Learning from the Inklings


One afternoon long ago, while making a visit during office hours, I learned that my professor had been a pupil of C.S. Lewis.

It’s very likely I gaped and asked — with a great degree of sophistication and insight — “What was that like?” before remembering the graduate paper at hand and that one ought not to fawn in the presence of a distinguished scholar. Memory mercifully refuses to serve me well in this instance.

But as I stepped back into the hallway, I probably wished I’d gleaned one more detail about the author whose work I had stumbled upon as a young child. As a high school student, I found both glimmers of inconsolable joy and stakes of absolute truth in the seven Chronicles of Narnia. I’m not sure which came first — if Lewis’s descriptions of the Shadowlands helped me shape the longing I’d felt all my life into recognizable form, or if that longing had by then simply swelled out of its undercurrent so that it burst out upon finding Aslan’s Country — but I was indebted to him for these and other books, as I later became to Tolkien for Middle Earth and Valinor. Where did these tales come from — not merely the minds, but the lives? How could I find more of the sense of homecoming that I found within their pages?

I would gladly have made their work the subject of my studies, but this kind of research wasn’t done at my university. I settled down to focus on medieval and Renaissance literature instead, no doubt influenced by Lewis’s and Tolkien’s academic fields and their love of Myth. But however long I spent in Shakespearean courts and Old English mead halls, the old stab of yearning and high beauty called most strongly to me from the beloved texts of those two authors.

How strange and wonderful it was, then, to find myself at dinner last Friday with one of the world’s foremost experts on the Inklings!

I sat at table with other artists and patrons of the Anselm Society, shyly rolling the stem of a wine glass between my fingers as we drank in Diana Glyer’s observations on how creativity was nourished and challenged in the informal community of the Inklings. Many of these, with fantastic anecdotes, can be found in her book Bandersnatch — and many more were mentioned on Saturday night, when she spoke to a wider audience on “Finding Narnia in Middle Earth: What the Inklings Have to Teach Us About Making Each Other Better” (listen to the talk here). In these, I found the answers to numerous long-cherished questions.

The weekend also revealed Diana’s added gift of practicing what she presents. When asking about another’s craft or work-in-progress, she meets the answer with an exclamation or word of enthusiasm in a way that helps embolden the tentative who are afraid to lay claim to the word “artist” or “writer” or “musician.” Her encouragement was contagious, and on both evenings I so enjoyed connecting with others that I stayed out far too late for my introvert’s inner monitor to handle.

The weekend was, in a word, exhilarating. I’m content to let most of it trickle down through the months to follow, but one question that was posed Friday night keeps coming back to me: What is the response and the relationship of the [local] church to creativity today?

I didn’t reply at dinner, but I believe the answer is in Bandersnatch, and it’s been immediately helpful to this procrastinating perfectionist.

From my limited perspective, the church doesn’t always seem to know what to do with creativity. As much as we tell ourselves and our children that “your stories need to be heard,” and to “do what you were made to do,” very often our time and energy only allow for the support of close friends, or creatives who are already “established” — the author with a book launch, the painter or photographer with an art show, the band with a record. As a result, the pressure is frequently on the obscure artist to prove his worth even before his vision for a project or his craft in general has had time to mature.

But what I am learning from the Inklings, best portrayed in their example, is that creativity is as much a journey as sanctification. Lewis’ own process is telling:

For one thing, Lewis liked to try out his story ideas in more than one form, creating several variations of the same work. This is a radical form of revision, one that allowed him to explore various concepts, images, motifs, and phrasing, and paved the way for rapid composition once he discovered the best genre for the work. Dymer, for example, was first written in prose form, a second time in verse form, next as a ballad he called “The Red Maid,” and then a fourth and final time as a long epic poem. Till We Have Faces underwent a similar transformation: in November of 1922, Lewis recorded that he hoped to write a masque or play based on the Cupid and Psyche myth. But rather than writing it as a play, he spent the next year trying to write it as a poem. Then, more than 30 years later, he started all over again and wrote it as a novel. Perelandra also went through drastic changes. It started out as a short poem that included references to floating islands and a green lady. Lewis abandoned the poem, and sometime later, he wrote it as a novel.

In each of these examples, the final version was written very rapidly, with Lewis pausing only to dip his pen into the inkwell. But Lewis had been pondering these images and ideas for years. He had also attempted very different versions before he discovered their final form.” Bandersnatch, 90.

These long roads to the “final” works, even by this acclaimed author, suggest that creativity isn’t a fully-developed faerie-gift bestowed at birth. Its channels are rightly called a “craft” for a reason: excellence takes time, effort, and a willingness to whittle a half-formed work down to bare bones.

If this is true, then we are not the sum total of the products that we create.

Though we toil over art, nurturing it and sending it out with a final benediction into a wider arena, our fruit is an offshoot and not the core of our creativity. We know this inwardly, I think — it’s why we want to find out more about the person and life stories behind the works that intrigue us most — but between the press of social media cycles and marketing guidelines, sometimes it’s difficult to remember that creativity itself is a process of growth.

Remembering that it is one, however, can be immensely freeing. The long road of creativity gives us room to revisit and revise without shame, to discover that the spirit of a given project may be better suited to a different form. We have room to push past the fear of producing something that the general public hates — or more debilitatingly still, something that it loves! — because our pattern of creation will continue on past the milestone of that particular work.

Most of all, we are freed to discover that creativity isn’t solely a habit or an act of service, but an aspect of living worship: an active display of the Creator who made mankind in His image. So we may strive for excellence, and repeatedly grow ideas from seeds and cultivate them to hardiness in the bright sun and bracing air of community, making them stronger to embody and impart what is true, and good, and beautiful.

So we may roll pencils between our fingers in the brief lull of a weekday and find that the best and most sensible thing we can do is — to begin.

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  1. I loved reading this, Amy — thank you. I also found the weekend with Diana exhilarating, enlightening, and surprisingly (as a fellow introvert…and just to finish off the alliteration), NOT exhausting. I hope this occasion leads to a season of new beginnings for many.

    1. It really was a weekend to remember, and I do think so many there were deeply encouraged. You’ll have to teach me your secret, though — I came home completely tuckered out, though of course in the best way! Thanks for your kind words, Ashlee.