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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 reissuing the record, featuring a wealth of audio and video material, including an interview with Bruce discussing the writing of this seminal work. I’m a fan, so you can imagine I devoured this stuff like it was Thanksgiving early!

For me, hearing that Springsteen’s back really was against the wall while making this album is heartbreaking. His record label was considering dropping him, so he knew he had to do something. When people ask me, “How do I know if my work is good enough?”, I think of Springsteen, because that’s certainly not what he asked when he was trying to figure out what to write. The answer could have been “no” if you asked someone at his record company. He had to work and learn for himself how to tell if his work was good enough. That’s what I learned from the way he did it.

1.) Learn from the Great Ones

In the summer of 1974, Springsteen was bemoaning the failure of his first two albums and living in a small house in New Jersey while the country was in a severe economic crisis. But it wasn’t. He focused on songwriting. “I had a record player by my bed,” he wrote in his book Songs. “At night I would sit back and listen to records by Roy Orbison, the Ronettes, the Beach Boys and all the other great artists of the ’60s. They were records that lacked full depth the first time around. But now they appreciate their craft and power. ” Notice he didn’t say “There’s no way I can make songs like that!” Instead, he thought, “what can I add to the conversation?” He was inspired and educated at the same time.

2.) Strive to be great yourself

In an interview about Born to Run, Springsteen says he knew his record company wanted to drop him. He added: “I knew I had to write something great.” Springsteen didn’t need to write something great. He could have folded his tent and said, “They don’t like me, I’m just going to stay in Asbury Park and play where people appreciate me and that’s it.” But he didn’t do that. He didn’t even ask if it was good enough. He simply challenged himself to surpass himself – to be great. Ask yourself: what are you writing right now and challenging yourself to be great? What does it take to start thinking this way?

3.) Seek out reliable ears for feedback

Yes, it’s hard to decide on your own whether you’re on the right track with your writing. In such cases, you recruit your own circle of internal readers, whose ears and eyes you trust. Jon Landau became one of Springsteen’s trusted ears. They became friends while writing Born to Run, and Bruce often sent Jon, then a music critic in Boston, recordings of the work as it progressed. When work stalled, it was Landau who stepped in and helped Bruce put everything together. Who can this ear or eye be for you? Try to keep the inner circle small. Having too many opinions about your work can cloud your creative judgment.

4.) Try something different

Most of the songs on Born to Run were written on the piano – this from a guy known for his loud Fender guitars. However, writing on the piano gave Springsteen new ideas and new opportunities for exploration. It also gave the album an incredibly emotional and intimate feel that I find intoxicating. What can you do differently to inspire a leap to the next level? Is your novel set in 1905 instead of 2005? Writing from the perspective of the opposite sex? Get a little creative with your gender fiction? To try. No effort is wasted, even if you write badly – you can still learn from what you did wrong.

5.) Think locally, write globally

One of Springsteen’s changes on Born to Run was that the characters in his songs were “less eccentric and less local” than those on his previous albums. The people at Born to Run “could have been anyone and everyone,” 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 this is true. Millions of people have connected with – and purchased – Born to Run. I was looking for a similar connection to my novel. Although the family in All I Need to Get By is African-American, readers of all races shared how they saw themselves in one or more of the characters and how strongly they related to the book’s family issues. Touching people in this way is key to building an attentive audience. How can you open up your work to a larger audience while still staying true to your story?

If you still have doubts, consider this quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson: “No matter what path you choose, there will always be someone who will tell you that you are wrong. There will always be difficulties that will make you believe that your critics are right. outline a course of action and follow it to the end, it takes courage.” Be brave with yourself and your writing. You may have your own Born to Run waiting to be released.

© 2005 Sophronia Scott

WOULD YOU LIKE TO USE THIS ARTICLE ON YOUR E-ZINE OR WEBSITE? You know! If possible, please attach this information to the story: Author and writing coach Sophfronia Scott is “The Book Sistah” TM. Get your FREE REPORT on “The 5 Big Mistakes Most Writers Make When Trying to Get Published” and FREE online writing and publishing tips at http://www.TheBookSistah.com.

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