Clare Bowditch has always been a storyteller. She’s brought joy to music fans with her beautifully crafted songs, won over television audiences with her performance in a hit drama series and connected with countless listeners as a radio show host.
But it was the stories she told herself growing up that have proven to be among her most powerful, both in the negative impact they had on her formative years and the resonance they are finding with readers of her memoir, Your Own Kind of Girl.
A deeply personal and honest account of her life from childhood through to motherhood, Your Own Kind of Girl isn’t just about laying her past bare but using her stories to help others understand their own.
As the PR blurb for her book suggests, it is ‘not a confessional for confessional’s sake’; Clare’s stories are told ‘as a prompt to allow us to think again about what is possible for those of us who long for more, yet find ourselves trapped in our own stories of fear, and self-doubt’.
According to Clare: “It was written with a singular hope: that it gives readers the opportunity to think again about the stories we tell ourselves, and what happens when we believe them.”
Clare’s story begins as the youngest in a family of five kids growing up in the Melbourne suburb of Sandringham.
A happy child with a larger-than-life personality, Clare’s world was shattered at the age of five when her seven-year-old sister Rowena died from a rare disease similar to multiple sclerosis, following two devastating years in a hospital intensive care unit.
On top of the crushing loss, Clare’s childhood was also marked with years of body image issues, disordered eating and low self-esteem.
Cruel and cutting comments about her size contrasted starkly with the shower of praise she received after losing weight on the back of an impossibly strict diet, making the primary-school-aged Clare feel that her worth was dictated by her weight.
Clare’s struggle with weight, food and self-worth continued throughout her teenage years and well after she left school, finally coming to a head at the age of 21 when she suffered a nervous breakdown.
Living alone in London, Clare was stick-thin, starving and suffering from depression. Convinced by family and friends to return home, life took a step in the right direction when she was given a copy of Self Help For Your Nerves, written in 1962 by Australian doctor Claire Weekes, considered by some as the pioneer of modern anxiety treatment using cognitive therapy.
The book proved a turning point for Clare, offering practical anxiety management techniques that would help her retrain her brain to know when to listen to her inner critic (who she named ‘Frank’) and when to ignore his unhelpful ‘stories’ of negativity and doubt.
“I think what happens is we practice these skills, we practice observing, not attaching, and we get to work out which bits are useful and which bits aren't,” Clare said.
“It's been many decades since I've felt haunted (by these thoughts) in any way really, the haunting was when I didn't have a name for the very normal human experience of having a survival brain that had been triggered and that I was having rolling panic attacks.
“As soon as I read that book by Dr Claire Weekes, as soon as I started adding some tools with which to manage this rogue brain of mine, life really turned around.
“There was a part of me that used to think that I needed my inner critic to be quiet and that once it was quiet, I would be really cured.
“But I think I realised some decades ago that it's a really important function to have a brain that looks out for danger, that's really what an experience of acute anxiety is, and I have always had a brain that looks out for danger, so I accepted that, and I grew myself a sense of humour and I think those things have seen me through pretty well.”
Clare’s memoir comes to an end after the point where she has met her future husband, drummer Marty Brown, recorded her first album and become a mother for the first time to daughter Asha. Clare and Marty would go on to make years of music together and have two more children, twins Oscar and Elijah.
The diversely talented powerhouse would also become an ARIA award-winning musician (Best Female Artist 2006), be named as Rolling Stone’s Woman of the Year (Contribution to Culture) and gain a Logie nomination for her role as ‘Rosanna’ on the hit TV show Offspring.
She is also the founder of Big Hearted Business, a love project designed to support creative people in their businesses, and businesses with their creative thinking.
Despite everything she has gone on to achieve, Clare said wrapping up her memoir just as her fledgeling music career had started to take off was the perfect endpoint.
After all, the book was written to fulfil a promise she made to herself 21 years ago following her nervous breakdown – designed not as a salute to her achievements but to let others who are struggling with their own issues know that they are not alone and that recovery is possible.
“What I promised myself I would do is tell the most useful part of my story, that has to be my first book,” she said.
“I think Keith Richards has written a pretty good rock and roll memoir; I think there are plenty of them out there. And that might be a set of stories that I'll enjoy telling another time. But for me, I had a sense that this was going to be the most useful project that I could do at this point in time.
“I put off writing it for 20 years, and when I finally got the courage to write it, the thing that gave me the courage was the thought that someone would find it useful and enjoy it, keep them company, be a good read.
“The promise to write the book was very clearly a passing down of the baton. I had read other people's stories, they had helped me deal with my significant trauma, and I knew that we are all just part of a long human line really so it was pretty clear to me that I was just passing it back down the line.”
Dredging up tough memories from the past is not a task that Clare took lightly, but she knew it was one that had to be done.
“I know myself really well now, and I know I don't go back into trauma on my own, my head is a neighbourhood you shouldn't travel on your own,” she said.
“When it came to it I had to really dredge, I had to go back to my childhood, to my sister's death, to my own breakdown in order to find the hope, and I did that very consciously.
“I made sure that I had regular check-ins with my very experienced therapist along the way, I was quite conscious about it, and it was still hard.
“Nothing triggers your inner critic more than writing a book about your inner critic.
“What got me through though is that I’m just so clear on how other people’s stories helped me through my tough time and how important it is.
“I know that in my music career, the thing that people respond to the strongest is when we share our stories. I'm lucky in that way. I did know that that would be useful.”
Since being released in late October last year, Your Own Kind of Girl has received rave reviews from readers, critics, media commentators, musicians, authors and even medical practitioners.
As renowned psychologist, Dr Charlotte Keating put it: “For parents, indeed anyone that would like to understand mental illness, and that recovery is possible, Clare writes with extraordinary self-awareness and insight. Her journey encourages anyone to keep going; to believe that there is something better, to take one step at a time toward it, and not to give up. A truly compelling story of resilience, survival and growth.”
Naturally, Clare’s family are among her biggest fans, with her now 17-year-old daughter Asha one of the earliest people to read the manuscript as it was being drafted.
Clare said it was essential to have open conversations about mental health with people of all ages.
“She really enjoyed lots of parts of it, and she was one of my earliest readers actually because I wanted to check with her that it was ok that I shared some of our story, her and my story in there too,” Clare said.
“There’s nothing my kids don’t know, I've always been very open with them, they're just amazingly encouraging really, they’re great kids.
"I think perhaps one of the most useful things that comes from telling our story is that we get to allow other people to sidestep shame. There's absolutely no need for anyone to ever feel ashamed of being the one in two Australians who will at some point have a run-in with mental ill health.”
“Mental ill health is a sign of a healthy brain being stretched in one way or another by one experience or another, so allowing them to reframe that as a place where we can breakthrough, where we can grow into how we are, where we can tell them more of the truth, that's a really hopeful message and I reckon kids need to hear it as much as adults.”
Clare will share her stories of hurt and hope with Newcastle audiences next month as part of the annual Newcastle Writers Festival.
Being held at various venues across Newcastle from April 3–5, the three-day event will include 90 free and ticketed sessions inspired by the theme “Discover the stories behind the stories”, offering an insight into the motivations, inspirations and strong-held beliefs of some of Australia’s most respected writers and public figures.
Clare will take to the stage at the Harold Lobb Concert Hall (in Newcastle City Hall) on Sunday, April 5 from 3pm.
In an open and emotional one-hour session hosted by ABC broadcaster and writer Sarah Macdonald, Clare will discuss her heartbreaking, wise and inspirational memoir, with a couple of musical treats along the way.
After years of touring her music, countless speaking engagements and a continuing book tour on the back of her memoir’s release, Clare is no stranger to the stage and said she is looking forward to engaging with the audience in Newcastle.
“A lot of my life's work has been about entertaining and educating, and I get to do that in my speaking,” Clare said.
“That keeps me connected to what I find most meaningful in life, which is other human beings.
“There is no teaching down from the mountaintop; I do this work because I love this book and it becomes a bit of a self-generating engine between the people who need to hear a story and me who needs those people.
“I absolutely adore writers festivals. I love being in a room with audiences, having conversations; it's such a thrill.
“The audience’s love is always surprising, the love is so big, and during this book tour I’ve kind of had my hair in a constant blow wave of love.
“Engaging with audiences in this way is a real privilege, and it’s one of my favourite parts of what I do.”
Clare is just one of an amazing line-up of authors who will descend on Newcastle in April for this year’s edition of the Writers Festival.
A common thread of resilience seems to run through this year’s festival; not surprising given that organiser Rosemarie Milsom was putting the program together at a time when she was also working with the ABC’s emergency broadcast team, providing night-time coverage to fire-affected areas during the recent bushfire crisis.
“I was inspired by the commitment of firefighters and the resilience shown by residents who had lost everything. It was an unforgettable start to a new decade, and inevitably the catastrophe has shaped some of the themes and ideas in this year’s program,” Rosemarie writes in a personal message at the front of the official program.
“Writers can help us make sense of the world – in good times and bad – and coming together to listen and share meaningful ideas is worthwhile.
“The festival weekend begins with the much-loved Aboriginal performer, Archie Roach, and concludes with a special event featuring Iranian-Kurdish refugee Behrouz Boochani, who was detained on Manus Island for seven years. Their stories of resilience could not be more essential.”
In between those key events, the festival will feature discussions by leading Australian writers and thinkers about leadership, the power of poetry, wisdom, climate change, the influence of the ocean on creativity, and more.
The festival will unofficially kick off with a literary trivia night on Wednesday, April 1, hosted by local author and quizmaster Nick Milligan at The Edwards from 7pm.
The event will raise funds for the 2021 primary schools program, while participants will also have the chance to score some great literary prizes, including book bundles and festival tickets.
A guided writing workshop at The Lock-Up will ease festival-goers into the 2020 program from 10am on Friday, April 3 before the headline opening event, ‘Tell Me Why: An Evening With Archie Roach’ will see the legendary musician, songwriter and activist share his extraordinary story of heartbreak and resilience, and perform some of his amazing songs, at the Civic Theatre from 7.30pm.
Other feature events during the festival will see Tim Costello, the well-known Baptist minister, social justice activist, former CEO of World Vision Australia and author of his own memoir A Lot With a Little, head to Cessnock Performing Arts Centre on Saturday, April 4 to discuss the people and experiences that have shaped him, and the power of faith to sustain us in the face of the world’s biggest issues.
Tim Flannery, Damon Gameau and Patrice Newell will discuss the way climate change is affecting the natural, social and economic welfare of the planet and what steps can we take to create a solution in an aptly titled session ‘How to Save the Planet’ on Saturday, while internationally renowned geneticist David Sinclair, who is on a quest to ‘cure’ ageing, will reflect on the idea of whether we really want to live forever on Sunday, April 5.
Behrouz Boochani will round out the weekend by speaking via Skype from New Zealand about life after Manus Island, the impact of his award-winning memoir No Friend but the Mountains, and the enduring power of literature to change the world.
CORONAVIRUS (COVID-19) UPDATE
Due to government advice about the impact of COVID-19 and events, the Newcastle Writers Festival 2020 has been cancelled and all tickets will be refunded. The health and safety of our writers, audiences and volunteers are our priority. For more information please visit: www.newcastlewritersfestival.org.au