from the French writer Colette, who said there is as much craft in a well-made pair of boots as there is in a well-written page. And it’s probably one of those sentences that doesn’t translate well–I think she used the word metier which doesn’t translate exactly as either craft or art.

I think we have to stop talking about us vs. them, storytellers vs. litfickers; good writing is good writing is good writing. But that wasn’t what you were asking, was it?

While I want to find Maisel elitist, I also feel that creativity can breed depression and anxiety because it’s not quantifiable; will the plot fairy visit today? (In my case, not yet.) We’re also dealing with the random peculiarities of the market and the other oddities of genre writing. It’s an uncertain business. If you dwell on all this stuff you’ll get depressed, quite rightly.

But as to whether being writers makes us sensitive souls, I’d say no, we’re just people who don’t get out enough.

Keira Soleore
14 years ago

I wrote up my topic last night. I was cruising around the web before posting up to my blog, and lo and behold, what do I find? You’re written about Eric Maisel, too. What serendipity!!

I attended Maisel two-hour workshop at National, and it was THE best workshop of two years combined.

I’m going to change my blog to take out all the duplicate stuff and make it complement yours.

Diane Gaston
14 years ago

But as to whether being writers makes us sensitive souls, I’d say no, we’re just people who don’t get out enough.

Janet, if I ever get depressed I’m going to call you because you are bound to say something unexpected that will make me laugh.

I certainly can agree that there is much about the writing life to make one feel depressed and discouraged. And I think Maisel had some useful things to say in the article about how to reframe those experiences into ones that don’t lead to feeling depressed.

To me, though, depression or a crisis of meaning is a different matter than reacting with feelings of depression because of something that happened.

Keira Soleore
14 years ago

Janet, I’d translate métier more as life purpose.

Diane Gaston
14 years ago

I’m going to change my blog to take out all the duplicate stuff and make it complement yours.

Oh, Keira, you don’t have to do that! You said what you said. It is amazing that we both blogged about Maisel, though. Telepathy? Great minds think alike?

I’m sure I’d be very impressed with him because he obviously was very wise and really understood writers. But I reacted to the parts to which I disagreed.

I’m off to read your blog.

Keira Soleore
14 years ago

Took my blog down. I’m still editing. I’ll put in a link here once I’m done.

Diane, you’re the perfect person to talk about Maisel. His workshop at the conference was a more practical issue-solution. The RWR article seems more general purpose, maybe as a set up for his books (?!).

Todd
14 years ago

Diane, I’m with you on this. It might be possible for there to be a link between creativity–or, to be more precise, artistic creativity–and depression; but if there is, it doesn’t seem to show up in studies. The truth is, depression is distressingly common, and seems to affect all kinds of people.

On the other hand, I think writing in particular is a tough career for someone who is prone to depression–too many hours of solitude, too much uncertainty about the future, too little social interaction and external structure. Lots of jobs are tough, but for most of them you at least know whether or not you’re making progress. With writing, particularly before you are published, it’s not so clear.

That said, lots of jobs have their own stresses. In my first year of grad school, two of my fellow students (out of a class of 40) had nervous breakdowns and dropped out. A bit higher than average perhaps, but the stress level was pretty intense.

Todd-who-was-already-in-an-optimal-state-of-nervousness

Julia Justiss
Julia Justiss
14 years ago

Diane, I’m with you. It’s elitist when writers say they are more “senstive” or more apt to be depressed because they are always searching for meanings/connections. True clinical depression comes about from physiological issues that often have nothing to do with how life is going; people who don’t have serious problems can get depressed just like those who have some underlying life crises.

Writers may “think” more than the average person who has tv, radio, or ipod noise in their ears 24/7 but I don’t think it necessarily leads to depression. And heck yeah, the uncertainty and ego-bashing and self-doubt inherent in the profession would certainly encourage depression if you tend to it…but I don’t think it produces it. Chicken and egg, maybe?

Julia, who will try not to get depressed over the fact that she is WAAAY behind on the current wip

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