Grief is a sacred journey

Persona: How Promoting a Book Created a New Social Self

My Lady of Grief and Praise (mask made during Vic's illness, 2007)

Lady of Grief and Praise (mask made during Vic’s illness, 2007)

Last week, I went to REP Studio in Ithaca to record passages from my book for National Public Radio’s Author’s Corner. I needed two takes of two readings, each 80-83 seconds. Peter Johnson of Author’s Corner gave me a telephone coaching session the day before.

“Read faster for radio. Let your feelings show,” he said. “Not somber, but spirited.” I practiced.

As I walked upstairs to the studio the next morning, I felt relaxed. In the soundproof booth, I read the first passage, holding the line between expressing feeling and dissolving into tears.

“That was great!” Nate Richardson, the Head Engineer at REP Studio, said leaning back in his chair with a big smile. I read the passage a second time. Thumbs up. Besides professional studio support, Nate and his assistant Josh became an encouraging audience.

DSC01635-001We did a few takes of the second passage. I felt composed, clear, and strong in contrast to the fragile social self I remembered from my first visit to this studio nearly three years ago.

Aha! That’s why I kept taking on scary challenges. I was growing a new social persona.

C.G. Jung calls our public face persona, a Roman word for the mask worn by actors. As children, we develop social identities in response to experiences and feedback from family and society. Later in life, our social self is often tied to our work or domestic life. A mature persona reveals deep layers of our authentic selves while protecting vulnerabilities when necessary.

When our persona gets clobbered, we need a new one. C.G. Jung says the dissolution of the persona is necessary for development of a fully integrated sense of wholeness. Ouch!

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Inside REP Studio

Nate Richardson (REP Studio photo)

Nate Richardson (REP Studio photo)

 

 

 

 

 

After my husband Vic’s death, my persona was demolished. For over forty years, I had been lover, wife, and mother. Then I lost my well-defined role, that familiar place to stand. I grieved the loss of my husband but also the loss of myself and my life.

DSC01631Loss of persona happens to almost everyone. We lose a job with which we were identified or a relationship fails. We lose a home or our sense of place in the community. We lose who we thought we were and find ourselves confused and tongue-tied. We leave the nunnery or our teaching position. We are betrayed. We lose our health or our youth. A partner or close friend dies.

After Vic died, I still had a strong sense of my inner self or soul, but it was hard to navigate the everyday world. I didn’t know when to reveal feelings and when to protect them.

I focused on writing to remember and find meaning, but reading out loud in writing class exposed my grief. If I read, I wept and sobbed. Something in me kept trying. At early public readings in 2012, I trembled and struggled to stay afloat. I felt exposed and very young.

Why did I put myself through this? I felt compelled, although I wasn’t sure what drove me. Now I see I was going through the hard labor of constructing a new persona.

Tish Pearlman reading her poetry

Tish Pearlman reading her poetry

Two and half years ago, at my first visit to REP Studio, Tish Pearlman interviewed me for Out of Bounds Radio Show. I was anxious and afraid I would sob. My persona felt flimsy and unreliable. Growing deafness didn’t help. Tish’s skill made the interview easy.

After Leaning into Love was published, I said yes to talks, radio interviews, and workshops even though I felt vulnerable and inept. There were many opportunities, including a second interview with Tish. They’re all on my media page. I gave a TEDx talk with TEDxChemungRiver called  Good Grief! What I Learned from Loss. After that trial by fire, I began trusting my new persona.

I’m still saying yes.

Composing a selfie and myself just before the TEDx talk

Composing a selfie and myself just before the TEDx talk

Please follow this link for my readings on Author’s Corner. Reading for NPR was a big enough gift, but on my birthday, I learned I would be on the same week as Jimmy Carter and PBS talk show host Tavis Smiley. Author’s Corner supports both new and established authors. You know what side of the fence I’m on. My readings were broadcast on participating NPR affiliates. They’re available at the website anytime.

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Have you lost your social self once or many times? Have you thought about the role of persona in your life? For other articles about the psychology of book promotion, see A Love Note from Beyond or An IPPY Award and a Promise Kept. Thanks to Jill Swenson of Swenson Book Development for recommending Author’s Corner, laying the ground work, and providing tireless support in helping me find a strong voice.

15 Comments
  1. Wow Elaine. Look how far you’ve come. Sometimes when we’re so entwined with grief, we can’t measure how many giant steps we take. You’ve grown leaps and bounds since writing books, alone! A true pillar of strength! <3

    • Thank you Debby. It’s lots of slugging away at it, stop and start, trial and error wor–as you know. But I realized when I left the studio after doing those recordings that I’m not scared of doing such things anymore. Something new has been created, more important than a book.

  2. Elaine, this is such a wonderful opportunity for you, and evidence of an amazing transformation. Your inner work for over 30 plus years has paid off big time. I hope everyone realizes that this doesn’t just happen overnight, or by magic. It takes long, hard hours of inner work, and you are proof that it eventually pays off! Congratulations. Jeanie

    • Thank you, Jeanie. It was hard writing this piece and I threw it down as hopeless a few times. My inner work with Jung, philosophy, and meditation began consciously around 1967 and I first read a little Jung in 1965. Still, despite that inner work, my persona was demolished after Vic’s death. Fortunately, my inner sense of Self wasn’t crushed by grief. I attribute that to the inner work. But the persona was hammered. I think most of us have experiences when we’re left feeling naked in the world. I hope this piece will give an idea of Jung’s concept of persona for those who haven’t read Jung, along with a sense of how I use his ideas in my life. I’m experimenting.

  3. Wow. This is a great piece, Elaine. Breakthrough stuff as I understand that smashed persona when the love of your life dies. Great experiment in writing. You have found your voice. Keep writing.

    • I hated giving up my daily life with Vic, but I had no choice. It’s good to articulate anything positive that came from it. Thanks for the big part you’ve played in all of this.

  4. I stand in awe of how you have crafted a new persona out of the ashes of your old one. I hope many new readers find your book as a result of your selection to Author’s Corner and TEDX. Jill Swensen, you sound like a great partner with authors. May your tribe increase.

    • And I stand in awe at the way a young Mennonite girl crafted a persona that could move into the world, be president of a college, and work with Bill Moyers. Somehow we cross these chasms and link the various sides of ourselves. Thanks for your good wishes, Shirley. Jill is a great partner, a creative resource, and a good friend.

  5. You are one amazing lady, dear Elaine. I am so proud of you ♥

  6. Brava, Elaine,

    I gain strength from your words. You handle your public persona with grace and humility. Congratulations again on recording for “The Author’s Corner” on Public Radio.

    xoxoxo

    • Thank you, Kathleen. It’s interesting to think of the times in our life when we had to do small or large inner construction projects to make our way in a changed world. Most of us had to do this a few times. You were the first on Author’s Corner and for many things.

  7. Elaine, kudos to you for pushing yourself out into the world to create this more confident persona. Having given myself similar pushes to promote a book or my art at various times in my life, I know it isn’t easy.

    Now I’m giving myself permission to NOT have to do it, but I admire your path. And you expressed this process beautifully.

    • Giving ourselves permission not to move into the world is equally valid, Lynne. I may make that choice at any moment, but meanwhile it was good to understand what I was doing besides promoting my book. I was building a new capable and (more) self-confident me.

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