Mediated Mania: The Artist’s Energy

I’m riffing on a chapter in Eric Maisel’s book Coaching the Artist Within, wondering what you think.  I want to invite you to comment upfront on how you generate the energy and capacity to see a work through to its end.  Do not read into this that I’m running out of energy for my current projects.  I’m not.  But I think it’s a critical idea in the ongoing life of the artist.   How to keep going.

Chapter Five of this helpful book is called “Generating Mental Energy.”   Maisel suggests that we associate “high” energy with positive outputs and “low” energy with negative outputs. (For the moment, I’m going to resist pushing back with the obvious notion that to rest is a low energy, positive output activity.)  Overall, I get what he means.  Complaints related to work are full of words like “weary, tired, depressed, out of sorts, down, and sleepy.”  When we feel “good”, we often say we’re “up, energized, excited, enthusiastic, motivated, and focused.”  Maisel likens our mental states to power grids either humming along providing mental electricity as we go about lighting the world or shorting out, leaving lots of homes and projects and relationships pretty much in the dark.   One interesting point he brings up: it takes a tremendous amount of energy to engage in negative patterns of behavior.  Think of the energy it takes to hide addictions, affairs, and embarrassments.  (Oh…you’ve never had to do that…I see.)

One powerful notion: “meaninglessness is an energy drain, while meaningfulness is an energy boost.”

“It takes a real expenditure of valuable mental energy to maintain-halfhearted beliefs, to ignore important truths, to procrastinate, to not pursue your dreams.  Keeping a defensive lid on life is real work and a real energy drain.”

Maisel makes the following suggestions about cultivating the kind of energy you need to do the work.

  • Reflect on and write answers for these questions:
  1. What generates mental energy?
  2. What saps mental energy?
  3. What replenishes mental energy?
  • Cultivate positive obsessions, by which he means “a passionately held idea that serves your meaning-making needs.”  (CIVIL WAR, WRITING, MY WIFE)
  • Eradicate negative obsessions, by which he means “a passionately held idea that serves no good purpose.” (TOO MANY TO LIST)

Maisel says both kinds of obsessions generate tons of energy, because they both have passion in them.   Good energy management is going to minimize the energy drain of the negative obsessions.  Makes sense.

He then suggests this idea of “mediated mania” that I put in the title of the post, citing the fact that typically, we think of “mania” and “manic” as clinical terms that slide off into craziness.  But that really, when an artist is going at it full bore, with all the energy of obsession and thrill and determination and electricity, it often looks like a kind of mania.   He brings the word “mediated” into play to suggest a manic state that is not out of control, but that is closer to the image of a racehorse with a nimble rider at the helm.    Beethoven is Maisel’s example of this kind of manic life, obsessed with and dedicated to the work.

We should reclaim the word mania and return it where it belongs, to the territory of meaning and the energy that accompanies our meaning-making efforts.

So how do you do it?  How do you keep the mental power grid humming?  How do you throw the breaker back on?  And what’s the culprit in your own work and life that tends to flip the breaker the wrong way?

Flipping the switch even now…

4 Comments

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  1. I must admit that a show deadline is a great motivator. Now that that’s out of the way, the only way I’m able to stay consistently working in the studio is to just show up everyday and do something. There are days when nothing happens (I’ve had a week full of that) but I continue to show up and do at least some kind of work. It might be just adhering a background for a future piece or even just painting the sides black or putting down more sealer. Energy ebs and flows but I am motivated by positive and negative. Here are some quotes that I like a lot.

    “I merely took the energy it takes to pout and wrote some blues.” – Duke Ellington

    “The advice I like to give young artists, or really anybody who’ll listen to me, is not to wait around for inspiration. Inspiration is for amateurs; the rest of us just show up and get to work. If you wait around for the clouds to part and a bolt of lightning to strike you in the brain, you are not going to make an awful lot of work. All the best ideas come out of the process; they come out of the work itself. Things occur to you. If you’re sitting around trying to dream up a great art idea, you can sit there a long time before anything happens. But if you just get to work, something will occur to you and something else will occur to you and something else that you reject will push you in another direction. Inspiration is absolutely unnecessary and somehow deceptive. You feel like you need this great idea before you can get down to work, and I find that’s almost never the case.”
    — Chuck Close

  2. A deadline definitley motivates. Passion motivates too: being a part of something you find satisfying! Others negative thoughts and attitudes can have a huge impact. I like the comment above: waiting around for inspiration never works: working hard will bring it’s rewards.

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