Collaborative Circles

Published in: GIA Reader, Vol 18, No 1 (Spring 2007)

Frances Phillips and Michael P. Farrell

Collaborative Circles: A Review

Frances Phillips

In Collaborative Circles, Friendship Dynamics and Creative Work, sociologist Michael P. Farrell studies relationships within several influential groups of artists and intellectuals — illustrating the group dynamic's role in creativity. His study focuses on The Inklings, the French Impressionists, The Fugitive Poets (who formed around Vanderbilt University), The Joseph Conrad-Ford Maddox Ford Circle in Rye, Freud's early circle, and The Ultras (early U.S. feminists). In each instance, he traces the formation of the circle, the informal structures that shape it, how those dynamics contribute to creative breakthroughs, and how the circles decline and fall apart.

Farrell is a vivid storyteller and the groups are presented in their complexity with ample quotations from the principals and observers and with discussion of the contexts in which they were shaped. Each story also highlights a dimension of Farrell's theory of how collaborative circles function.

According to Farrell, collaborative circles most often are formed among peers who meet through social networks and who share oc-cupations or interests in particular disciplines. They do not emerge from mentor-apprentice or student-professor relationship, but are driven by a sense of shared rebellion against authority figures or prevailing beliefs or approaches. As the circles form and mature, different members play recognizable roles. One person often acts as a gatekeeper or matchmaker and introduces the members to one another. One person often becomes the scapegoat; one will play “devil's advocate” (as did Degas for the Impressionists) and one marks the boundary — taking the most extreme positions and thereby pushing the others forward toward new ideas. (In the Ultras, Elizabeth Cady Stanton became the boundary marker when she introduced and insisted on the idea that women should have the right to vote.)

Over time, members of the circle break into pairs and the closeness that emerges in these duos often pushes their members to creative breakthroughs. At their heights, Farrell describes such pairings as “fully networked” — sharing ideas so openly and so much “on the same wave length” that ownership of ideas could become confused. Among the Impressionists, Monet and Renoir frequently painted side-by-side during the summer of 1869 — a period that led to a synthesis of ideas that informed Impressionism. In other pairings, one partner played the role of attentive audience or mirror for the other (as did Ford Maddox Ford for Joseph Conrad and Wilhelm Fleiss for Sigmund Freud). In a letter, Freud wrote to Fleiss, “I am so immensely glad that you are giving me the gift of the Other, a critic and reader — and one of your quality at that. I cannot write entirely without an audience, but do not at all mind writing only for you.”

In Farrell's model, the seven stages of collaborative circles are: 1) Formation; 2) Rebellion against Authority, as the members dis-cover a common antipathy toward authorities in their field; 3) The Quest Stage: Negotiating a New Vision, as they move from cri-tique of others to constructing a shared understanding; 4) The Creative Work Stage, during which they sometimes work in pairs, refining their ideas, and at other times sustain their efforts as a group; 5) The Collective Action Stage, when they decide to undertake a large project together — start a journal, launch an exhibition, present a convention; 6) The Separation Stage, when the group begins to disintegrate due to conflicts or the strain of collective action; and 7) The Nostalgic Reunion Stage, when — with varying degrees of success — the members reconnect and support one another during later life. Even in “successful” reunion stages, they never con-vene with the same level of intensity.

What does Collaborative Circles have to say to arts grantmakers? First, that informal, self-defined groups give their members cour-age and drive that leads to important work. These are not the stories of artists whose creativity is found working in solitude.

How could arts philanthropy support collaborative circles? It is not as if philanthropy couldn't have made a difference in the stories Farrell told. Most of the circles formed among middle or upper middle class peer groups; they did not begin in poverty. Yet, many of them faced serious financial (or health) difficulties that limited their abilities to act in timely ways, focus on their work, or complete projects as intended. Their social dynamic helped to buoy them in times of difficulty and they shared important material things with one another — domiciles, studios, travel means, and supplies. A good grant would have tried to advance the whole. Awards to members as individual artists might have imbalanced and undermined their relationships.

To a degree, grantmakers have bolstered collaborative circles if “circles” can be synonymous with “spaces.” Particularly in their early days, a number of artist-run alternative spaces and culturally-specific organizations have approximated collaborative circles. Artists' colonies and residency sites sometimes seek to play convening roles in artists' lives, but relationships among people thrown together for limited periods of time through the vagaries of selection committees are unlikely to lead to collective action. Long-term residencies where artists come together to share equipment, space, and ideas week after week and year after year could incubate creative circles. Other means of “circle support” might be through grants to ensemble performing groups (e.g. Flintridge Foundation's thoughtful work in the field of ensemble theater) or for projects that bring together artists who have honed their work together over a long period of time (e.g. Paul Dresher, Rinde Eckert, Margaret Jenkins, and Michael Palmer).

Grantmakers also can learn that these collaborative circles went through dynamic growth and development periods — often of ten to twenty years — and then waned or died. They provided critical peer support and intellectual challenges to younger artists railing against the norm and breaking new ground; and they helped creative thinkers hold onto their courage and ideas outside of academic, religious, or art world institutions. To honor their dynamism, one would recognize their wholeness; allow them to mature and take action; and, when they needed to break apart, let them go.

Frances N. Phillips is a senior program officer for the arts at the Walter and Elise Haas Fund in San Francisco and director of the Creative Work Fund, which supports artists creating new work through collaborations.

Collaborative Circles and Creative Work

An Excerpt

Michael P. Farrell

From the first chapter of Collaborative Circles: Friendship Dynamics & Creative Work, © 2001 by The University of Chicago Press. Published by permission.

To illustrate a collaborative circle, I begin with a sketch of the formation of the Inklings, a circle formed by J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, his brother Warner, and their friends.

C.S. Lewis had his first conversation with J.R.R. Tolkien in May 1926, after a faculty meeting of the English department at Oxford University. For both men it was the end of their first academic year there. Lewis, age twenty-eight, was a fellow, and Tolkien, age thirty-four, was a professor. They met at a time when Lewis, who had studied at Oxford as an undergraduate, felt distant from his re-maining undergraduate friends and a growing disillusionment with his faculty colleagues. For his part, Tolkien was in a period of conflict with his wife and in the midst of a struggle with his colleagues over restructuring the curriculum in the department.

Lewis liked Tolkien as a person, but he opposed the position he took in the faculty meeting. Tolkien had argued that the English curriculum should focus on the “language” — a code word for classical English literature. He opposed inclusion of “modern” literature, which to him meant anything written after Chaucer. Despite their differences, over the course of the next academic year Lewis was drawn into a large discussion group that had formed around Tolkien. The group, known as the “Coalbiters,” met to read and discuss Nordic literature and language. Over the next few years, Lewis ambivalently began to support Tolkien's position on the English curriculum. Often they supported one another in faculty politics and debates, but occasionally they still found themselves on opposing sides.

In December of 1929, the relationship took a new turn. In the course of that month, their collegial association deepened, and the friendship became the nucleus of a collaborative circle that profoundly influenced each man's development. Until this point, Tolkien had been a relatively successful philologist and scholar of early English literature. His publications suggested he would have a distinguished career in an esoteric corner of the academic world. Lewis had published two books of poetry that hardly anyone had noticed, and even after he became famous, they were never well regarded (Hooper 1996; Wilson 1990). On 3 December 1929, Lewis wrote to a friend: “I was up till 2:30 on Monday, talking to the Anglo Saxon professor Tolkien, who came back with me to college from a society and sat discoursing of the gods and giants of Asgard for three hours, then departing in the wind and rain — who could turn him out, for the fire was bright and the talk good” (Carpenter 1979, 28).

Nordic epics had enthralled Tolkien when he was a child. His fascination led him to create his own imaginary mythology, and from the time he was eighteen he worked sporadically at casting his stories of elves and wizards into an epic poem. Only once had he allowed anyone to see this work. In 1925 he showed it to an old mentor, who advised him to drop it. The rebuff reinforced his decision to keep the work secret. But after discovering that Lewis shared his interest in “Northernness” and epic poetry, a few days after the late night conversation, Tolkien gave Lewis one of the unfinished poems to read. It began:

There once, and long and long ago,
before the sun and moon we know
were lit to sail above the world,
when first the shaggy woods unfurled,
and shadowy shapes did stare and roam
beneath the dark and starry dome
that hung above the dawn of Earth...

Lewis read the whole poem and immediately wrote
to Tolkien (Carpenter 1979, 30):

My dear Tolkien,

Just a line to say that I sat up late last night and have read the geste as far as to where Beren and his gnomish allies defeat the patrol of the orcs above the sources of the Narog and disguise themselves in the reaf. I can quite honestly say that it is ages since I have had an evening of such delight, and the personal experience of reading a friend's work had very little to do with it...So much for the first flush. Detailed criticisms (including grumbles at individual lines) will follow.

C.S. Lewis

When Lewis sent his criticisms, he playfully presented them as annotations to Tolkien's text — pretending that the text was an ancient manuscript and that his comments were long footnotes in which imaginary scholars with names like “Pumpernickel,” “Peabody,” “Bentley,” and “Schick” debated about the authenticity of particular lines and speculated about how the lines should actually be worded. Tolkien rewrote most of the lines singled out by Lewis, and in a few cases incorporated his suggested revisions.

Over the next several months, the culture and structure of their collaborative circle crystallized. Tolkien learned that Lewis liked to read aloud, and at Lewis's suggestion he read sections of the poem to him. Gradually others were invited into the group, including Lewis's brother, Warner; Hugo Dyson; Lewis's close friends R.E. Harvard and Owen Barfield; and later in the decade, Charles Wil-liams. As the meetings became more frequent, the members established a ritual of taking turns reading aloud their works in progress. Borrowing a name from a previous group, Lewis called the group the “Inklings.” Tolkien characterized the name as a “pleasantly ingenious pun in its own way, suggesting people with vague or half-formed intimations and ideas plus those who dabble in ink” (Tolkien 1967). By the second half of the decade, they had established a regular meeting time on Thursday nights in Lewis's room in Magdalen College. On Tuesdays some members of the group met for lunch and a pint of ale at the Eagle and Child pub — “the Bird and the Baby,” as they called it.

Even before the regular meetings became ritualized, the dialogue between Tolkien and Lewis had led to profound changes in Lewis's identity and worldview. On the evening of 19 September 1931, one of their conversations about language and poetry suddenly became personal. Lewis had invited Tolkien and Hugo Dyson, who was a lecturer at Reading, to dinner at Magdalen. Dyson was a talkative, witty man, whose conversation was a “flow of fantasy, keen literary appreciation and occasional learning” (Wilson 1990, 124). Their conversation flowed from a discussion of myths, to Christianity, to the origin of ancient words, and, jokingly, to the differences in how elves and humans understood language. After dinner they continued the discussion, walking the paths around the courtyard and gardens of Magdalen College until three in the morning. As the conversation went on, they gradually began talking about their religious views.

For an Oxford scholar at this time to take religion seriously and to disclose his beliefs to a colleague was unusual, to say the least. As Lewis later put it, Oxford was in a “post-Christian” era (Hooper 1996). When he was in his early twenties, Lewis had decided he was an atheist, but after the death of his father when he was thirty-one, he began to reconsider his beliefs. Privately, he came to accept the idea that there was a deity, but this belief was not anchored in any religious tradition. He felt particularly skeptical about Chris-tianity, which he viewed as a religion built on recycled mythology. For him, the story of the death and resurrection of a god resem-bled too closely the ancient Egyptian myths about gods who died and returned to life (Lewis 1995). Until the discussion with Tolkien and Dyson, he had not disclosed his thinking to anyone; but in the deepening exchange that night, he risked exposing his views.

The three men shared enough assumptions that they were open to each other's arguments. Tolkien, who was Roman Catholic, agreed that the New Testament story was a myth, but he argued that it was a profoundly different myth, for it was also a true story based on historical events. Like all good myths, he argued, it expressed some fundamental truth. His argument, which may have seemed particularly persuasive to Lewis in the wee hours of intense conversation, was that the historical events had unfolded in the form of a familiar myth so as to create a story that would penetrate human consciousness. Like an alien visitor, the deity had borrowed the language of a familiar myth to convey a theological “reality.” Although perhaps not firmly grounded in logic or evidence, Tolkien's argument had many fine points, and after several days' germination the outcome of the conversation was that Lewis, the urbane Ox-ford scholar, decided to become a Christian. Possibly because of his Northern Irish Protestant background, Lewis could not allow himself to become a Roman Catholic, like Tolkien, but he did decide to become an Anglican. Over the next year, with some variations in individual positions, the Inklings incorporated Christianity as a core component of the culture of their circle.

As the structure and culture of the circle evolved, and as their discussions continued, the members did not always agree, but they negotiated a shared “mythopoetic” vision of narrative, literature, and religion that inspired and shaped their work. Their shared Christian religious beliefs and their fascination with the form of myth were the foundations of a vision that influenced the members' writing for the rest of their lives. For example, many of the themes in Tolkien's Lord of the Rings series and Lewis's Narnia tales first emerged in these weekly discussions. After discussing a theme, a member might go home, write a chapter that gave form to the theme, then read what he wrote in a Thursday evening meeting. As the men reacted to the reading, they helped to reshape the work and in doing so sharpened their own understanding of the emerging group vision.

The early discussions in the Inklings circle dramatically altered Lewis's thinking, and over the course of the next few years the group interaction shaped both the themes and the style of his literary work. Recounting how the circle freed him to construct his own imaginative work, Lewis wrote: “Alone among unsympathetic companions, I hold certain views and standards timidly, half ashamed to avow them and half doubtful if they can after all be right. Put back among my friends and in half an hour — in ten minutes — these same views and standards become once more indisputable. The opinion of this little circle...outweighs that of a thousand out-siders..., it will do this even when my Friends are far away. (1960, 114).

In his diary from this period, Tolkien wrote that the “friendship with Lewis compensates for much and besides giving constant pleasure and comfort has done me much good from the contact with a man at once honest, brave, intellectual, a scholar, a poet, and a philosopher.” Many years later, Tolkien wrote of Lewis: “The unpayable debt I owe to him was not influence as it is usually understood, but sheer encouragement. He was for long my only audience. Only from him did I ever get the idea that my stuff could be more than a private hobby” (Carpenter 1977, 148).

This sketch of the Inklings suggests the ways collaborative circles develop and provides a glimpse of the processes and influences we will be examining throughout this book. With the Inklings as our starting point, let us move on to a discussion of what we mean by “collaborative circle.”