Clare Bowditch raised her family in an urban community in Thornbury, in a house with no back fence and a mulberry tree in the yard. She creates without fences too, whether it’s music, her memoir or her company Big Hearted Business. She doesn’t like to compartmentalise. Her feelings are a package deal.
Clare’s new book, Your Own Kind of Girl is a special gift about overcoming self-doubt and finding your creative voice, but at the book launch she only wanted to say thanks. She presented flowers to all the people who helped her, and at one point asked an entire row of extended family to stand in the audience so they could be applauded too.
We met for lunch at North Island in North Fitzroy. She wore an orange printed dress, cinnamon coloured sunglasses and bright earrings that fluttered either side of her face. Clare Bowditch is fresh flowers personified, and orders a ‘stiff piccolo,’ because she’s no shrinking violet.
Virginia Woolf said you need a fierce attachment to an idea in order to see it through. What was yours to your book? What kept you coming back to it?
When I was 21, I promised myself I’d one day write it, which was 21 years ago now. It took that long. I needed to wait and see if my life worked out or not. Back then I couldn’t have imagined it would. I was dealing with what I now know was anxiety in turbo drive. I was in the throws of a nervous breakdown, but I found some things that helped and I was able to recover. Through art, creativity and techniques to manage my anxiety, I was able to imagine a future beyond my immediate circumstances. I promised at some stage I’d pass the baton. If I look at the past two decades of work, I think that’s what I’ve been trying to do. To keep generating that feeling. I imagined one day I’d be a grown up with kids and a dog and someone to love, where I’d make music and then write a book. It’s curious to me and quite wonderful that it’s indeed what’s happened.
Would you say you manifested it?
I took the action steps, I guess. I had a really clear dream as a kid of what I wanted to do. I forgot what it was, as we often do in life. Things get in the way, our self-doubt gets in the way, but then I learned some ways to get through it.
What do you find works best for you in overcoming your self-doubt? I know you named your anxiety Frank, which is great.
Frank is an umbrella title for a feeling of foreboding. I came up with it during the very early recovery stage of my breakdown, when I didn’t really know how to separate my emotions. Now I know it was just anxiety that needed training. Reading Jack Kornfield helped a lot, as did a really practical little book by Dr Claire Weekes called Peace from Nervous Suffering. She was a stalwart of the Australian post-war veteran field. She helped people deal with anxiety before it really had a name. Slowly, slowly I was able to work past it, but it took until I was 27 to have the guts to put my own songs in the world. I’d been building that courage from age 21. I still have self-doubt, but these days it can motivate me. It tells me I’m onto something. My songs have always sat in me like pets. I can’t rush them. They come when they’re ready and my job is to make room for them. So I just keep showing up with my pen and paper.
Who did you write your book for?
It’s dedicated to Rowena, my sister who I lost when I was young, Doctor Clare Weekes and my dear friend John Patrick Hedigan, who was the first person I shared my songs with at 22. We started a band together and he introduced me to this cool drummer called Marty (now my husband). John fell in love with my best mate and they went on to have kids too. He passed away earlier this year, so his story is in there too.
It’s a love story and it’s dedicated to the legacies of their grand lives, but I think it’s for anyone who is still suffering from self-doubt and needs something positive to read. The first half isn’t an easy read, but it’s a true read, and I really believe if we tell the truth it helps people feel less alone. It’s a hopeful story.
It sounds like emotionally expensive behaviour, for which we’re eternally grateful. You give so much of yourself in your music too. How do you replenish the tank?
I think it’s a self-generating engine, the giving and getting, so that’s fulfilling in itself. I’m also restored by the same things that helped me recover when I was 21, baking, gardening, walking, reading, crushing flowers in my hand and smelling them, hanging out with my kids. Simple small things, like sitting with my cup of tea and reading my Design Files!
How do you and Marty share the parenting load?
We were in a band together for four years before we finally admitted we were in love with each other, then we became parents soon after that. So the working relationship was already pretty clear, and we had a firm idea of how we wanted to parent. It was crazy, foolhardy behaviour, but it worked for us. Early on I took on the role as primary carer due to biological reasons, I was a breastfeeding mum, but both of us have always been all hands on deck. I feel very fortunate that we get along well. We have to make an effort these days, but he’s my biggest champion, really, just like I am for him.
Your Own Kind of Girl is also the name of a pretty special song of yours about body acceptance at any size. What does it mean to you?
I wrote that one for my audience, in response to some beautiful letters I received. I often still get choked up when I play it. I wanted to encourage people to count themselves in. I had to tell a painful story of my own to do that, but I truly believe our peace and strength comes from accepting ourselves for who we are. Our relationship with our bodies is complex and glorious. It’s a big journey. I’m happy to have a song like that out there. Every time I play it, it reminds me that my instinct was right. We’re more than our size. I didn’t know it for a long time.
The world has already started telling my daughters what they should look like. I’ve got a three year old who is conscious of the size of her belly because someone at daycare told her it’s because she eats too much.
It was three for me too. That’s when I first got the message. Now you get to say to her what my mother said to me: ’You’re not too big, you’re a peach and you’re gorgeous.’
Here’s the reality, our body size is a complex interplay between genetics and the way we store our food, and the way we eat in response to things and the size of our forefathers. We haven’t really been able to have a great conversation around that. But we have frameworks like Health at Every Size and great nutritionists like Ellyn Satter, who has some really useful thinking around food. Have a read of her in the context of your daughter, because your baby girl has done nothing wrong.
I will. Thank you. Is fostering a positive body image something you do consciously in your household?
My kids have never had to have a conversation around it for themselves. Curiously it’s not an issue. I’ve always been really open with them about my history, and what the temptations were likely to be for them based on the images around us and the stories we’re told. They understand not to comment on a person’s size, just as we don’t comment on their gender, colour, sexuality and so on. They get that every human has a right to be here in this world and be who they are. You do, I do, they do. They also understand the complexity of the grief I was brought up in and how that factored in.
Have you found writing your book to be a healing experience?
One of the good things about navigating sadness early on in life is that it gave me the sense that I was never going to be ‘fixed.’ There’s functional and non-functional, and things become non-functional when we have no way to speak the truth about our feelings. I used to think there was some place I’d get to in the future where everything would be perfect. Then I realised there wasn’t, and that’s not such a bad thing.
Carey Grant described his journey to healing as a process of pulling away barnacles and discovering more barnacles. Do you relate to that?
Yes, but there’s gold in there too. That’s why we keep searching. Our barnacles are our circumstances, and we have no say over them, none, just like we can’t choose the weather. Just like I can’t choose my body size or birth. But we have this opportunity to choose the next thought.
Your Own Kind of Girl is about the point in my life I decided to tell myself a different story. If I’d continued to tell myself that there was no hope for me, then that would have perhaps been what was lived out. But I told myself I had a chance at a more hopeful story, and I decided to believe it.