The challenges of staying creative in lockdown
In Lin Manuel Miranda’s musical Hamilton, the eponymous hero sings about his ability to write his way out – out of poverty, out of strife, and subsequently into the history books. But during Victoria’s strict lockdown in 2020 (due to the Virus That Shall Not Be Named), I had to write my way in – into sanity, into stability and, if all went well, eventually out of my tracksuit pants.
It was March 2020, and my husband and I were just about to release our first adult fiction novel, The Drop-off. I was pretty excited, not least because having a book that I had written out in the world had been a lifelong dream since I was a teenager in the Western Suburbs of Melbourne, working my way through every Stephen King novel. So obviously it was a bit of a bummer when Melbourne suddenly went into lockdown, bookshops closed and we had to cancel our much-anticipated launch. Not being able to celebrate the release of our book with family and friends or walk into a bookshop and feel that rush of joy at seeing it on a shelf was disappointing, but compared to what else was going on around the world, we had nothing to complain about.
We were worried about how well The Drop-off would sell in the midst of a global pandemic, but it turns out a lot of folks were spending a lot of time shopping online, and light, funny, heart-warming adult fiction was in demand! Huzzah for us! Eventually, we sold enough books and received enough of a positive response that our publisher rang and asked us if we could maybe write a follow-up novel … and deliver it by mid-December.
Sorry, December 2021?
No, December this year.
We could have said no, and quite possibly should have. Because agreeing to write and deliver a novel in less than six months was completely insane, wasn’t it?
Not only because it was a novel (cue horrified screaming and panic eating family-size blocks of chocolate), but also because a few weeks earlier I’d excitedly said yes to writing a picture book for Marcus Bontempelli. Around the same time, I’d also agreed to co-author a 70,000-word sports autobiography with Sharni Layton, which was due in early November. I’d only ever read two sports biographies in my entire life and was in unfamiliar book-writing waters.
But the truth is, there was absolutely no way I could have (or would have) said no to our publisher asking us to write another novel. You see, this is what creatives do. We say ‘yes’ to work when it’s offered. Of course we do. Ask any writer who’s been slogging their guts out at a keyboard for years (and hoping with every fibre of their being that one day they’ll become that mystical creature known as a ‘Published Author’) what they would do if presented with the same opportunity. I felt incredibly lucky that I was being offered each of these projects, especially in a year that was so dire for creatives, so I said yes to it all. Mainly out of fear that there might not be any other bread-winning work coming our way.
It’s fine! I told myself. I’ll just work out a writing schedule where I dedicate half the week to The Pick-up and the other half to Sharni’s book. I did the word-count maths and outlined my plan to my dubious, Vitamin-D-deficient family members.
‘If I crank out two thousand words a day, five days a week for forty days, I’ll have a novel. Forty days is six weeks, and for two books that’s twelve weeks. There are twenty weeks between July and November, and then another few weeks after that until mid-December. It works! Do the maths!’
My family stared at me and nodded like I was the crazy guy on the train they wanted to disappear.
I kept telling myself this was a realistic goal – Enid Blyton wrote 10,000 words a day, every day. Mind you, Enid wasn’t dealing with remote learning and a pressing Netflix-viewing list.
In mid-July, I hunkered down in my office and got to work. It was actually okay and the schedule was working … for the most part. Then, a few weeks into my new and gruelling daily writing routine, I was contacted by another publisher, asking if I’d be interested in writing Sam Kerr’s junior fiction novels. Um … yes! Of course I was! Who wouldn’t I be? It was only then that I felt the first tremors of panic in my belly. Not least because at that point it was August, and I hadn’t factored in the reality of trying to write all these books while living with three other people in a lockdown that seemed to have no end in sight.
It goes without saying that when a family of four are locked in a house together for weeks on end it can create a fairly fraught atmosphere. There are obvious downsides to four humans over the age of twelve being in such close proximity to each other … especially for adults who aren’t used to being home very often anyway, and especially not with their kids there ALL THE TIME! After being ejected from my office for the umpteeth time, my eldest daughter suggested I get a T-Shirt made with ‘Get Out And Close The Door’ emblazoned on the front.
Thank God I was sharing The Pick-up writing load with my husband. It definitely made the pressure less intense. Things became tricky when he managed an impressive pandemic pivot and landed a new job in mid-August that was suddenly keeping him very busy, but all credit to him, he still managed to crank out his share of the weekly word count.
I’m not gonna lie. It was a stressful, exhausting, challenging time. The downsides included me developing tendonitis and tennis elbow. Weekly visits to the physio and myotherapist became the norm. Who knew that six to eight hours of writing a day was such a physically taxing endeavour? I also had my fair share of spontaneous crying outbursts, usually at random moments, including the day I burst into tears while playing UNO with the kids. They let me win after that.
Over those six months, I learnt so much about myself, my writing, my work ethic and what I am capable of … because I had no choice. There were contracts to honour and books to deliver, and at the end of the day it was as simple as that.
The Pick-up was released in June 2021, in the midst of yet another lockdown for Melbourne, which was unexpected and disappointing, but unavoidable. All we can hope now is that people are looking for the same light relief they were a year ago, and that our book will provide them with that.
I really hope I’ll be able to find the motivation and inspiration to continue being creative in this latest lockdown, but I’ve gotta be honest…it feels a lot harder than it did this time last year.