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Writer’s Block

Removing songwriter’s benign brain tumor unlocks lyrics

By Kathy Whitney
July 2011

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Every songwriter has his or her own process of writing. Beth Nielsen Chapman, for example, almost always starts with the melody. Then, she discovers the lyrics in what she describes as a surreal, intuitive way.

“I start with a sound, and I follow the sound,” she explained. “I use my voice as a divining rod. I’ll play some chords and I am just poking around and accidentally bump into notes and say, ‘Oh, I like that.’ I allow it to reveal itself to me. That’s why I feel like it’s so close to a spiritual experience, really.”

This process worked well for the better part of the last 25 years as she wrote hits for Willie Nelson, Tanya Tucker and the song “This Kiss” for Faith Hill, which garnered a Grammy nomination and was ASCAP’s 1999 Song of The Year.

So it appeared odd when in April 2009 she began to experience trouble getting the lyrics out of her head and onto paper as she was working on her new CD, “Back To Love.” It wasn’t a pressing problem, more like a shadow that descended over her creativity, stifling the once easy transition of emotion into language. At the same time, she was experiencing a loud, rumbling in her ears.

“It sounded like there was an airplane in my head,” she said. “I was very concerned because I couldn’t hear tones or notes.”

On her physician’s advice, she came to Vanderbilt’s Emergency Department for an MRI.

“The doctors came around the corner, young neurology students, with their clipboards and told me, ‘The good news is nothing seems to be wrong with your ears. However, there is a mass on your left frontal lobe and you’re going to need to see a neurosurgeon.”

Chapman, who had lost her husband to cancer in 1993 and was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2000, thought to herself, “This cannot be happening.”

Chapman met with Reid Thompson, M.D., William F. Meacham Professor of Neurological Surgery, right away. It turned out that the rumbling in her ears, attributed to an undiagnosed condition she was born with, had nothing to do with the fast-growing benign tumor on her brain.

“I was so fortunate to have the warning bells go off,” Chapman said.
Thompson reviewed her brain scans and explained to her that the tumor had caused some swelling around the part of the brain that is an important area for language.

“The frontal lobe is important for getting words out. When we started talking about it, Beth said, ‘Oh, my gosh. That may explain why I’ve not been able to get emotions into words and I can’t write anymore,’” he recalled.

Thompson, a longtime fan of Chapman’s music, removed the tumor in a four-hour operation. He couldn’t believe what he witnessed in the intensive care unit as she regained consciousness.

“Literally, in the ICU she said, ‘Give me a pen and paper,’ and started writing and it all started flowing out. One of the songs on the album she had been working on is called “How We Love.” It just blows me away. It’s the most beautiful song I’ve ever heard.”

Chapman was equally amazed.

“The wonderful moment for me was that I woke up and I had spent those weeks before trying to finish this song, “Even As It All Goes By.” I was coming out of anesthesia and I just remember the first thing coming into my consciousness was the third verse to my song. It was like these words that were floating over the clouds. I tried to write it down. It is a very complex little verse.”

“As fleeting as the first light on a window sill
Reaching through the darkest night, it can never be still
Like the earth that spins, where it ends it begins”

“This whole song is about trusting that creative connection that we have and knowing it is always going to be there. When artists go through periods of time when they are not creative, they feel great frustration and agony sometimes. I go through times when I’m more creative and less creative, but I’ve never gone through a time when I am not creative at all.”

Once she was fully recovered, she performed the songs from her new CD at Bluebird on the Mountain, a songwriter’s night at the Dyer Observatory. Thompson and his wife went to hear her. Chapman’s husband, Brentwood psychologist and photographer Bob Sherman, spotted them in the audience and went up on stage to let Chapman know they were there. She told her story to the audience and dedicated “How We Love” to Thompson.

“I was just in tears. She’s a very amazing person,” Thompson said.

In June Chapman performed at the Cancer Survivorship Conference and Celebration sponsored by the Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center. This summer also brings the release of a CD of yoga chants she co-wrote and produced with Kirby Shelstad for Deepak Chopra Yoga and an astronomy project for children called The Mighty Sky, with Rocky Alvey, superintendent of the Dyer Observatory. Chapman is currently working on a boxed set of her songs, slated for a 2012 release.

With no foreseeable roadblocks ahead, even she doesn’t know where her creative spirit will take her next.

“I like to dabble in all sorts of things,” she said. “I have had such an amazing, fortunate career.”

To view Beth Nielsen Chapman's facebook page, go here.


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