The challenges of staying creative in lockdown

7 August 2021

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.

It’s July.


(Long silence)


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.

Lies and Other Things People tell you about Parenting

7 August 2020

We’ve been parents for sixteen years. More time than some. Much less than many others. We’d never dare call ourselves parenting experts, because parenting is far from an exact science and isn’t a skill you can master. Have you ever heard anyone say, “Parenting? I NAILED it.”? If you have, I’d be double checking with their offspring to see if they share their folks’ point of view.

Before we had kids, the accepted wisdom offered to us by many parents was this: “You better live it up while you can, because once you have kids it’s all over.”

‘Live it up’; a short sentence that simultaneously encourages you to have a great time whilst implying that it’s all downhill from here, so you better have a great time. We heard that a lot. And sure, there are definitely elements of truth contained within that (slightly smug and patronising) piece of advice. Anyone who has kids knows that life is forever changed. But the idea that having children is like giving birth to your own personal army of fun police; that the life you were living pre-kids ceases to exist, was one we were determined to fight against. Blessed with healthy children, we promised ourselves that we wouldn’t let our creative pursuits (we’re both writers and actors) and our sense of adventure evaporate simply because we were going to be parents.

Then we became parents.

Hello day-to-day reality! Goodbye sleep and hello sitting on the floor of the living room, staring wide-eyed at nothing in particular and wondering if that smell was poo or spew or both.

“Feeling creative yet? How’s that sense of adventure holding up?”

Shut up. Leave us alone.

It’s actually the fear that accompanies parenting that can get really overwhelming. The sense of responsibility that descends upon you when you first hold your baby is unbelievably scary. Scarier than sharks, creepy dolls, Trump’s White House briefings and all of Stephen King’s novels combined. Of course, it’s also accompanied by a feeling of love that is equally unparalleled, and it took us a while to come around to the fact that therein lies the rub. It seems totally logical and obvious, but it really did smack us in the face like a real housewife of Beverly Hills. “Oooohhh right! Okay, NOW we get it! We don’t get to feel this love – this burning, unrelenting, unconditional love – without having to deal with a whole bunch of other stuff that isn’t so fun. That’s the contract.” Cue deep feelings of resentment and anger that nobody had explained this to us, followed by the annoying realisation that it’s impossible to explain being a parent to someone who isn’t one, which is why parents generally don’t do it. Most parents wait until you’re pregnant, then say slightly smug, patronising things because they’re the only ones who know what you’re in for and love the fact that you’re about to go through it too so that they can finally speak freely at your next dinner party.

After a couple of weeks spent wallowing in a swamp of self-pity, we made a choice. A simple choice, but one we continue to commit to on a daily basis. It goes a little something like this:

Our kids don’t make the rules and they do not rule our life. Our kids are along for the ride, and we’re driving. When they’re old enough to drive, they can make their own ride. Until then, strap yourselves in! You’re part of our life now. The same life that existed before you rocked up. And don’t think that just because you’ve enriched our life in ways that are too deep for us to even fathom, and taught us the true meaning of love and allowed us to discover a deeper meaning to our existence that we’re going to let you get away with stopping our fun and creativity!

Because our kids weren’t stopping us from doing anything. We were doing that all on our own.

Our lifestyle definitely isn’t for everyone, as we always have about six different creative projects on the go at one time, and usually have no idea what we’ll be doing six-months from now. There were stressful bouts when they were babies and one or both of us were touring with shows, which passed in a whirlwind of planes, taxis, long phone calls, very little sleep, exhilaration, exhaustion and the occasional mini breakdown. But despite the craziness and chaos, we proved that, if nothing else, kids are adaptable and can be dragged all over the country without any long-term damage being done.

It’s not a financially secure or stable life. In fact, it can be incredibly scary and frustrating, but we love it. Over the past sixteen years we’ve continued to create theatre shows, TV shows and books together…and the kids are now, and have always been, a huge and integral part of our creative journey. (see link below) In the sixteen years that we’ve been parents, we’ve never had more fun, or been more creative. And yes, it continues to be the greatest adventure of our lives.

Harris-McLeish family –



Family in Lockdown

7 August 2020

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.

We’re doing okay for the most part… aside from the occasional screaming match… and have enjoyed many new experiences, from our musical lip sync battles, family lounge room workouts, backyard camping, Tik Toks (yes, we succumbed) and driving to the nearby beach to sit in the car and look out over the waves for five hours, whilst blasting Radiohead and Nirvana. That last one was just me on my own. I needed it. I’ve always been someone who needs her space. And my husband and I are… well, we’re honest with each other, which is a double-edged sword. Space has always been a sacred and essential part of our marriage. Although we collaborate quite a bit, we also have our own personal and professional endeavours as individuals, and that’s worked well over the past twenty years. My hubby has done a bunch of musicals, and it’s difficult when he goes away on tour. Well, it’s difficult the day he goes away, but after I kiss him, wave goodbye and close the door… fist pump! This house is mine! Then I laugh maniacally, pour a glass of red, sit in his favourite spot on the couch and watch another documentary on serial killers or the royal family without him rolling his eyes.

Beyond family, friends are – and always have been – way up on my priority list. I’m blessed to have many special, long-term friendships, and I’ve always been good at keeping in touch, checking in and seeing them on a regular basis. COVID-19 has brought about an even more intense and wonderful sense of connectedness. We are checking in on each other on a regular basis now; being there for each other. We’re dropping groceries off to each other’s doorsteps, sharing links to anything we find enlightening or funny, and sending each other the most ridiculous videos of ourselves doing whatever. (See earlier referral to musical lip sync battles) It’s quite something. But I still miss the hugs.

New connections are being made too. My husband and I have a book coming out soon and I’ve been sending out so many advance copies that the woman at the post office and I are now on a first name basis. We’ve gotten to know our octogenarian neighbours so much better too and I love nothing more than receiving a text from eighty-something Olga asking if we’d like anything from their garden, which could comfortably supply a large-scale farmer’s market.

Lists have been my saviour over the past few weeks. I am a list-maker and list-lover from way back. Even in those pre-COVID days of old, lists were my constant companion. They’ve comforted me from the inside of my diary, the whiteboard, the kitchen noticeboard, the post-it note on the front of my computer and the A4 page Blu-Tacked to the wall.

My husband discovered early on in our relationship just how integral the list is to my overall well-being and sense of contentment, and has teased me about it for years. We had a few things to get done yesterday, so I asked him if he’d like me to write him a list (I do this often) and he said, “Only if you don’t love me.” I left the list on his laptop. Both my daughters are growing into keen list-makers. My eldest has definitely inherited the list-obsessive gene and the obvious joy it gives her to rush for pen and paper to jot down a list has often brought a proud tear to my eye. In this time of feeling like we have no control, it’s the only thing that keeps me feeling sane and organised, so there are more than a few lists up on our walls at the moment. There’s an Isolation Activities list, a Remote Learning Rules list, a Projects list (left over from the school holidays) and the daily to do list, which includes things like “go outside” and “get dressed”.

Sometimes the lists are followed to a T, but a lot of the time they’re not. And that’s fine. Because really, if we can all just get through the day without collapsing into a quivering ball of anxiety, that’s a win.

My husband and I have both worked in the arts for a long time. We’ve made a living from it for well over twenty years. Life for us has very little set routine, and financial stability is something we laugh about over dinner, but this is a whole new level of instability and uncertainty. For everyone. But for now, it’s about the Tik Toks, the food, the music, the reading, the jigsaws, the hugs (being lucky enough to be in isolation with other humans) and the kindness.


Above all, the kindness.









Mrs Annoying Head

7 August 2020


Remember when you used to turn up to school drop off or work or your favourite café or wherever you used to congregate with other humans in the morning? And remember how there was always that one person who always rubbed you the wrong way? That one person who just irked you. Maybe they had a really obnoxious laugh or cracked their knuckles or sniffed incessantly or made casually racist jokes or whistled tunelessly through their teeth, as if there were no other people in their immediate vicinity with the ability to hear.


For me, it was a fellow mum at school drop off. To avoid litigation, let’s call her… Mrs. Annoying Head. The moment I stepped through the school gate she’d pick up my scent. It didn’t matter where she was in the playground, her head would spin around, her eyes would lock onto mine and she’d make a beeline for me. It didn’t matter what methods of disguise, avoidance or subterfuge I would employ; Mrs. Annoying Head always found me. Always. The thing that bugged me most about Mrs. Annoying Head was that she would start talking to me, while still too far away to be heard, and continue talking as if we’d been having a conversation for at least forty-five minutes. So, as she approached, what I heard was akin to someone gradually turning up the volume on a one-way interview.


It would usually go something like, “… because you know what general managers are like right? And I mean, I’d told him. I’d told him it was the wrong index-linked adjustment. How could he not know it was the wrong index-linked adjustment, right?”


I didn’t know. I never knew. And I reached a point pretty quickly with Mrs. Annoying Head where I began saying out loud in the friendliest way possible that I hadn’t the faintest idea what she was talking about. It didn’t work. She’d just chuckle and smack my shoulder in that ‘as-if-you-don’t-know-that’ way. So, our catch-ups would often sound more like this:


Mrs. A.H. – “… because you know what general managers are like, right?”

Me – “Not at all.”

Mrs. A.H. – “And I mean, I’d told him. I’d told him it was the wrong index-linked adjustment.”

Me – “What’s an index-linked adjustment?”

Mrs. A.H. – “How could he not know it was the wrong index-linked adjustment, right?

Me – “Refer to previous question.”


My favourite mornings were when she’d sneak up on me (like metabolisms in your thirties), and suddenly was right up in my face speaking a language I recognised but couldn’t decipher. There were mornings when I’d just back away slowly, nodding, until I was completely out of earshot but Mrs. Annoying Head was still talking, raising her voice to allow for the growing distance between us. Other times I’d pretend to be on the phone. She didn’t care. To Mrs. Annoying Head, it seemed that whoever I was on the phone to was simply another member of her chat group. I used to whinge to my husband about Mrs. Annoying Head. “Can’t she tell I don’t care? Can’t she just leave me alone? Why ME?” Based on my descriptions of her behavior, along with his limited contact with her, my husband assumed that Mrs. Annoying Head may well be on a spectrum of sorts and said I should stop being a grumpy old playground meanie and just let the woman have a chat…into my face…every morning. Monday through Friday.


In these new and strange times, where school drop offs are a thing of the past, I miss Mrs. Annoying Head. I miss everything about her. I miss seeing her and her pastel-coloured blazers. I miss trying to avoid her and using other parents as human shields to hide me from view. I miss having to listen to her as I try to extricate myself from her poor excuse for conversation. I miss her obliviousness and her enthusiasm for whatever the hell it was that she was talking to me about.


And when the world turns right side up again, one of the first things I’m going to do is ask her if she’d like to catch up for a wine or a cup of coffee. I’m going to find out what it is that she does, and how it is that she can be at school drop off every morning, and why general managers drive her nuts…and what an index-linked adjustment is.


Because we’re all somebody’s Mrs. Annoying Head.