When J.R.R. Tolkien retired from his post at the University of Oxford in 1959, he intended to spend his new-found free time finishing The Silmarillion. Though this book is less well-known than his Lord of the Rings, Tolkien considered it his real work—the work he’d spent decades trying to get back to.
One can easily imagine the newly retired professor, still in his tweeds, bent over his desk, glad to at last avoid the professional obligations that had long kept him from the literary project he loved best. Instead, writes Inklings scholar Diana Pavlac Glyer, he found that the increased solitude hampered his ability to move forward with his favorite project. Glyer explains,
He quickly became overwhelmed by the task. He found himself easily distracted, and he spent his days writing letters or playing solitaire… Tolkien had become increasingly isolated, and as a result, he found himself unable to write. (Diana Pavlac Glyer, Bandersnatch: C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the Creative Collaboration of the Inklings, p. 117)
You probably think of writing as a solitary activity—and, to some extent, you are right. “Many writers do little else but sit in small rooms recalling the real world,” notes Annie Dillard in The Writing Life. “One wants a room with no view, so imagination can meet memory in the dark.”
In the best of circumstances, however, that’s not where the story ends. Although we’re right to think of writing as partly a solitary activity, it’s also true that writers—like other artists—benefit from meeting regularly with other creative people.
If you’re a writer trying to perfect your craft, you’ll get much further if you work within a creative community. You will benefit enormously from being in an environment in which you can both offer and receive encouragement, feedback, and fellowship—just as Tolkien did.
What You Need to Know About the Inklings
Some of the last century’s best literature came out of a small writing group at the University of Oxford called “the Inklings.” The Inklings met regularly to read and critique members’ manuscripts, to encourage one another to keep writing when a work showed promise, and to let each other know—often forcefully—when a piece was poorly written. You’ve no doubt heard of some of their offerings: C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia, Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, and many other excellent works of literature, theology, and apologetics can be traced back to the Inklings and their influence.
Glyer, who has studied the Inklings extensively, believes that Inklings authors thrived in part because of the encouragement and feedback they received at their regular meetings—and she argues that modern writers should follow their example. “If the idea of a lonely genius working in bleak isolation is a myth,” she writes, “if greatness is really catalyzed by the presence of others, we should take note. And perhaps we should try to do what the Inklings did.” (Bandersnatch, p. 161)
I asked Dr. Michael Ward, a professor whom N.T. Wright has described as “the foremost living C.S. Lewis scholar,” how writing might be thought of as a community activity. “We need others in order to be most fully ourselves,” he told me. “It is not good for man to be alone (so Genesis tells us)—and this is true not just about people as social beings but also about people as creative beings.”
If this is true, what about the hours a writer must spend alone, free from outside distractions? I asked Dr. Holly Ordway, Director of the MA in Apologetics at Houston Baptist University, how a writer ought to balance the solitary and community aspects of the writing life. “I think that the distinction between solitude and loneliness is helpful here,” she told me:
“Loneliness is a lack of connection, a sense of isolation …Solitude is a deliberate being by oneself, for refreshment, or reflection, or focus, or freedom from distractions; solitude exists as a complement to being in society… writing always has an element of solitude (of necessity) but it needn’t be a lonely activity. Interacting with other people (readers, other writers) provides a balance.”
How to Find a Writing Group
A writer, it seems, needs the support of his peers as well as a quiet room in which to work. But how does one find such peers?
You might be surprised by how many writing groups already exist in your area. Google is your friend here. Try searching your city’s name and “writing group” or something similar. Search for statewide groups that might have a chapter in your area. If that doesn’t help you, ask around at your library, at churches, and at local independent coffee shops and bookstores—places where a writing group is likely to meet.
Online writing forums can be helpful, but they’re not a good replacement for the “live audience” a good writing group will provide. “We need to have not just a notional audience in mind for the things we write,” Dr. Ward told me, “but an actual audience: real, flesh-and-blood people whom we can bounce ideas off.”
If you can’t find a group that’s right for you, consider starting one of your own. “Start small,” advises Dr. Ordway. “A couple of friends meeting every week or two, for coffee or a drink, is more likely to take root than an over-ambitious and highly-structured group.” Find a few friends who are willing to read your works in progress, and give them permission to tell you what they think.
This can be difficult at first, but your writing will be much better for it. “My…students have discovered that although it’s terrifying at first to show one’s writing to others, the result is that they are forced to look at their own writing with new eyes,” Dr. Ordway told me. “Often, they see ways to improve that they never would have noticed on their own.”
So You’ve Joined a Writing Group. Now What?
Once you have a group of writers with whom you feel comfortable, work on learning to give and receive feedback together. Praise and critique specific aspects of a writer’s work: “When creative people encounter thoughtful critique, they feel empowered,” notes Glyer. “When they encounter dismissal, they stop taking risks.” (Bandersnatch, p. 165)
Encourage one another to keep working when you believe a project is worth pursuing. “I have more ideas for potential writing projects than I could finish in a lifetime,” Dr. Ordway told me. “Having feedback on the ideas, to see which ones are worth pursuing, and getting encouragement to finish these projects once I start, is invaluable.”
There’s no rule that says your writing group must spend all its time offering encouragement or critiques, however. Perhaps a trip to an art museum might give you a renewed verbal palette from which to work. Perhaps a concert or opera might double as a fun outing, and a shared experience your members can each reference in future conversations.
Consider reading and discussing a book together. Here are a few books that I have personally found to be useful for discussion in a writing group context:
1. A Syllable of Water: Twenty Writers of Faith Reflect on Their Art edited by Emilie Griffin
2. Bandersnatch: C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the Creative Collaboration of the Inklings by Diana Pavlac Glyer
3. The Writing Life by Annie Dillard