I’ve known about The Oxford Inklings for most of my lifetime. However, I didn’t become interested in them again until quite recently. For those of you who don’t know the story, The Inklings were an informal literary society and critique group that started meeting in Oxford during the 1930s. However, they weren’t just any group, they were made up of several writers who would go on to become awe-inspiring authors still popular today. This group also managed to influence and change the nature of fiction writing in profound ways and these literary developments lasted long after the group disbanded. Some legendary books got their start in the group’s critique trenches, including those of its most famous member J.R.R. Tolkien. Other members included C. S. Lewis, his brother Warren Lewis, Charles Williams and Owen Barfield.
Here are five things we can all learn from The Oxford Inklings about growing and maintaining a career-changing writer’s support group.
Be honest and move on:
The Inklings didn’t always agree and the critique in their own words could be “brutally honest.” Tolkien never approved of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, yet it didn’t stop Lewis from attending the meetings. Nor did it stop Tolkien from adopting whole lines of text verbatim from Lewis and his critique notes for The Hobbit. Most writing groups have moments of discord, but if they can’t embrace The Inklings no-hard-feelings attitude, the group is dead before it even starts.
Granted, the Inklings were a pretty homogenous group, all white and all male, but the one thing they weren’t was all academics and/or writers. They included a doctor, a lawyer and a professional military officer. Nor were they all the same type of writers. The epic tomes of Tolkien are a far cry from the sparse, one might almost say truncated language of Lewis. The members also wrote fiction in many different genres, and for both children and adults. They even wrote poems, plays, and nonfiction in the form of history, theology and scholarly works on a variety of subjects. Plus the club door was always open to newcomers and visitors, leading to a steady stream of new ideas and fresh perspectives.
Keep regular meetings:
The Inklings stayed together for decades. During the most significant years the group met once or twice a week with between six to eight members attending each meeting. The maintained this schedule even during the WWII years. There were about nineteen Inklings; members came and went, but a core membership held fast and continued to create memorable works regardless of shifts in attendance. The group meet in a number of places, but a favorite was a pub called The Eagle and Child. Members continue to meet well into the 1950s. The pub still stands.
Don’t have rules:
Although I would argue rules are helpful, the Inklings didn’t believe in them. They said the only group rules were: you must be a writer and Christian. They stuck to neither rule. They also firmly held to the position that they had no group leader. However, since the group started meeting in Lewis and Tolkien’s Oxford rooms, one could argue these two were the leaders. The group also never kept minutes or took roll. Everything we know about their meetings comes from the member’s personal journals, letters, and manuscript pages. We do know they encourage drinking, perhaps to make the being honest part easier to take.
Push the Envelope:
This group managed to fundamentally change fiction forever. They created unique narrative structures and predicted many future changes in literary theory. We are only now starting to understand what a dramatic influence this group had on writing craft and on future generations of writers. They did this by creating a safe environment where heated debate was encouraged. The members were always willing to take risks with their writing and they knew the others would respect their efforts, even if their execution was a failure.
The Inklings were lucky, they found a large group of like-minded writers living in the same community. They built long lasting relationships and learned to work collaboratively in order to encourage and promote each other’s work. All writers need this type of support system. If you can’t find your own Inklings in the local coffee shop, go out and find them online. Writing is lonely, so with the wisdom of The Inklings in hand, create your own critique group magic and make some writing history.