The 15 students in Burke Nixon’s first-year writing-intensive seminar, Medical Humanities: Literature, Medicine and the Practice of Empathy, were in for a rare treat on a Monday in late October. Vince Bell, the Texas singer-songwriter who weathered life-changing tragedy, spoke to the students about the art and craft of writing, recovery and how he came out the other side.
“Writing a book is a lot more trouble than it’s cracked up to be,” said Bell, the author of “One Man’s Music,” which chronicles his struggle to recover from a devastating car accident. “It looks like ‘Oprah’ but it isn’t. It’s an ominous quiet you experience after you put a book out. You go, ‘Now, nobody’s calling. Now, nobody’s wishing me well.’ Until one day somebody picks up the book and takes you by the hand and goes, ‘This (book) saved me a lot of trouble.’”
In December 1982, Bell was recording an album in Austin when a drunk driver broadsided his car at 65 mph. The recording, which included guitar work by no less than Stevie Ray Vaughan and Eric Johnson, would never be released. Thrown over 60 feet from his car, Bell was so severely injured that he was mistakenly reported as dead by local media in Austin. He woke from a monthlong coma with grievous injuries to his brain, spine and right arm and began a tortuous, decadelong journey to recover his life and the ability to write and play music.
Bell had to learn to handle the guitar again. He had to create new ways to pick and strum with his physically altered right hand — a skill he displayed at the end of class, when he performed his song “Mirror, Mirror.”
“Brain-injured people are like border collies, no two alike,” said Bell. “Everybody’s got their own problems. It’s a solitary deal. It doesn’t relate. I’ve played the guitar and spoken to thousands of people at brain injury associations’ conferences all over the U.S. That’s a quiet (place), I tell you. You finish talking to 1,500 people – interested but aloof from you, way out from you. The guy that’s sitting there on the front row whose arm doesn’t move, will never move again. Somebody like me who’s relearned how to walk, talk, play the guitar, we have nothing in common, nothing in the world. Yet we’re both brain-injury folks. It’s an astounding game. The writing of the book was cathartic. When it was over, I went like, ‘Good, we’ve got that out of the way; now let’s go on and do something else with our lives.’”
“It meant a lot for my class to see Vince speak in person,” Nixon said. “We got to witness his wisdom as a musician, a writer and an incredible survivor, and I think he helped us see some of the ideas we’ve discussed in class in a more complex, personal, flesh-and-blood way.”
Nixon’s course provides an introduction to the field of medical humanities and focuses specifically on narrative medicine and the role narrative can play in illness and the clinical encounter. It also examines the use of literary fiction as a way to increase empathy in doctor-patient interactions. Students read medical-themed short stories by Ernest Hemingway, Alice Munro, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and the physician-writer Anton Chekhov, among others.
“(In class), we learned that one of the keys to recovery from an illness or accident is to share your story,” said Duncan College freshman Meredith McCain. “Bell clearly exemplifies this through his memoir, since sharing his story seems to be an ongoing part of his recovery process. But I also noticed how a lot of Bell’s healing seemed to be self-initiated; he was the one to pull himself out of the hardship of his injuries. This is different from many of the cases we’ve studied in class, in which patients rely on those around them for healing. From this, I learned that every patient’s story is different. Vince Bell is a rare individual because he forged his own path to recovery.”
Andrés Martinez Murillo, a Will Rice College freshman, said, “It was really amazing to hear Bell’s experience as he struggled through his brain injury. Every word he spoke resonated the book from his belief that he ‘is brain-damaged and will always be brain-damaged.’ He seemed so peaceful when he said this, as if he had already accepted this as a truth that would never change. It was really interesting to see this perspective because it showed how one must accept their illness and injury as part of their life. It makes his injury more approachable for his life rather than thinking that he could be the same musician he was before the car accident.”
The burgeoning Houston Folk Music Archive
The opportunity for Bell’s talk came about through Norie Guthrie, an archivist and special collections librarian at Fondren Library. Working in the library’s Woodson Research Center, Guthrie has set out to document Houston’s lively folk scene of the 1960s to 1980s. Santa Fe, N.M., resident Bell, who cut his teeth as a songwriter in Houston in the ’70s — in places like Sand Mountain Coffeehouse and Anderson Fair — had driven into Houston with his wife, Sarah Wrightson, to donate materials and artifacts for a new Vince Bell collection.
“We’re incredibly honored to add his collection to the Houston Folk Music Archive,” Guthrie said. “Since no two musicians take the same journey, Mr. Bell’s materials provide another perspective on being a folk musician in Houston in the 1970s. Moreover, his collection would be an amazing resource for medical humanities researchers interested in artists dealing with brain injuries.”
This summer, the Houston Folk Music Archive added the Richard J. Dobson collection, which charts his development as a singer-songwriter. Other bands and artists in the archive include Wheatfield and St. Elmo’s Fire, Linda Lowe and Don Sanders.
For more information about the Vince Bell collection and the Houston Folk Music Archive, go to http://libguides.rice.edu/houstonfolkmusic and https://woodsononline.wordpress.com/tag/houston-folk-music-archive and visit the archive’s Facebook page, www.facebook.com/houstonfolkmusicarchive.