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  • Writer's pictureDonna Norman Carbone

Writing From the Heart

When my close friends read an early copy of my debut novel, All That is Sacred, which was released earlier this month, they asked, “Which character are you?” I chuckled. While fiction writers draw from their own experiences all the time (some more consciously than others or, for some books, to a greater or lesser degree), the work we do is fiction.

Virginia Woolf writes: “Every secret of a writer's soul, every experience of his life, every quality of his mind is written large in his works.” This quote resonates with me. For each of my books, the story begins with a seed, an idea. Sometimes that is derived from personal experience, sometimes an article I read or a thought–a “What if?” scenario. From there, I create complex characters (I have extensive bios for each of them) and worlds to place them in that contribute in some way to the conflicts and plots of the story. I revel in this kind of story building. At any given time, at least three stories are swirling in my head. And what they all have in common is a part of me that comes straight from the heart.

Sure, I write what I know. Sometimes that means I infuse personality traits of someone (or several people) that I personally know into a character. Sometimes I try to capture the essence of a place I’ve been. Sometimes it’s far more subtle like listening to the pitter patter of rain against the window during a writing session, and, viola, it’s suddenly raining in the scene I’m writing. What is not so subtle is that I always write from an emotional place–a story that needs to be told because some aspect of it lives in my heart.

When I began writing All That is Sacred, I wrote from a place of grief. A childhood friend, in her 40s, had just passed away. That was the seed. Her death tested my faith and my beliefs of an afterlife. I originally sat down to write through my feelings to obtain understanding. Whether I’m writing in a journal, poetry, or stories, the act of thinking and putting words down on the page has always been a therapeutic one. Eventually, I put that story aside and wrote others. Years later, I returned to it, the essence of it had remained with me. I added a new layer, drawing from another personal experience connected to the first. As a matter of happenstance, I went to a psychic reading with a friend whose mother had recently passed. She was hoping to be “read.” Only, I was “read” instead. Someone came through with a message to reconnect with my childhood friends because we were going to “need each other.” A year later, my friend died. I used this experience as the foundation for the book. Four friends come together to help one another heal on the one year anniversary of their friend’s death. That didn’t happen in real life for me; perhaps, I wish it did. But from that developed a new version of my original (very personal) story that deals with the complexities of friendship. I not only drew from the original experience of loss but also my many varied experiences with friendship. In its final version, Lynn, the friend who passed, narrates. I thought, how fun would it be to create a not-quite heavenly world in which she needs to cajole her friends together to heal; it’s the only way she has a chance of finding her own peace in the afterlife. The finished product, of course, is (mostly) fiction.

The seed for my second novel, Of Lies and Honey, releasing in 2024, was an article I read about a debutante who became pregnant and her parents forbade her from keeping and raising the child. I’ve long considered myself an empath. I’m also a mother. I found the article both intriguing and heartbreaking. The memory of reading it followed me like a shadow from which I couldn’t break free. Years later, I was compelled to write a story using debutante society and all that it encompasses as the story’s foundation. It evolved into one about mothers and daughters, struggling with their relationships with one another and some aspects of pregnancy. While the plot of this story is far from my reality as a mother and daughter, the experience of being both is embedded within the pages. I needed to write this story to wrap my head around the devastation of the loss of a child and to understand the emotions that follow. Perhaps, my need to write this comes from another level too. A few of my friends have lost their children–something I could never fully reconcile.

I’m currently working on a third novel for which I have a complete first draft. In it, I explore getting to the core of people who find themselves in patterns of abuse. Many, many years ago, I attended a workshop given by Brian Weiss, a psychologist who uses hypnotherapy to get to the root cause of such experiences. What he revealed was fascinating–a story about a patient who, while under hypnosis, went as far back as a past life to the root of her behaviors. At the time, I went out and bought Brian Weiss’s book Many Lives, Many Masters which recounts in greater detail what made him a believer of past lives. This experience awakened a period of exploration of my own beliefs. And all these years later, this topic is compelling me to explore further through the creation of story. In it, a young mother suffers domestic abuse, so she takes her daughter to live far away to escape. Yet, she learns she can’t escape experiences so ingrained in her; she needs to resolve and heal before any attempt at moving forward. But the only way she can move forward is by confronting her past; in this case, it’s through learning about a past life.

At the core of all of my work is something that matters to me. It starts from a thought I know either cognitively and/or experientially. Then it evolves to something I care about, a belief or a feeling or both. In all three of these examples, I’ve taken a seed and nourished it to fully explore, to understand better, to experience through the lives of my characters. When it comes to writing, I always write from the heart.

Note: This article has been updated since its original publication in Women Writers, Women’s Books Magazine

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