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University of Chicago Press
Collaborative Circles: Friendship Dynamics and Creative Work / Edition 1

Collaborative Circles: Friendship Dynamics and Creative Work / Edition 1

by Michael P. Farrell
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Many artists, writers, and other creative people do their best work when collaborating within a circle of like-minded friends. In a unique study, Michael P. Farrell looks at the group dynamics in six collaborative circles, and gives vivid narrative accounts of each: the French Impressionists; Sigmund Freud and his friends; C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, and the Inklings; social reformers Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony; the Fugitive poets; and the writers Joseph Conrad and Ford Maddox Ford.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226238678
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 09/15/2003
Edition description: 1
Pages: 328
Sales rank: 704,577
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Michael P. Farrell is a professor of sociology at the State University of New York at Buffalo. He is the coauthor of Small Groups Episodes and Men at Midlife.

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Collaborative Circles: Friendship Dynamics & Creative Work

By Michael P. Farrell

University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2001 Michael P. Farrell
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0226238660

Chapter 1

Collaborative Circles and Creative Work

A collaborative circle combines the dynamics of a friendship group and a work group. At the core is a set of friends who, over a period of time working together, negotiate a shared vision that guides their work. As the group evolves, the members develop their own rituals and jargon, and each member comes to play an expected role. 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 (plates 1-2).

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 remaining 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 thedepartment.

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. Havard and Owen Barfield; and later in the decade, Charles Williams. 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 1969). 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 Christianity, which he viewed as a religion built on recycled mythology. For him, the story of the death and resurrection of a god resembled 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 Oxford 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 outsiders. . . , 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."


A collaborative circle is a primary group consisting of peers who share similar occupational goals and who, through long periods of dialogue and collaboration, negotiate a common vision that guides their work. The vision consists of a shared set of assumptions about their discipline, including what constitutes good work, how to work, what subjects are worth working on, and how to think about them. For a group of artists, the shared vision might be a new style. For a group of scientists, it might be a new theoretical paradigm. Each member comes to play an informal role in the circle, and each role may have a history as the group develops over time. Even while working alone, the individual members are affected by the group and the roles they play in it. As C. S. Lewis observed, the group vision and the roles each participant plays in the group continue to guide and sustain the members, "even when . . . Friends are far away." For members of the collaborative circle, each person's work is an expression of the circle's shared vision filtered through his or her own personality.

It is important to distinguish a collaborative circle from a mentor-protege relationship. Although a mentor often plays a part in the development of a creative person, that role differs from the part played by a collaborative circle. A mentor is an older, more established professional who conveys the vision of a previous generation and guides the protege's early steps into a discipline. The protege may in time become ambivalent about and rebel against the dependence inherent in this subordinate role (Levinson et al. 1978). In other circumstances, the protege might become the disciple of the mentor, reluctant to accept creative advances that challenge the mentor's work. In contrast, collaborative circles are groups formed by peers who negotiate an innovative vision of their field. Often they first come together as a friendship group that only later evolves into a collaborative circle. Although proteges of the same mentor sometimes form a collaborative circle, when they do, their relationship to the mentor and the mentor's vision may be clouded by ambivalence.

Collaborative Circles as Pseudo-Kinship Groups

In modern and postmodern societies, collaborative circles play a more important part in adult development than they did in traditional societies. In traditional societies, children learned their occupational skills in their families. In modern and postmodern societies, where technological and cultural changes are relentless, family members rarely have the expertise to socialize a child into a discipline. Each professional discipline has a constantly changing body of knowledge and skills that must be mastered before a novice can become a practicing member. In the period between adolescence and adulthood when a person disengages from the family, masters a discipline, and crystallizes an adult occupational identity, a collaborative circle often becomes the primary group that completes socialization.

For those who begin their careers in a collaborative circle, the group provides informal socialization into their discipline. Working side by side, they master new techniques. In backstage discussions, they fine-tune their understanding of concepts and hone their ability to speak the jargon of their discipline. They orient each other to the great debates of the day, and even act them out in their arguments with one another. They learn about the political coalitions and animosities between important people in their field, and what should or should not be said to whom. They also learn about the social structure and career ladders. Eventually, they come to know where they stand on the current issues in their discipline, or, in other words, they clarify their professional identities. Most important, the shared vision, style, or culture of the group shapes their work during a large portion of their careers.

Transference of Familial Relationships

In a sense, the circle becomes a surrogate family, and the interpersonal relationships within the circle often are weighted by the emotional transference of familial relationships. Members may consciously or unconsciously see one another as brothers and sisters, or "family," and a mentor may be seen as a parental figure. In turn, the mentor may see the members of the collaborative circle as intellectual "children."

Once these transferences are engaged, the circle has the potential to work like a therapy group. Members may use the group to restage the dynamics of their family relationships and free themselves from constraining patterns. For example, one member may be overly compliant to authority because of anxiety about pleasing a parent; another may transfer a competitive relationship with a sibling onto someone in the circle. If compulsive styles of relating to authority and peers interfere with creative work, the interaction in the circle may enable members to work free of them and achieve a more mature style of working and relating to others. As they dispel the shadows of their familial relationships, the members gain increased mastery over the psychological processes that block or distort their creative work.

Freud himself was enmeshed in a collaborative circle laden with transference dynamics when he developed the foundations of psychoanalytic theory (Mahony 1979; Erikson 1989; Schur 1972). It could be argued that he crystallized his understanding of the dynamics of transference in part through his analysis of his relationships to the members of this circle. For example, some of his fundamental insights about transference emerged out of his analysis of the dynamics of his friendship with his collaborator, Wilhelm Fleiss. In 1897, while he was in the midst of his self-analysis and working on The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud became fascinated by the parallels in a youthful relationship with a nephew very close to him in age and his adult relationship with Fleiss.

In the 1890s, his friendship and collaborations with Ernst Breuer and Wilhelm Fleiss stimulated and sustained him through a decade of professional isolation and discouragement. As he theorized about the causes of hysterical paralysis and other psychological symptoms, he saw himself as a member of this collaborative circle, and he saw the work of all three members potentially converging on a common theory. For example, 4 April 1896, he wrote to Fleiss that he was "busy thinking out something which would cement our work together"(Bonaparte, Freud, and Kris 1954, 141). Reluctantly preparing to abandon his initial neurological theory of neurosis in favor of a purely psychological theory, he explained to Fleiss: "It is primarily through your example that intellectually I gained the strength to trust my judgement, even when I am left alone . . . and, like you, to face with lofty humility all the difficulties that the future may bring. For all that, accept my humble thanks! I know that you do not need me as much as I need you, but I also know that I have a secure place in your affection" (1 January 1896, in Masson 1985, 158).


Excerpted from Collaborative Circles: Friendship Dynamics & Creative Work by Michael P. Farrell Copyright © 2001 by Michael P. Farrell. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents



1. Collaborative Circles and Creative Work

2. The Life Course of a Collaborative Circle:
The French Impressionists

3. Voices in the Circle
The Fugitive Poets in the Formation,
Rebellion, and Quest Stages

4. Creative Work in Collaborative Pairs:
Joseph Conrad, Ford Madox Ford,
and the Rye Circle

5. Instrumental Intimacy in a Collaborative Pair:
Sigmund Freud, Wilhelm Fleiss,
and the Early Psychoanalytic Circle

6. Two Sticks of a Drum:
Elizabeth Cady Stranton, Susan B. Anthony,
and the Circle of Ultras

7. Toward a Theory of Collaborative Circles


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