Online Conversation | The Inklings, Creativity, and Community
with Diana Glyer
On February 12th we were delighted to welcome award-winning author and professor Diana Glyer. Glyer is intrigued by the creative process, particularly the way that creativity thrives within small groups and creative clusters. She has written extensively on the lives and work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and their beloved community known as The Inklings.
We hope you enjoy this conversation on the importance of collaboration and the necessity of friendship to the creative process. Especially in our ongoing season of isolation and social restrictions we hope this will inspire you to think imaginatively about how you can cultivate generative and culture-shaping friendships and communities.
The song is “The Lakes” by Rachel Portman from the movie Miss Potter.
This painting is The Times of Day: The Afternoon by Caspar David Friedrich, 1821-22.
Special thanks to our co-hosts:
Transcript of “The Inklings, Creativity, and Community” with Diana Glyer
Cherie Harder: On behalf of all of us at the Trinity Forum, I’d like to welcome you to today’s Online Conversation with Diana Glyer on “The Inklings, Creativity, and Community.” We’re going to be talking about friendship and creative collaboration, and so I’d like to thank our friends at the Rabbit Room, the Wade Center at Wheaton, the C.S. Lewis Foundation, the Cultivating Project, Square Halo Books, who are all cohosting in this conversation with us. We are really just delighted to be able to collaborate with you in this creative endeavor. If you are new to the work of the Trinity Forum, we seek to provide a space to engage the big questions of life in the context of faith and to offer programs like this conversation to do so, in hopes of all of us coming to better know the Author of the answers.
And to do that today, we have the pleasure of discussing big questions around creativity and community, friendship, and both spiritual and vocational formation with renowned scholar and award-winning author Diana Glyer. Diana is a professor at the Honors College at Azusa Pacific University, where she’s received numerous teaching awards and scholarly honors for her work, as well as an internationally recognized expert on C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, who she has studied for more than 40 years. In addition to her many scholarly articles, she’s also the author of The Company They Keep: C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien and Writers in Community and Bandersnatch: C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the Creative Collaboration of the Inklings, which we’ve just invited her here today to discuss and explore what the fellowship of the Inklings may have to teach us about the creative potential of our own friendships and communities.
Diana Glyer: Thank you so much. It’s really an honor to be here, I’m looking forward to it.
Cherie Harder: Well, it’s great to have you here. So let’s just dive right in. At the very beginning of your book Bandersnatch, you describe discovering C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien while you were still a teenager and then learning they were friends who spoke frequently. And from that point on, this seemed to almost obsess you, finding out what it was that they talked about when they got together. What was it about their friendship, themselves, that just so entranced you that you would spend so much of your life studying it?
Diana Glyer: Oh, that’s such a great question. Thank you for that. So I did discover these authors when I was in high school, and I discovered Tolkien first. It was a time when so many of my friends were reading The Lord of the Rings, and that great tome just captured our imagination, re-enchanted our sense of life and also of community. So I read that, I loved that book. I discovered Charles Williams and C.S. Lewis from there. I was a reader, and so I was reading everything I could get my hands on. When I discovered that C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien were friends, when I discovered that my two favorite authors actually knew each other, I was absolutely blown away. It was like discovering that Aristotle and Shakespeare had been best buddies and met regularly at Starbucks for conversations, you know.
So when I discovered that Lewis and Tolkien were friends, my burning curiosity was what did they talk about? But beyond that, as a creative person myself, I was wondering what difference did those conversations make to the work that they were doing? And so I thought those were really easy questions. What did they say? And what difference did it make? But I found that no one had really written about that particular aspect of that relationship. And so I started digging into their own words, the diaries, the manuscripts. One of the great joys for me was to be able to read some of the early drafts of Lord of the Rings and some of the other works, and to note that there were notes in the margins where Tolkien gave credit for his ideas or for corrections and changes in his manuscript to other members of this group, the Inklings.
Cherie Harder: So how did Lewis and Tolkien become friends to start with? Because as you note in your book, it doesn’t seem like there was a particularly great initial first impression. I think you wrote that Lewis said that Tolkien needed a good smack.
Diana Glyer: Yeah. Well, yeah, that’s what Lewis said. So they met at a faculty meeting at Oxford, in the English school at Oxford. At the time, Lewis was a brand-new faculty member. It was his first year in his very first teaching job, and he was at the lowest possible level of being a teacher there at Oxford. Tolkien was also new to the faculty, but he had been teaching for years at Leeds University, north of Oxford. And so he came in as a professor, as a respected scholar. I think that maybe their negative reaction was influenced by the fact that they met at a faculty meeting. That tends not to be a warm and charitable environment for two people to make acquaintance. But they had a number of differences that made it very difficult for them to connect. So Tolkien was a lifelong Catholic. He was a firm believer in our Lord. And that was something that was steady and constant throughout his life. You may be aware that Lewis’s faith journey was much more circuitous. And at the time that Lewis and Tolkien met, Lewis was not a believer. And so there was initial suspicion because of difference in faith.
And believe it or not, this may sound odd, but there was also suspicion because of the difference in their academic disciplines. So Lewis had a background in great books, in classic literature, in philosophy and the philosophy of literature, and also in English literature. So he’s a literature professor, literature teacher. That was his disciplinary lens. That’s kind of how he viewed things. Tolkien was a great scholar of literature, but the way that he encountered it, the way that he asked and answered questions really had their roots in philology, the love of language. Linguistics was his training, and language was his passion. And these are two very different worldviews.
So you have a difference in faith, you have a difference in academic approach, right, and a number of other differences, including a difference in temperament. So Tolkien was a more reserved individual, more shy, kind of what you would imagine, a more sensitive, more introverted in some ways, I guess, more reflective. Lewis was a much bolder individual. One of his friends said, “Lewis came straight at you.” He was a robust individual, loved people, loved laughter, and tended to attract people to his circle. So Lewis’s view is kind of “the more the merrier.” So you see these differences between them. And so their first meeting was not very auspicious. They had a lot of differences to overcome in order to become friends.
Cherie Harder: But they also had something very important in common, it seems, which was a love of fairly obscure stories, Norse and Celtic and the like, and would love for you to describe a little bit about how they started meeting, even with, I think there was a group called the Coalbiters.
Diana Glyer: Right. Right. So a lot of times we think about Lewis and Tolkien, we think straight about the Inklings. And I think that that is a fascinating group. And I think that’s a really great place to end up. But where we start is not with the Inklings; it’s with this group, the Coalbiters. So, as I said, when Lewis and Tolkien met, they had these vast differences. There was a chasm between them in terms of where they were coming from on so many levels. But one of the things that happened is they got into an academic fight about the curriculum. So this was a discussion about what books should be required for students, for scholars in the undergraduate program. And I don’t know, Cherie, if you’ve been in these kinds of academic battles, but academics fight fiercely for which books they should require as part of the essential curriculum for undergrads. And that was the battle. And Lewis and Tolkien found themselves on opposite ends of that particular debate. And what was interesting to me is, rather than continuing to argue and give reasons—”This should be here, this should be left out. This is what we need to do. No, we should do this”—instead of fighting at the level of conclusions, Tolkien had what I think was a brilliant strategy. He said, “Why don’t I just invite a bunch of these individuals, these faculty members, over to my house, and why don’t we study these old books together? Because if I can win over their hearts to love this literature, then that will resolve this curricular debate.”
I thought that was brilliant. And it partakes of something that C.S. Lewis talks about later in his book, The Four Loves, where he contrasts the gaze one to another, looking upon one another, with the idea that friends stand side by side, looking in the same direction together, and that can forge a really close friendship. So common interests, a common passion, a common cause, right? Gazing at that together and then working side by side for that cause. And in this case, the cause was ancient Icelandic sagas. Now, if I’d gotten invited to that group to sit in Tolkien’s living room and translate old Norse sagas out loud on the spot from Old Norse to English, I don’t know, I might have taken a pass on that particular invitation. But for Lewis, this was some literature that he had loved all his life. And this was his first chance to really study it in depth in the original language. So he got won over, not only to a deeper love of this literature, but also to a deep friendship with someone who, despite all the differences, loved the same kinds of books that he did.
Cherie Harder: You know, I’d love to get your thoughts on how they influenced each other. We tend to think of both Lewis and Tolkien as, you know, fairly solitary geniuses with just a prodigious output of the works that they produced. But when they first met, they really had not published all that much. And I think at one point you even wrote in the book that Lewis basically published almost all of his works either at the suggestion or encouragement of someone else. So how is it that they affected each other’s writings or spurred each other’s writings? How did that relationship work?
Diana Glyer: Yeah, there’s a lot of different examples and different ways that they influenced each other. So, after the Coalbiters, this literary discussion group, came to an end, Lewis and Tolkien developed the habit of just getting together on Monday mornings for conversation. And I find that in overcoming some of these differences and in trying to create creative communities, their decision to get together once a week to simply enjoy conversation and have a meal together, it’s kind of the secret, I think. We think about trying to form an Inklings group or create our own Inklings or start a movement. And what I love about the model of the Inklings and what we can learn from them is that it started in the simplest way possible. It’s two guys having lunch. Two guys who make a commitment to spending regular, unstructured time together and talking and listening, learning about each other, sharing their interests, and then sharing a meal. From that core, other writers came along and formed around that group. And so that’s how the group took shape.
Well, what’s interesting is that during those luncheon times, in December of 1929, Tolkien took a leap of faith to actually invite Lewis into his creative process by sharing a poem he had been working on, a poem called “The Lay of Leithian.” And Lewis took that poem, took it home, read it. That night he wrote an enthusiastic letter of gratitude, about a page long. And in that letter, he praised Tolkien’s imagination, thanked him for the privilege of reading it, and said, “I would have loved this poem if I had stumbled across it by an anonymous author.” And that was all very well and good, because one of the key things that we see in the Inklings is a habit of encouragement, encouragement and praise. And it’s worth emphasizing, I think, that there’s a difference between encouragement and praise. Praise is oriented toward the work. “This is a good poem.” Right? Encouragement is directed toward the author. “You are doing some marvelous things in the work that you’re producing.” So we see in that first letter both encouragement and also praise.
But here’s the thing that is so fascinating about that initial critique between these two authors is that Lewis ends his letter by saying, “There are some criticisms, some critiques, some thoughts on individual lines, some quibbles about your poetry. And I’ll write about that in a later letter.” Well, three weeks later, Tolkien gets this later letter with the quibbles in it. It’s 14 pages long, 14 pages of specific—
Cherie Harder: A lot of quibbles!
Diana Glyer: —drag-out kind of comments. You know, Lewis even rewrote several of the lines of the poem to show Tolkien how it might sound better. Here’s the thing. You look at that. There’s a letter of praise and encouragement, half a page or so long. Then there’s this 14 pages of detailed criticism and advice. And Tolkien loved the second letter better than the first, because it means that maybe for the first time in his life, he has found someone who cares enough about truth and quality and literature and poetry to invest his very best attention in calling forth Tolkien’s best. Tolkien had found someone who cared deeply and invested his full talents in bringing out the best in somebody else. And I think that that devotion to other people, that sacrificial giving of ourselves, to calling forth and blessing and encouraging one another is the essence of what made the Inklings so successful.
So from there, Lewis returns the favor and starts sharing some poetry of his own. And the conversation group becomes a critique group. It moves from the East Gate Hotel to Lewis’s rooms. And over time, there were 19 individuals who met together every week over a period of 17 years to share the creative work that they were doing.
Cherie Harder: Diana, that is so fascinating, and I’d love to just sort of go a little bit deeper with that and ask you more about the role that difference plays, not just between Lewis and Tolkien, but within the Inklings, in that there were several members of the Inklings who frankly didn’t always like each other’s work, sometimes not at all. I think Lewis even referred to Owen Barfield, a member of the Inklings, as his oppositional friend, his second friend, where they both loved the same things, but for entirely different reasons. First of all, how did they keep that kind of disagreement or critique constructive? And what was it about that critique that served as a creative catalyst?
Diana Glyer: Yeah, when we think about the Inklings, we’re really tempted to think about them as a sort of homogenous group with a group mind, with common values, with very, very similar outlooks. They were very, very different. They weren’t even all academics. There was a local physician who was an important member of the group. Owen Barfield, who you mentioned, such an important and key member of the group from the start: he’s a solicitor; he’s a lawyer by profession. So you have different professions recognized there and you have different perspectives, different faith traditions. There were even some students that Lewis invited to join the group. And so there’s a great range of ages. But what you have is an interest in common things.
You asked the question, how does the critique keep from being destructive? And I think the Inklings, again, give us a great example of the nature of that. So some people think that criticism is easiest to take if you sandwich it in between a compliment and then the criticism and then the compliment, right. We talk about the sandwich technique of management. Most people can see right through that technique. You know, they understand what’s happening there. What we learn from the Inklings is that almost any amount of criticism—bold, direct and directive criticism—can be borne if we honestly believe that the person has our best interest in mind. So that’s why we talk about the difference between constructive criticism and destructive criticism. There is a constructive criticism, one that says, no, you can do better. In fact, a lot of the times that’s all that C.S. Lewis said to Tolkien. He said, “Better, Tollers! You can do better.” So rather than giving advice, it was just, “You’ve got more than this. There’s more to you. I want to see— This is not your best work. You’ve got more to give.” And that kind of encouragement that draws out and blesses those gifts, I think, is what made the Inklings so successful. And it is the difference that allows people to see what’s working and what’s not working. We need perspectives other than our own in order to recognize where things maybe are going amiss or awry.
In the Inklings there was one fellow who’s become rather infamous for hating The Lord of the Rings, and his name was Hugo Dyson. And Hugo Dyson started to complain when Tolkien brought chapters from The Lord of the Rings. Apparently the story goes that he would roll his eyes and he would say, “Oh, no, not more elves.” You know, that wasn’t constructive criticism. In fact, that wasn’t criticism at all. What Dyson brought to the Inklings, unfortunately, was a spirit of dismissal. Right? What Hugo Dyson did is say, “Your stuff isn’t worth listening to. I don’t want to hear what you have to say.” And a dismissive spirit is very, very different than the kind of constructive help that creatives need as we try to bring new things into being.
Cherie Harder: You know, that same Hugo Dyson, along with Tolkien, Lewis at one point credited with being the immediate human causes of his own conversion. So I’d love to hear your thoughts on how what started as a friendship around Icelandic stories, which grew into a group around literature, ultimately became a vehicle for spiritual transformation for at least one member of the Inklings. And what was the power of this group that essentially led from enjoying stories together or creating writing projects together to something much deeper and more spiritual and even theological?
Diana Glyer: So when the Inklings described themselves, they said there were basically two things that were the foundation that everybody had in common, and one was Christianity and the other was a tendency to write. And so the name Inklings focuses on the use of ink, but also the idea of we bring our fleeting notions, our unformed projects, our beginning ideas, and we allow them to unfold within the company of this group. Spirituality did not play a big part in the meetings themselves but in the larger context of the gatherings of these groups. One of the things that I see throughout the life of the Inklings is how often they would ask one another to be in prayer for one another. Now, they weren’t a prayer group, but they often said, “I’m doing this project or I’m working on this or I’m struggling with this. Will you pray for me?” So the need for prayer and the support of prayer is all behind the scenes in this network of support that they formed.
But as I said earlier, C.S. Lewis had a very circuitous route to faith. And there’s lots of things about that that give me hope when I think about friends of mine who have not yet come into the family of faith, that sometimes for some people, it’s not a simple path. It is a roundabout, year-after-year kind of journey. And so these Inklings met outside of these Thursday meetings. Famously, they met on Tuesday mornings at the Eagle and Child Pub. But they also would regularly meet in twos and threes for walks or at the pub for conversation. So the Inklings meetings that we tend to focus so much on actually are taking place in a whole web of different kinds of activities. It’s worth mentioning, if I might, really quickly, that the Inklings group wasn’t the only group that these members were members of. And so there’s a series of different groups that have slightly different functions.
But during one of the meetings between Lewis, Hugo Dyson, and Tolkien, there was a famous evening where they went for a walk on an area that goes around Magdalene called Addison’s Walk. And Lewis was struggling with the possibility that Christianity might be true, what he calls “true myths,” or a true way of thinking about the way that the world actually works. And it was that conversation with Hugo Dyson, a man who he constantly would butt heads with, and his friend Tolkien, a man who he didn’t originally feel a connection with, it was that conversation that caused C.S. Lewis to seriously consider the possibility that Christianity was true, that the life and death and resurrection of Christ had actually happened, and that that was worth putting his faith in.
Cherie Harder: One of the seeming paradoxes, at least to this reader of your book, is that while it seems just so overwhelming the evidence of how different members of the Inklings influenced each other in terms of their vocation and their outlook, their imagination, even their spiritual convictions—at the time, it seemed like they sort of denied having that influence. You quoted Lewis saying that when it comes to Tolkien, you might as well try to influence a Bandersnatch. And when you first set about writing this book, some of the advice that you received was like, “Don’t waste your time. There’s no evidence that they influenced each other.” So I guess one question is, you know, when Lewis is both simultaneously attributing his conversion to the influence of his friends, most of what he has published is in response to the encouragement or the urging of someone else, why did they not see the influence of each other in their lives?
Diana Glyer: It’s always hard for me when I’m talking to audiences or meeting with writers to really get them to believe that, for the longest time, everything that was written about the Inklings insisted that these members who met once or twice a week over almost two decades had no influence on each other. How is it possible that they’d be so intimately involved in one another’s work, not just after it was written, but even before at the level of “I have an idea, I’m thinking about writing this kind of story or I’m wondering about this kind of a project.” And they would talk together before pen touched paper about how this might take shape and what might be included and what approach might be taken. That’s a really important aspect of these meetings is even before anybody has written anything, not just critiquing the final products. How is it possible that those conversations ongoingly did not have influence? And it has to do with the way that influence is normally defined.
So for the Inklings, like for many literary critics, the idea of influence is a negative term, and it is very closely aligned with imitation or being an echo or being in debt to someone else or at the at the worst, copying, being non-original. So this idea had really a chokehold, I think, in how we view influence and the nature of influence. And you see what’s sometimes called the anxiety of influence, people saying, “Oh, no, no, no, I was not influenced.” As if to say so is to say, “I came up with this by myself. I’m not copying.” But influence in terms of the nature of the product and influence in terms of the whole stream of the process are very, very different. So if you wanted to see— What’s a way to explain this? If you wanted to see influence of a product. You might know that I’m a painter. So you look at my painting and you look at Picasso’s painting and you say, “Ah, I see similarities in terms of the colors or the composition. I see that she’s influenced by the technique of that work, because I see those similarities in these two works.” And so, so many influence studies within all of the arts—music, film, literature, visual arts—they’re based on the idea of similarity in the product.
And I think what I wanted to bring to the table was that’s really good, but it’s different than the kind of influence that happens when people are contemporaries, when they’re meeting at the same time, when they’re meeting together, when they are involved in the process. Right? And they’re speaking into the work every stage of the way. And that’s what I’d really like to encourage us to think about. The difference between the product being similar and the process being collaborative, being intertwined in the support and help, the correction, the editing, the praise, the encouragement of others who are with you in the process. So we think about all of the arts in such solitary terms. Right? We even have a stereotype of the writer in the attic during the storm typing away on the typewriter. Right? “It was a dark and stormy night.” And you have the solo genius waiting for the thrill of the muse to kind of take over the work. And that’s a myth. That’s a lie. It’s a lie that most creative work takes place that way.
It’s harder to see, I think, in writing, because writing does have a strong solitary component. I sit alone at my desk right over here and I write and I think. But even there I am writing to someone. If you could see my desk, you’d see that above my computer screen I have pictures of some of the people that I keep in mind and I keep in heart as I’m writing. Writing is essentially transactional. Now, there’s some writing that we do just for ourselves. I might journal, or if I can confess, I write very bad poetry, and that’s not transactional. I write that for myself. But most of the writing that I do, like an article that you might write or a blog post that I might create or a book like Bandersnatch, I write those hoping that they are transactional, that there’s someone to whom these words will have meaning. And it is that transactional aspect that I think that we miss when we’re thinking about the whole concept of influence. So I think that’s the reason why the Inklings denied influences. They thought they were being accused of imitation. And actually, when you look at the works of Lewis, the works of Tolkien, the products, you see things very, very different. They’re doing very different kinds of things. Lewis, in fact, says that one of the benefits of the right kind of friend is that they will make you more like yourself as they are critiquing your work. They’re not imposing their vision on you, but they’re helping you to sound more like you and, more than that, your very best self.
Cherie Harder: Now this is an entirely speculative question, but it was one that came to mind as I was reading your book. You know, many of us are probably feeling a little bit envious of the Inklings. Wouldn’t it be amazing to be in a creative group with the likes of Tolkien and Lewis and the others? Would Tolkien and Lewis be who we know of as Tolkien and Lewis without the influence of the Inklings?
Diana Glyer: I don’t think that they would be who they were at all. I don’t think they would have produced what they produced. When you look at what they wrote before they connected and you look at what they produced after they connected—completely different work. And in fact, we can trace some really specific turning points where they influenced each other to a particular decision. One of those is an event called “the wager” by most people who study these guys. And so before they were authors, before they were well known, when they were just two teachers going to lunch, right, they spurred one another on with a challenge. They threw down a gantlet to write what they called more of the stories we like to read. Not enough stuff out there that’s the kind of thing that we enjoy, so let’s just write it ourselves. It really reminds me of when I was an undergrad and we’d sit around and we’d think we’re going to really do something really great. You know, we were nobodies and we were thinking, “We got big dreams and we can pull off these great big projects.” And so Lewis and Tolkien had not written novels before, but they challenged one another to write novels that were the kind that they like. And what they meant by that was, first of all, that they would be what they called “excursionary thrillers.” So there would be an excursion or a journey, and it would have the quality of a thriller. It would awaken the emotions as well as the intellect.
What they also wanted to do is capture something that they called myth. Now, when we think about the word “myth,” unfortunately, it’s been tainted by the idea that a myth is an untruth. We talk about, “oh, that’s just a myth,” as in “that’s just a lie.” In English teacher circles, we use the word myth to talk about those things that capture the underlying values of a culture. What is most important to a people? That’s what myth does. And for Lewis and Tolkien, it was not just that, but it was also the idea that it carried with it a sense of a larger world than just the material world, that the material world is not all that there is, but there’s a larger reality and we’re in it. And so they wanted to write stories that would do that.
So they talk about this idea. They challenge one another to write and then they toss a coin. Lewis starts writing a space travel novel. Tolkien starts writing a time travel novel. And that wager is the reason that we have ultimately The Lord of the Rings, because it sparked in Tolkien a trajectory that took him toward that great work. Lewis started that night writing a book called Out of the Silent Planet. And I can’t help mentioning, I think that when Lewis started that book, he had Tolkien in mind because the story opens with a philologist, a linguist, somebody who’s lost on a walking tour because he hasn’t planned his trip well enough and someone who eventually gets kidnaped and taken out to outer space. And so, again, it was a conversation, an encouragement, a challenge. And then even through the writing of those things, listening carefully to one another and then encouraging one another on in the next steps of that journey.
Cherie Harder: We’re going to get to audience questions in just a minute. But before we do, I’d feel remiss without asking you before we move on: I’m sure many of us are feeling, again, just a little bit envious of the Inklings group, but perhaps also inspired to make a go of it ourselves, to initiate such a group or to bolster such a group. Having studied the Inklings for essentially 40 years of your life, are there any things we can learn from them, lessons from the Inklings in terms of fostering or catalyzing that kind of creative cluster in our own lives?
Diana Glyer: I think we have to start, Cherie, with some assumptions about the kind of people that we interact with. So what made the Inklings work so well was largely their difference. And so we think—every time I read articles about the Inklings, I see somebody trying to say that they got along despite their differences. And what I really want to argue and what I love to hone in on is, no, they were successful because of those differences. The dynamic energy came because of the difference in point of view. So if we want to think like an Inkling, we need to start by cultivating genuine friendship with people who come at things very differently, who have a different point of view. Now that sounds dangerous in this contentious age that we live in. But I think that it’s absolutely essential that we understand the importance of difference and different points of views and the way that they can help us. I encourage people listening to think about how curiosity and humility can help to energize the kinds of interactions that we have. I think about the conflicts that are so common in this season of our lives. We disagree at the level of our conclusions on so many things in so many ways. Think about Lewis and Tolkien even disagreeing about what should we do about curricular matters. Many of us are struggling with conflicts and difficulties that are much more difficult, much, much more challenging than that. So looking at the value of people from different points of view and getting below the level of conclusions to the level of values. And we do that by curiosity. Why do you believe that? Why is that important to you? What does that mean to you? Why is that worth fighting for? Help me to understand more about that perspective. My friend Jerry Root, he likes to say the person you disagree with knows something you don’t know. Find out what that is. And I think that’s such a great way to enter into a deeper level of connection with people who have different points of view.
But practically speaking, I think when we think about forming our own Inklings group, we think about somehow jumping into the Inklings as they were in their mature years, the mature years of their group. I think we need to go back to the beginning. Right? Two guys who say, “Hey, I’m interested in what you have to say. I’m interested in the work that you’re doing. Could we start meeting for lunch? Could we”—to translate it towards our current conversation—”could we go for a walk? Could we get on the Zoom call and just kind of talk about what we’re reading, what we’re thinking, what we’re enjoying, what we’re going through? Can we have some unstructured time where we have the privilege of just digging deeper into the conversation about things that mattered deeply to us?”
Easiest way, I think, to go about that is exactly what Tolkien did, which is start a book discussion. Most people are not threatened by that. And it’s wonderful to have some substantial content in a book that people are interested in sharing. And so that’s a good starting point. Remember that the Inklings grew from a very simple practice of regular getting together. And I also think we need to not limit our ideas to the idea of a critique group. So there are lots of different kinds of groups and kinds of creative circles. And I think it’s wise for us to think about what is it that we really need? Do we need people to talk with about ideas? Do we need people to speak into our own creative process? I am part of a creative artist prayer fellowship. I felt a profound need more than anything else for just prayer, ability to pray for others and support their work through prayer, and also to be prayed for faithfully on a regular basis. And so we meet twice a month, and we’ve been meeting for more than 20 years simply for that. So understanding what kind of a group we need. Do we need a problem-solving group, a mastermind group, a book discussion group? Lots of different kinds of groups that can open the door to the kind of dynamic that the Inklings enjoyed.
Cherie Harder: Thanks for that, Diane. I should acknowledge that that last question of mine basically was a synopsis of questions asked by several of our audience members, including Jenny Savage and Clinton Manley and many others. Elena Forsyth asked, “I’ve heard the Inklings kind of fell apart over criticisms of each other’s work towards the end. What can we learn from that?”
Diana Glyer: Yeah, that seems to be the case. I think that the group came to an end because of the criticism, the dismissal of Hugo Dyson. So, again, it wasn’t criticism or disagreement. Remember, back to the very, very, very beginning when Tolkien shared his “Lay of Leithian,” his poem, with Lewis. Tolkien shares this poem. Lewis writes 14 pages of criticism. How could you be more critical than that? Lewis rewrites several of the stanzas. How can you be more critical than that? And Tolkien loved it. So it’s not criticism per se. It’s dismissal. And that, I think, is the key, when we say to one another, “I’m not interested in what you’re up to. I don’t care about the things that you value. I don’t want to hear what you have to say.” And I think what that did is it sort of shut down the creative freedom within that group, that when Dyson was there and Tolkien was supposed to read, to be shut down that way publicly among friends. I think that was a death blow to the open, safe environment that was created before that time among the Inklings.
Cherie Harder: That’s a great point. So Grace Andrews asks, “How would I learn to ask the kinds of questions that encourage people to be more themselves?” And similarly, Glenn Martin asks, “In a society with such divisive criticism of styles, how would you suggest we educate young people to work towards giving and receiving bold, direct criticism with their best interest at heart?”
Diana Glyer: Huh. Those are two really, really big questions. Wonderful questions. Let me see what I can do. How can we get better at asking questions? I think that the— I think the essence is learning to listen and being genuinely interested in the answer. Getting better at asking questions and being genuinely interested in the answers. So often we discuss in order to prove or disprove, to assert our view or to combat someone else’s view. I think that the pause is a really good tool. And I think that asking such simple questions as “tell me more.” We can even preface that with, “I look at that differently. Can you tell me more? Can you tell me more about how you came to that conclusion?” Because, again, we’re getting beyond the level of just the conclusion. I want to get underneath it. “I look at it differently. Can you tell me what contributes to that point of view?” “I haven’t thought about that. Help me think through how you came to that conclusion.” So we’re trying to work through what’s behind it. What are the values that are expressed there? I think, in a conversation like that, the motive cannot be to change the other person. The motive has to be to try to truly understand, as Saint Francis says in his wonderful prayer, that we would seek first to understand and then to be understood. And when we do that, we may not be successful in changing another person’s point of view, but I think what does happen is that something in our souls expands with gratitude and admiration when we understand why people believe what they do. And I think that the more we can do to kind of dig down to those lower levels, we can come away with the conclusion that basically says, “I don’t agree with you, but now I understand why you believe what you do. And I’m grateful that you’ve helped me to understand that better.”
Cherie Harder: So we have an interesting question from Raymond Beasley, and Raymond asks, “What do you sense may be the blessing that may flow to the world from communities of creatives who are mutually committed to living their best lives and making their best creations?”
Diana Glyer: Thank you for that question. So, Cherie, you mentioned that I’ve been doing this for a really long time. I’ve been endlessly fascinated. I think you may have used the word obsessed, but I’m going to let that go. I am fascinated with the importance of contradicting the myth that creativity is a solo activity. Because I see what’s at stake. I honestly believe that it is the spirit of the age and the enemy of our souls that wants to divide us and separate us, that we feel that we have to go it alone, that we have to maintain faith in the work that we’re doing and the things that we believe, and we have to do it all by ourselves. We’re not built for that. Creativity, in its essence, isn’t supposed to look like that. That’s a lie from the pit of hell. Right? That’s what’s at stake, and that’s why I keep reading and researching and talking about it. We are, in fact, wired for community.
If I can just talk about one really quick idea. This came alive to me when I discovered some research that was done back in the 1970s. And researchers were looking very closely at how it is that infants learn to talk. And they were assuming that if you have a radio on or if there’s certain kinds of things in the visual environment or, you know, these kinds of things, that if you do that—play Mozart, right—then their neural pathways would develop and language would automatically happen. What they discovered was—it floored them. It wasn’t anything that they expected. There were two incredible discoveries that came out of that early research. The first one was that the biggest gains in what are called neural connections were made when a caregiver would hold an infant and look into their face and then begin to speak. And something happened in that infant that was measurable in terms of the growth of neural connections. It was a physical change there. Their brains became more complex. These new connections were made simply by that act of eye-to-eye connection. But here’s what—they didn’t expect that—but here’s what they were really surprised by. The caregivers’ brains also changed. The number of neural connections, the neurological capacity for the caregivers also was transformed, eye-to-eye with these infants talking and connecting. We’re made for connection, and if we want to grow in our capacity to think clearly, to enter into dynamic relationships, and to do terrific creative work, whether that’s painting or music or scholarship, we need to really tap into the way that God made us, which is to collaborate and to work together. When we do that, things change. Things change.
Cherie Harder: That’s great, Diana. So one of our co-hosts, David Downing, asks, “Is there such a thing as a bad influence? Some critics argue that Lewis’s work That Hideous Strength shows a negative influence of Charles Williams’ fiction?” And on a similar note of pushback Danielle Miller asks, “What do you do when you don’t have anyone to cheer you on? When you don’t have that, how do you develop healthy, meaningful connections?”
Diana Glyer: Well, yes, there is such a thing as negative influence, and perhaps to That Hideous Strength. Some people say it was destroyed by connection with Charles Williams, but that goes back to the imitative impulse. Some people don’t like That Hideous Strength because it has a lot of the characteristics or qualities of imitating what Charles Williams’ unique perspective was as a fiction writer. Did that destroy That Hideous Strength? Some people believe it. For other people, That Hideous Strength is their favorite C.S. Lewis book because C.S. Lewis incorporates a different way of going about storytelling influenced by his friend Charles Williams.
What do we do if we don’t have a group that speaks into our life? I think we start small and we pray hard. We start small. Is there someone else who’s engaged in creative work? Someone that we know, someone that we feel safe with? Can we connect with them? Perhaps over Zoom? I have creative friends that I connect with over Zoom during these difficult days of all of the shutdowns. And we meet regularly, and sometimes it’s really simple. We just talk about what are you working on right now? How’s that going for you? How can I be praying for you? What do you hope to accomplish between today and next Wednesday when we meet again? And just simply sharing that. Now, we may not be working on similar projects. One of my friends that I do that with, she’s working on a novel. I’m trying to get another scholarly book finished, and we’re both really struggling. But once a week, I know that we’re going to connect. We’re just going to check in tenderly with one another, ask how it’s going, encourage one another, and then commit to pray for one another. One of the things that that does is it creates a little bit of I guess what most people call accountability, but what I call expectation. Right. So I am expectant that when Hannah and I connect on next Wednesday, she will have done more work. And I know she’s going to be expectant. So if I say I need to read these two other books and write another page and a half, she will stand on tiptoe in expectation that I complete that work by the time we next meet. And expectation is a powerful counterbalance to procrastination.
Cherie Harder: It certainly is. We’ll take one last question from, I believe, a mutual friend of ours. Lancia Smith asks, “Do you have a favorite discovery about the Inklings and the agency of collaboration uncovered in your research?”
Diana Glyer: Trying to pick a favorite anything, a favorite book, a favorite song, a favorite— it’s always very, very difficult to me. Hmm. I think I may be stumped to do that. I think it’s maybe something that I said earlier, that we don’t have a very robust understanding of the idea of encouragement, what encouragement means. The word— Tolkien would be pleased in its essence to look at the linguistics of the word. It means to put heart into someone. So something I learned from the Inklings and something that I have experienced in my own group, my own prayer group that’s been meeting over these 20 years, is there are very real and robust ways that we can hold hope for one another. I remember when I was working on The Company They Keep; that book took me 23 years to write. And there were times when I was working on that when I was just as discouraged as discouraged can be. Like so many authors, I had sent out proposal after proposal and publisher after publisher said, “There’s nothing new to say about the Inklings. There’s nobody who’s interested in these authors. We don’t need any more books about C.S. Lewis.” And I was so discouraged. I went to one of these meetings with my group and I told them, I said, “I’m finished. I, honestly, I don’t believe in this project anymore. It has been rejected so often. And some of the comments have been so dismissive and cruel. I just, I can’t. I just can’t believe in it anymore.” And my friend Joe turned to me and said, “That’s OK. I’ll believe in it for you until you can believe in it again. I’ll believe in it for you.” He said, “Diana, I can see you walking in this room, this very room, my living room with a box of books, and I will believe in that until you can believe it for yourself.” That’s encouragement. That’s the essence of encouragement. And I think maybe that’s my favorite insight, that that is something that’s real, it’s tangible. And it’s a tremendous gift that we can give to one another. We can hold hope for one another. We really can.
Among people who’ve studied Lewis for a while, we think about what was C.S. Lewis’s best work. Was it Screwtape Letters? Was it Mere Christianity? Was it The Chronicles of Narnia? But I think that there is a consensus that probably the best thing he ever wrote was a sermon that he gave called “The Weight of Glory.” And I want to turn to that for just this few moments, because I think that what that sermon does for us is help us understand what’s underneath, for Lewis, his ability to bridge difference and to engage in these kinds of long-term ongoing creative conversations. It’s his view of the human person that animates his power to be able to really commit to these kinds of relationships.
So to read an excerpt from “The Weight of Glory,” C.S. Lewis says this: He says, “It is a serious thing to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature, which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare.” Here’s the key: “All day long, we are in some degree helping each other to one or the other of these destinations, a heavenly direction or a hellish one. It is in light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them that we should conduct all of our dealings with one another, all friendships, all love, all play, all politics. Why? Because there are no ordinary people. You’ve never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, art, civilization, these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit. Immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.”
So that’s the end of that quote. And I just, I love that Lewis underscores for us that all day long, in every interaction that we have with any other person, we are in some degree helping each other to one or the other of these destinations. We do it by our behavior, by our attentiveness, by our kindness and patience. We do it by cultivating curiosity and remembering humility. We do this by speaking truth directly, fiercely, honestly. But by balancing it with grace and love. And when we do, when we do, we begin to loosen the grip of evil and death, and we begin to defeat the things that divide us.
Cherie Harder: Thank you, Diana. That was beautiful. Thank you to all of you for joining us. Have a great weekend.