How Old Were The Beach Boys When They Got Started What Bruce Springsteen Taught Me About Writing

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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 a disc full of audio and video features, including interview material with Bruce discussing the writing of this seminal work. I’m a fan, so you can imagine I was eating this stuff like Thanksgiving came early!

What gets me is hearing how Springsteen’s back was against the wall when he was making this album. His 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 he certainly didn’t ask that when he was trying to figure out what to write. The answer might be “no” if he asked someone at his record company. He had to work and learn for himself how to judge whether his work is good enough. That’s what I learned from how he did it.

1.) Learn from the greats

In the summer of 1974, Springsteen could bemoan the fact that his first two albums were not successful and that he was living in a small house in New Jersey while the country was in the throes of a severe economic depression. But it didn’t. He was focused on writing songs. “I had a record player next to my bed,” he wrote in his book “Poems.” “At night I would sit back and listen to records by Roy Orbison, the Ronettes, the Beach Boys and other great artists of the ’60s. They were records whose full depth I had missed the first time. But now I was appreciating their craft and power.” Notice he didn’t say “There’s no way I’m making songs like that!” Instead, he was thinking “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 label would drop him. He added: “I knew I had to write something great.” Springsteen didn’t have to write anything great. He could pitch a tent and say, “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 also didn’t ask if he was good enough. He simply challenged himself to surpass 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 reliable ears for feedback

Yes, it’s hard to know for yourself if you’re on the right track with your writing. Then you recruit your inner circle of readers whose ears and eyes you trust. Jon Landau became one of those reliable 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 he progressed. When the work stopped, it was Landau who came in and helped Bruce put it all together. Who can those ears or eyes 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 are written on piano – this from a guy known for his noisy Fender guitar. But writing on the piano gave Springsteen new ideas and gave him new opportunities to explore. It also gave the album an incredibly emotional and intimate atmosphere that I find intoxicating. What can you do differently that can spur the leap to the next level? Set your novel in 1905 instead of 2005? Write from the point of view of the opposite sex? Get a little creative with your nonfiction? Take a risk. No effort is ever wasted even if you write badly – you can still learn from what you did 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 those on his previous albums. The people in Born to Run “could have been anyone and everyone,” he says. “When the door slams on ‘Thunder Road,’ you’re not necessarily on the Jersey Shore anymore. You could be anywhere in America.” And that’s true. Millions of people have connected with – and bought – Born to Run. I was looking for the same kind of connection for my novel. Although the family in All I Need To Get By is African-American, readers of all races have told me how they saw themselves in one or more of the characters and how they strongly related to the book’s family issues. Touching people in this way is key to developing an attentive audience. How can you open your work to a wider audience while staying true to your story?

If you still have doubts, consider this quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Whatever course you choose, someone will always tell you that you are wrong. Charting a course of action and following it through takes…courage.” Be brave for yourself and your writing. Your own Born to Run may be waiting to come out.

© 2005 Sophronia Scott

WANT TO USE THIS ARTICLE IN YOUR E-ZINE OR WEBSITE? You can! If possible, include this information with the story: Author and writing coach Sophfronia Scott is “The Book Sistah” TM. Get her FREE REPORT, “The 5 Big Mistakes Most Writers Make When Trying to Get Published” and her FREE online writing and publishing tips at http://www.TheBookSistah.com

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