More with Eric Maisel


As promised, here’s more with Eric Maisel, author of The Van Gogh Blues and creativity champion. I asked Eric a question concerning come of the frustrations I have been experiencing in teaching this year.

Me: I have come to see that for the immediate future my creativity is tied directly to my teaching middle school. I really work at making meaning when I am teaching, but I need some advice for my students. How do I help them make meaning? There is no light of learning in about 90 percent of them – they literally do not want to do the work – they will admit “I am lazy.” I always look beyond that to see what else might be going on (living out of a car, etc), but I really am stumped.This is a very low socio- economic area (I have never experienced poverty like this before in a school setting), and a failing school under No Child Left Behind. These kids have no record of school success for themselves – no sense of any intellectual meaning….

One of your comments (page 28, I think) is about how hard it is for professionals to stay away from depression, as opposed to interns and persons just starting out, since we have seen so much more. How do I help my kids?

Eric: I wonder if the answer, insofar as there is an answer, might not be in having (or allowing students to have) existential rather than curriculum-based discussions. What if students were asked to identify their most cherished values and to then try to imagine a life constructed around those values? Would they draw a blank, wax ironic, or find the task rich and useful? My hunch is that it is quite worth a try; one teacher reported to me that she engaged her third-graders (!) this way and that it make a remarkable difference in the way they self-regulated and tackled their work the whole school year. It would be grand to see meaning brought into the classroom—what could possibly be more important for students to think about and discuss?

I very much want to try more of this with my kids. I need to think about how to bring it in to the group, within the context o the classroom and the benefits of their education. Or maybe I just need to raise the issue of what is meaningful to them, and leave education completely out of the mix to start with. I would welcome comments and thoughts from you all!

Some other questions for Eric:

WHAT ADVICE DO YOU GIVE TO ARTISTS TO HANDLE THE POST-CREATION BLUES? The blues that happen when a project is done and you’ve worn yourself out.

Eric: Meaning must be made at all times or else we start to get those existential blues. But that isn’t to say that we can’t frame a day by the beach or a week incubating a project as meaningful time. The art is in our self-talk, where we consciously address our meaning needs by announcing where we want to invest meaning today: in a good rest, in a visit to the bookstore, in a little office organization, in a visit with a friend, and so on. What we want to guard against is the experience of meaninglessness that follows the completion of a project, and this we do by investing meaning wisely even though we may not have a new big project wanting to launch.

HOW CAN ARTISTS BEST FILL THE TIME IN PERIODS OF DORMANCY?

Eric: The answer revolves around how long the period of dormancy is and what the quality of that period is. If you tend to take three years off between projects, there is something going on there that needs to be addressed and you need to do a better job of forcing life to mean. If we’re taking about two weeks, that’s a very different matter. If it’s that shorter amount of time, then you can catch up on business matters (there is always something in that realm that needs doing), remind yourself why you love your art discipline by visiting a museum or reading a book, and passionately living your “parallel life,” that life of relationships and other meanings not connected to your creative projects.

ARTISTS OFTEN FACE CRITICISM IN THE FORM OF NOTES OR REVIEWS. HOW CAN AN ARTIST KEEP THEIR “SPIRIT UP” AND “FAITH IN THE WORK” IN THE FACE OF NEGATIVE FEEDBACK?

Eric: The first step is remember that everyone has an opinion, that great works have been roundly panned, and that you and you alone are the arbiter of meaning and quality in your life. If you don’t buy that at a visceral level, you will block when criticism comes. You have to have more than an intellectual understanding that your opinion must count the most: you must feel it in your bones. Once you possess that absolute certainty, then you can examine the criticism to see if there’s something there for you to learn—for often there is. The tricky dance is to reject all criticism while at the same time making use of feedback that serves you, a dance that no artist manages perfectly. Some err of the side of grandiosity and listen to no one; others, lacking in self-confidence, err in the direction of caving in and blocking.

SHOULD YOU FIGHT THE BLUES OR LET THEM COME?

Eric:It is my opinion that we should fight them, though not necessarily in the first five minutes or the first hour. Being in “that space” for a little while may be unavoidable and even necessary, but remaining in that painful place of inaction and despair has nothing really to recommend it. As soon as we can—and if we have gotten in the habit of disputing the blues, this will be sooner rather than later—we stand up tall, remind ourselves that we make the meaning in our life and that there is no meaning until we make it, and decide where we want to make our next meaning investment: in a new project, in the business of art, or in another sphere like relationships. If we can nip the blues in the bud before they even come by making that next meaning investment before meaninglessness even has a chance to rear its head, so much the better!

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