What Bruce Springsteen Taught Me About Writing

This year marks the​ 30th anniversary of​ the​ release of​ Bruce Springsteen's groundbreaking album Born to​ Run. Columbia Records is​ celebrating by re-releasing the​ disc with lots of​ audio and video goodies including interview material of​ Bruce discussing the​ writing of​ this seminal work. I'm a​ fan,​ so you can imagine I've been gobbling up this stuff like Thanksgiving came early! What's hitting home for me is​ hearing about how Springsteen's back was really up against the​ wall while he was creating this album. His record label was considering dropping him so he knew he had to​ make something happen. When people ask me "how do I know if​ my work is​ good enough?",​ I think of​ Springsteen because surely he wasn't asking that when he was trying to​ figure out what to​ write. the​ answer could have been "it's not" if​ he had asked someone at​ his record company. He had to​ work and learn for himself how to​ tell if​ his work was good enough. This is​ what I learned from how he did it.

1.) Learn From the​ Great Ones

In the​ summer of​ 1974 Springsteen could have been lamenting the​ fact that his first two albums had not been successful and he was living in​ a​ tiny house in​ New Jersey while the​ country was in​ the​ throes of​ a​ severe economic depression. But he wasn't. He was focused on​ his songwriting. "I had a​ record player by the​ side of​ my bed,​" he wrote in​ his book,​ Songs. "At night I'd lie back and listen to​ records by Roy Orbison,​ the​ Ronettes,​ the​ Beach Boys,​ and the​ other great '60s artists. These were records whose full depth I'd missed the​ first time around. But now I was appreciating their craft and power." Notice he wasn't saying "There's no way I can create songs like that!" Instead he was considering "what can I add to​ the​ conversation?" He was getting inspired and educated at​ the​ same time.

2.) Aspire to​ Be Great Yourself

In an​ interview about Born to​ Run,​ Springsteen says he knew his record company was about to​ drop him. He added,​ "I knew I had to​ write something great." Springsteen didn't have to​ write something great. He could have folded up his tent and said,​ "they don't like me,​ I'm just gonna stay in​ Asbury Park and play where people appreciate me and that's it." But he didn't do that. He also didn't ask whether he was good enough. He simply challenged himself to​ go beyond himself--to be great. Ask yourself: what are you writing right now and is​ it​ challenging you to​ be great? What would it​ take for you to​ start thinking this way?

3.) Find Trusted Ears for Feedback

Yes,​ it​ is​ hard to​ know on​ your own whether you're on​ track with your writing. That's when you recruit your own inner circle of​ readers whose ears and eyes you trust. Jon Landau became one of​ those trusted pairs of​ ears for Springsteen. They became friends during the​ writing of​ Born to​ Run and Bruce often sent Jon,​ then a​ Boston music critic,​ tapes of​ the​ work as​ it​ progressed. When the​ work stalled,​ Landau was the​ one who came in​ and helped Bruce put it​ all together. Who can be those ears or​ eyes for you? Try to​ keep the​ inner circle small. if​ you have too many opinions showered on​ your work it​ may cloud your creative judgment.

4.) Try Something Different

Most of​ the​ songs on​ Born to​ Run were written on​ piano--this from a​ guy known for his raucous Fender guitar. But writing on​ piano gave Springsteen new ideas and presented new opportunities for him to​ explore. it​ also gave the​ album an​ amazingly emotional and intimate vibe that I find intoxicating. What can you do differently that can inspire a​ leap to​ your next level? Set your novel in​ 1905 instead of​ 2005? Write from the​ point of​ view of​ the​ opposite sex? Be a​ little creative with your non-fiction? Take a​ chance. No effort is​ ever wasted even if​ you're writing badly--you can still learn from what you've done wrong.

5.) Think Local,​ Write Global

One of​ the​ changes Springsteen made with Born to​ Run was that the​ characters in​ his songs were "less eccentric and less local" than the​ ones on​ his previous albums. the​ people in​ Born to​ Run "could have been anybody and everybody,​" he says. "When the​ screen door slams on​ 'Thunder Road',​ you're not necessarily on​ the​ Jersey Shore anymore. You could be anywhere in​ America." And it's true. Millions of​ people connected with--and bought-- Born to​ Run. I sought the​ same kind of​ connection for my novel. Though the​ family in​ All I Need to​ Get By is​ African-American,​ I've had readers of​ all races tell me how they have seen themselves in​ one or​ more of​ the​ characters and how they related strongly to​ the​ book's family issues. Touching people in​ this way is​ key to​ developing an​ attentive audience. How can you open up your work to​ a​ larger audience while still being true to​ your story?

If you still have doubts,​ think of​ this quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson: "Whatever course you decide upon,​ there is​ always someone to​ tell you that you are wrong. There are always difficulties arising which tempt you to​ believe that your critics are right. to​ map out a​ course of​ action and follow it​ to​ an​ end requires...courage." Be courageous for yourself and your writing. Your own Born to​ Run may be waiting to​ come out.

© 2005 Sophfronia Scott

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