17 Feb What C.S. Lewis’s Secretary Learned
It’s important that beginning writers conquer isolationism.
If you don’t, it will lead to feelings of restlessness, futility and self-defeat. Find a writing buddy. Join a critique group or take a weekly writing course—anything that will keep you in social circulation. You’ll find a new sense of purpose, revitalized vigor and new sources of inspiration from your fellow wordsmiths.
Jennifer and I have been members of a writer’s group that just celebrated its 21st anniversary. We discovered that the success of others can be contagious. Nearly everyone in the group has sold articles, poems, essays, short stories and even book manuscripts to major magazines or publishers in New York. That includes the two of us.
Years ago in Oxford, I met Walter Hooper, C.S. Lewis’s former secretary. “Jack made things seem larger than life,” he said. “Everything had more meaning around him.” Hooper went on to tell me about his relationship with the beloved author of The Chronicles of Narnia and of Lewis’s commitment to his writing group, the Inklings—a group Lewis belonged to for more than fifteen years. In fact, Lewis usually hosted the Thursday night critique sessions in his rooms at Magdalene College. J.R.R. Tolkien, the author of The Lord of the Ring trilogy, was also a member of the group.
I learned a lot about Lewis and his writing chums during that hour’s chat, and I also got an “inkling” of what it takes to ensure the success of a writer’s group. I returned to the United States committed to joining a writers group and giving it my best.
(1) The Inklings had specified goals. They knew what they wanted to write and why. They had purposeful critique sessions. When their manuscripts were rejected (including Lewis’s and Tolkien’s), the members helped find ways to make the manuscripts more marketable. They shared info about publishers. They networked. Writing was not a form of therapy or a haphazard leisure activity. Each member was committed to professionalism. More than once, Lewis was quoted as saying, “Write to be read.”
Members of the group, which included Nevill Coghill, Owen Barfield and Lewis’ close friend, Charles Williams, took this advice to heart and all enjoyed literary success to varying degrees. Even “Warnie” Lewis, Jack’s brother, wrote several noteworthy books of his own.
(2) They had a commitment to craft. Too many beginning writers spend more time anticipating the joy of book signings and royalty checks than concentrating on writing well. Lewis, Tolkien, Williams and the other Inklings had phenomenal publishing successes because they mercilessly honed and polished their prose. Their bestsellers are still selling today. Lewis’s The Last Battle won the prestigious Carnegie Medal for best children’s book of the year when it was released in 1956. The commitment to craft has paid off for decades.
(3) Last, but not least, they had synergy. This word is generally defined as “cooperation” or “the working together of two or more parts to stimulate new ideas that result in greater productivity for all the parts.” Synergy promotes the originating of new ideas and their fruition. For instance, when The Hobbit was published in 1937, Lewis wrote glowing reviews of Tolkien’s book for a wide variety of publications, including The Times Literary Supplement, which helped to ensure the book’s success. The members supported one another all through the brainstorming, writing, revising and marketing aspects of one another’s work.
They genuinely liked each other too and met twice a week—socially at the local pub on Tuesdays and for reading and critiquing at Jack’s on Thursdays. They brought with them their best intentions to make the group work. John Wain, one of the younger members of the group, once described the Thursday night meetings (right down to the enamel beer-jug) with fond fervor, declaring, “the best of them (the critique sessions) were as good as anything I shall live to see.”