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Has there ever been a book that has taken so long to be written?
For years the idea of it haunted me like the flicker of a shadow, a repeated, bittersweet realisation that there was something inside me I needed to say – if only I knew what it was. So vague was this sensation – although also piercingly painful – that I didn’t even know what I was trying to write. Was it fiction or non-fiction, a novel, a short story, even a poem? I had had two novels published (a long time previously) but they were relatively straightforward. With them I knew from the start what I was writing. Nothing had prepared me for being haunted by such a shadow of a feeling.
And so I decided to forget about that slippery, indefinable something and to write instead a book about museums. Museums are my day job so why shouldn’t I write about them?
But although museums are full of solid things, they are also remarkably slippery to pin down, and the more I tried to do so the more they resisted me. Until one day the book began to write itself and then I knew what it was that I wanted to say. It was this, that just as museums are about making meaningful patterns out of the chaos of the universe, so – when it comes to our pasts, to our memories and the things that we inherit – we are all museum-makers, all seeking to make sense of our histories. This was the slippery scent of something that had haunted me for years. It was the mystery of my childhood, saying, Please write me.
From this I learnt the first rule (for me) of storytelling. Never tell a book what to do. The more you boss it around and tell it that it is this and this and this, the more it will resist you and the more formulaic it will become. The book knows what it wants to be. Write from the heart and let the book take over.
That first realisation drove the first draft of the book. Now at least I knew what I was writing – part memoir, part history, a quest, a detective story, an elegy to a lost past. There followed the most painful part of this process – the twenty-three agents to whom I sent that first draft, every one of whom sent it back with a ‘no’ – although about a third of them were helpful ‘no’s’ – enlarging on why it didn’t work, even regretting that they couldn’t publish it.
I made myself read it again and found myself agreeing with them. It was indeed muddled, overblown, incoherent. Where to go from here? With hindsight I did the best thing possible. I signed up for a creative writing class – in fact to be exact a one-week writing course at the Faber Academy, led by Julia Blackburn.
Julia used to give us a writing task and about seven minutes in which to do it. Inevitably you spent the first two minutes in a panic before an idea came to you. From this process I learnt to trust my subconscious. More particularly I learnt my second rule of storytelling: to keep it simple, keep it truthful and be prepared to edit. It’s amazing how much better writing can be when you take things out, not put them in. That was the best money I ever spent.
After that I took a year and rewrote the book again. But now I had a problem. It is hard to enough to get an agent to read a book once; it was all but impossible to find anyone who would read a second version. I had sent the book out too soon and had scuppered my chances.
Somehow I came up with the solution which was to send it out to one of the new independent publishers that are springing up across the UK. They, unlike the big publishers, will (at least sometimes) look at your work even if you don’t have an agent. The first one I sent my book to was September Publishing. Hannah Macdonald is the publisher there. She snapped up my book within three days.
And so I thought – of course I did – that the book was more or less finished. I soon learnt how wrong I was. Working with Hannah and Charlotte Cole, September’s editor, the book was edited from top to bottom; from the big questions, such as the narrative arc, down to the specific details of paragraphs and sentences. This was the third thing I learnt, that there is a lifetime’s worth of skill and craft in the simple act of using words to tell a story.
The book is called The Museum Makers and it was published on 27 August with endorsements from Julia Blackburn and Dina Nayeri. (Thank you, Julia and Dina.)
Every book has its own journey to publication and some are long and some are short. Sometimes I wake in the night and think, If I’d known how long it would take would I ever have written this book? And then I think, Well yes, of course I would, without a moment’s hesitation, just as – no doubt – I will write the next one that comes along to haunt me.
A director of the museum-making company Metaphor, Rachel Morris has been part of the creation, design and delivery of some of the most exciting displays, renovations and museums of the last few decades. Rachel is also the author of two novels. She was a student on our Five Days to Write a Life course.
The Museum Makers is published by September Publishing and out now.