There’s a lot of talk these days about finding one’s “tribe” or one’s “people.” If taken to extremes or left unexamined, this attitude can worsen the polarization that plagues our society by excusing us from spending time with and listening to people who are different from us. But underlying this idea is a good impulse: the desire to connect with people who share our interests and joys.
Earlier this summer, I read Humphrey Carpenter’s The Inklings, which is a collective biography of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Charles Williams, but even more than that, a fascinating account of an unusual group of men who “found their people.” The Inklings, as many of my readers will probably know, were an informal club of friends–mostly Oxford and Cambridge academics, mostly Christians–who met for years, twice a week, to eat, drink, have intellectually rich discussions, and–most famously–read aloud from their works in progress, some of which turned out to be genre-defining sagas like The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia. The atmosphere of the group, as well as some weird ideas that floated around during their intense discussions (Carpenter doesn’t shy away from these), was shaped by the group’s demographics (almost exclusively middle-aged white Englishmen) and the times in which they lived. But within their similarity, they were a remarkably diverse group in their marital status, politics, religious expressions, and philosophies on all sorts of things (e.g., how a fantasy world should be constructed). And, by all accounts, their strongly-held, often opposing opinions made the group exciting, not threatening. They were fans of each other’s work (even when they criticized it), and most importantly, they were friends.
In the decades since the Inklings met, aspiring writers (especially fantasy nerds) have been trying to recapture the heady atmosphere of their meetings. I was once part of a creative writing group called, unabashedly, the Inklings, which held long, food-fueled sessions in which we read aloud from our works in progress and received gracious yet detailed feedback from our peers. Like the original Inklings, we were brought together not only by our love of stories but also (for most of us) by our Christian faith, which deeply informed our group’s philosophy even though hardly any of us were writing explicitly Christian literature. And like the original Inklings, many of us developed close, trusting friendships.
If you are a writer–or if you don’t write yourself, but you enjoy a good story and know how to give helpful feedback (or are willing to learn how)*–I encourage you to join a creative writing group. Don’t try too hard to recapture the atmosphere of the original Inklings; you’re not them. You don’t have to wear tweed or meet every week or even meet in person. (My old group moved to Zoom during the pandemic.) Not all creative writing groups even involve critique of works in progress; some focus on support, encouragement, learning new techniques, or even writing silently in each other’s presence. The greatest gift of a creative writing group is not the activities that happen during the meeting or even the works of literature that its members produce, but that feeling of belonging, of being understood by other people who also have stories in their heads. Or, as C.S. Lewis put it, “the moment when one man says to another ‘What! You too? I thought that no one but myself . . .'”
Subscribe to get notified of upcoming posts: an ode to my grandparents’ cabin in the western Maryland mountains and an explanation of how adjunct faculty get paid (much more interesting than it sounds!). Also, if you’re a fan of the Inklings, subscribe to my podcast, It’s Lit Time!, for an upcoming series on rereading J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-Earth saga.
*Several of the original Inklings weren’t writers; they just enjoyed hanging out with their friends and hearing their stories.