Finding and Sharing Inspiration

While standing in Ernest Hemingway’s house in Key West several years ago, surrounded by descendants of his cats, peering into his writing cottage, I was moved. As I walked through the tour, I felt the skin on the back of my neck rise and knew, without question, that I wanted to bring readers to that place in his time. Or, more accurately, I desired to go that place in his time.

If you are a writer, you’ve no doubt had that feeling. When unexplained connections, familiarity, or the chills that rise on your arms in affirmation signal: “Yes—I belong here,” or “This is meant for me.” How often have you read a book, or listened to a piece of music, or looked at a painting that has affected you in this way?

This communion of people, place, and time has interested me for many years, but I didn’t have a name for it until I read THE LUNCHEON OF THE BOATING PARTY by Susan Vreeland. In it, one of the main characters observes Renoir as he paints and remarks that she is a part of nous (French for “we” or “us”), this shared experience of time and space through art. This concept of nous has profoundly affected both the way I consume and produce art. It’s why I write, and specifically, why I write historical fiction.

I bring this up today because I’ve lately heard a collective sigh or groan amongst my writer friends who seem to be dry. Ideas feel stale, plots have fizzled, characters are being uncooperative. I understand; I’ve been there. But when I think of nous, this shared art experience and what we’re trying to do, it reminds me of what got me started in the first place—when I stood in the house in the tropics, surrounded by a dead writer’s artifacts, and I felt the urge to start scribbling ideas. 

So, if you’re stale, take yourself back to the catalyst that ignited your passion for your story. Feel time and space slip away, and make yourself present to the ideas you want to communicate. Then you’ll be ready to write so that someday you may share with all of us your story in only the way that you can tell it.

What person, place, idea, or event called you to writing action? Share your inspiration. Do you think the idea of nous is spiritual or foolishness?

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About Erika Robuck

Erika Robuck (@ErikaRobuck) self-published her first novel, RECEIVE ME FALLING. Penguin Random House published her subsequent novels, HEMINGWAY’S GIRL, CALL ME ZELDA, FALLEN BEAUTY, and GRAND CENTRAL, a collaborative short story anthology. Her forthcoming novel THE HOUSE OF HAWTHORNE releases in May of 2015. Erika writes about and reviews historical fiction at her blog, Muse, and is a contributor to fiction blog, Writer Unboxed. She is also a member of the Historical Novel, Hemingway, Millay, and Hawthorne Societies.

Comments

  1. says

    Erika, I don’t think it’s foolish at all. But those who haven’t experienced something like it may be skeptical. There truly are “connections” that we can’t explain, but simply feel, recognize, respond to. I made one concert tour of the British Isles, and while on a bus passing through central England on the way up to the lake district I had this overwhelming feeling that I was “home”. I had never been there before, and was not aware of relatives having lived there, but the feeling of HOME persisted clear to Windemere. I’ll never forget it, and while that experience was in 1987, I have never felt it anywhere else since. The most we can hope for is that when a moment like that materializes in our lives, we will savor it, honor it, value it for what it is…life taking enough interest in “us” to reach our hearts and and tap on the door.

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  2. Vaughn Roycroft says

    My journey also started with the wonder I feel in historic places, Erika. Since I can remember, my parents dragged us to every historic site within a day’s easy range of our Northern Michigan cottage: forts, lumbermen’s houses, lighthouses, battlefields, etc. I remain grateful. I’ve always loved getting away from whomever I was with at these places, just feeling the place, communing with its ghosts.

    I still do so today. When I visited Pearl Harbor, and toured the battleship, The Missouri, I ditched the tour and lost myself on the lower decks. They turned the lights off on me on at closing time, and had to stumble back to the topdeck in the dark. I missed the last ferry, and had to be taken across by the employee’s boat.

    It’s important to take yourself back sometimes. You’ve helped me to better realize something I hadn’t fully internalized – that I can tap into that historic sense of nous, simply by walking among the old cottages and in the forests near my home. So thanks, Erika. A refreshing reminder to start the day, and the coming week!

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    • says

      Vaughn, I love your images of getting lost in old wrecks and historic homes. My parents also used to “drag” to me to historic places as a child, including Mt. Vernon and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater. I had no idea the gift they were giving me, and it has surely embedded itself deep in my conscious and unconscious mind.

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  3. says

    I had a similar experience on vacation recently. A plantation that’s recently been made over as a natural history museum has a small cemetery on the grounds, and the understated explanations on the placard groaned for me to write about two little girls buried there.

    From your description, I understand “nous” in art or places as a sensitivity to the untold stories, and perhaps a responsibility, as one still standing, to tell them.

    Thank you for this thoughtful post.

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  4. says

    Hi Erika! My initial inspiration for writing was a bit morbid, but can be examined with a sort of historical bent…when pondering the peril of childbirth throughout much of history I imagined fairy tale heroines facing the same dangers. I decided to write a fantasy novel within the context of women’s lives in pre-industrial, patriarchal societies.

    When I’m getting bogged down in specific language and plot minutiae I try to remember that big picture! So that’s my nous…hoping to make people examine familiar tales within a different framework.

    Thanks for this post!

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  5. says

    Oh Erika, this post in itself is VERY inspiring! I’ve been to Hemingway’s house–twice–and know exactly that feeling you described. (Though I seemed to be the only one in my family who felt it, but still…)

    I’m definitely a believer in nous–I just didn’t know it had a name. I believe it’s spiritual.

    Thanks for this lovely & encouraging post.

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  6. says

    Stephanie, I think your interest is a rather inspiring, beautiful, and imaginative tribute to women, past and present. It sounds like something I’d love to read!

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  7. Jeffrey Russell says

    The urge to write came to me late in life by writer’s standards, and truth be told, it took me by surprise. But after a lifetime of wondering why most people I knew never saw the same things I did in stories, or movies, or everyday life, I began to think that’s what I should have been doing all along. Not just reading – but writing. So, I began. I’m still at it. And I like what I’ve written. My editor likes it, and she both helps and encourages my effort.

    But most importantly, it’s brought me a connection to the written word that is deeper, more joyful, and far more fulfilling than I could have ever imagined possible. Reading a new story, or an old favorite, is a different experience now.

    I have no idea if anything I write will ever be published. Like all writers, I suppose, I hope I am published one day. But – if I’m not, oh well! I’ll keep writing – and reading – just the same.

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  8. says

    I’m writing a novel about the Peshtigo Fire, about which (since I’m a Wisconsin native) I’ve been reading since I was little. When I started to re-read accounts of this horrible forest fire, just the image of these homesteaders and the technology they had in 1871, staring up and facing a ‘mile high wall of flame’ made me feel that I had to write this, very much for the ‘nous’ that you talk about. Your post was so Zen and a great way to start a Sunday morning!

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    • says

      Allison, I’d be very interested to read about the fire, since I’ve never heard of it. It takes my breath away to imagine a mile high wall of flame. Thanks for your comments!

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  9. says

    I loved this post! For me – I feel like creativity in general was an inheritance that both me and my brother got from my mom’s side of the family. For years, it was just about trying to find the art I most resonated with…because it could have been painting, acting, music, you name it. I latched on to writing because it soothed my soul in a unique way and allowed me to get my thoughts out in an articulate manner.

    When I went to the Chelsea Hotel in NYC recently, it was a reminder of that gift of creativity and why I bother with it. The place carries a VIBE – it’s known for being a home to artists of all sorts – and it re-lit an awareness within me. Talk about nous… I was like, “Oh yeah – this is what it’s about..” Some people who have lived there have inspired me greatly. I met several well-known artists there, one who I had a great conversation with, and the experience re-connected me to the initial inspiration I got through my family. I believe creativity is part of my life purpose….and that vibe I got while in NYC triggered something and re-awakened me.

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  10. says

    I loved this post! I have never heard if the concept of ‘nous’ but it really makes me think about what the catalysts are for the stories I want to tell.

    Thank you!

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  11. says

    I am at lost for words with this blog, I have had a novel that I wrote back when I was 12, that was inspired by my friends and our wild imaginations that created a world, which in turn was written in my notebook.

    But as the years went by, I was stuck on the last chapter. I couldn’t really close it. We grew from our fantasy world and it was lost from our that wonderful past.

    Maybe I should try rekindle that juvenile world and get that last chapter written.

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  12. says

    Great post, Erika! I definitely felt this way the minute I walked into the old house we now live in. I’ve researched all the past owners, back to the woman who built the house in 1885. Fascinating to feel a connection to the people who I’ve never met but walked the same floors and looked out the same windows. I know exactly what you mean! Your post about Hemingway’s house reminds me that I want to visit famous writer’s houses in Maine–Longfellow and Hawthorne! I really enjoyed learning about the concept of nous.

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  13. says

    Inspiring post indeed – this is wonderful Erika!

    It wasn’t until I was in my mid-30s that I discovered one of the largest hurricanes (to date) hit Biloxi MS on the night I was born – Hurricane Camille, August 16, 1969, (and yes I know I’m giving my age away here). ;) From the time I learned that, I was enthralled with the Gulf Coast, and specifically with Biloxi. Our family decided to vacation there, and it was The Trip of My Life. Not only was it a nice vacation in general, but from the moment we entered Biloxi I had this overwhelming feeling that I’d been there before, hair raised on back of neck and all. I even drove around town without a map, knowing exactly where I was going and how to get there.

    That experience led me to write about a woman who is about to give birth stuck in the hurricane with her best friend. The story is about her daughter born that night. But after writing a few chapters, life got in the way and I set it aside. Now, thanks to your inspirational words, I have the desire to pick it up again and finish it. Thank you so much for that!

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  14. says

    Hi Erika,

    Thank you for this post. Yes, I absolutely agree– there is something so very spiritual and otherworldly about inspiration. I feel it every time I walk into a cathedral, stand by the ocean, walk through a fragrant garden, and gaze across mountaintops. But I also agree with experiencing other creatives’ inspiration by proximity to their work / living spaces. For me, Monet’s Water Lilies in the ethereal L’Orangerie, walking Prague’s Golden Lane above the City, and being surrounded by stones of centuries of artists and writers in Rome in the piazzas. There, the soul of the art lives on. It’s up to us to catch it and pass it on.

    I’m reading Madeleine L’Engle’s WALKING ON WATER again right now. She wraps words and thoughts around the profound experience of inspiration. It’s perfect for just this discussion.

    Thank you for the excellent thoughts, as always, Erika!

    Happy writing,

    Jennifer

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  15. says

    Thank you, Erika, for a truly inspirational post. It made me think of the “why” behind why I write. I want to tell, no, I want to share a story with whomever is reading my work – to make the reader feel something when s/he is reading my book. It’s that shared “feeling” that, for me, creates that “we” – the “we” between the reader and me.

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  16. says

    Oh, ditto, ditto, ditto, ditto, ditto! Details aside, everyone above has echoed my story. I’m feeling a bit of nous with you all.

    What a great post! That sense of “nous” changed my life and redirected my career. I felt it and I had to write it.

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  17. says

    I can relate to this as I am about to embark on revisions to my novel based on some feedback from my agent. There are moments when I want to be able to continue with the new WIP – so I have been working on finding my groove again with the current one. If I allow myself to go back to its genesis and the reason I wanted to write it in the first place, I rediscover the characters, their place, their pace and their world.

    Thanks!

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  18. says

    I’ve been out all day and just returned to all of your wonderful, thought-provoking, and inspiring comments.

    From Bailey’s British Isles, to Brandy’s plantation, to Deanna’s Biloxi, to Julia’s old house, and Amy at the Chelsea Hotel, I loved reading about your places of inspiration. I could feel your passion and it made me want to read about or experience those places.

    Jeffrey, Barb, Robin, Nina, Aga, Patricia, Patrea, and Amy–I’m so glad you enjoyed the post.

    Jennifer–I’ve never read L’Engle’s WALKING ON WATER. I’ll have to pick that up. We can talk about it when meet in Paris someday.

    Thanks so much for all of your comments. This post was a little hard to share. It felt a bit like telling people you believe in ghosts and cringing at the response. You’ve inspired and touched me with your replies.

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  19. says

    In the back of AP English when I was 15, 16, I would roll my eyes, pout and doodle, until the inspired day that Emerson was introduced, and more, his concepts of Transcendentalism. For the first time I felt connected to the old white men, to the cannon, to the legacy preceding me…

    Transcendentalism, the concept that in a timeless place–what Joe Campbell calls our bliss or being engaged in the moment as we truly are–we are all connected. To me life is no more than the individuals journey of coming to this place, day after day, process after never-ending process. For the artist (read writer, musician, poet, painter…whatever) it is the constant engagement that matters: our art is our tool of translating for the rest of the population this quest.

    For those artists so entranced by such a call, it’s even Shamanistic I would say.

    It was Jack Kerouac who lit my light, a light that led me to Snyder, and later to my true north: now, whenever I need the illustriousness to turn on inside me it’s the female contemporary of that time (her TIMELESS memoir The New York Years, mythically bathed as it is being my favorite primer) Diane diPrima. She is my Hero, and brings out the preistess poet in me more and more everytime I summon her in my imagination!!

    Nous is the creative imagination. Creativity! The most sacred thing in our power!

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  20. says

    Great work, Erika! Funny how often historical sites inspire our imaginations. I don’t write historical fiction now–just couldn’t find the right voice for it–but the first novel I wrote was in fact set at the turn of the century and focused on a big event in America’s history. Now that I’ve found my niche in YA, maybe I’ll go back and rework that first novel for a younger audience. Hmmm….
    *wheels turning*

    Very inspiring post! Thank you!

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  21. says

    Kelly, my writing partner girl, thank you for reminding me about Transcendentalism. I need to reacquaint myself with those writers because I feel like I’m on the end of something really important for my work, with all of this NOUS talk.

    Anne, I love historical fiction for younger audiences! My son and I enjoy reading MAGIC TREE HOUSE books. We devour them. I’d be interested to see something for a YA audience.

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  22. Engrid E (Penny) says

    I had posted how upset I was due to, not an “off-day,” but an “off- Week.” I normally join in with others to write/edit/revise/read on work hours (that’s what we call them) to experience what I call writer synergy. The shared energy of like minds creates a vibe….a bond… “nous.”

    Thank you Erika!

    Engrid

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  23. says

    Engrid, I find that comraderie on Twitter in the wee hours. It’s very comforting when I’m writing alone at night. Thanks for the comment!

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