In the middle of Bruce Springsteen's memoir Born to Run (around page 315), he tells some stories about the making of the record that made him a pop star – which was “Born in the USA.” I love stories about the creative act – stories that help us know exactly what it feels like to create -- because creation is not anywhere near as easy, seamless or straightforward as most of us would like to think. When people blow the cover off the process and let us in, I am always grateful, and in this section of the book, Springsteen does it. It’s very moving and it offers several key lessons about success.
1.) Success is not why we do it. Springsteen speaks in this section of the book about relentless effort and persistence, and faith in the creative act. He lives to serve the music – “a songwriter writes to be understood,” he writes-- and he pushes and pushes because he wants to be a great musician and he wants to connect with people through his music and he has something to say. It is THAT that is the whole point of the pursuit, NOT how the world responds. The response of the world is a byproduct of the work. And sometimes the world doesn’t respond and sometimes it does, but you still keep doing the thing you are called to do.
2.) Success often comes from the sharing of the truth you probably don’t really want to share. Springsteen’s biggest pop hit, Dancing in the Dark, was written because his producer friend thought the record they were making needed a “song that was going to throw gasoline on the fire.” The two men argued, and Springsteen ended up suggesting that if Jon Landau needed a new song, he should write it himself. Springsteen was burnt out, suffering from depression and from writer’s block. But that evening, in response to Landau’s prodding, Springsteen wrote what was in his heart -- “a song about my own alienation, fatigue and desire to get out from inside the studio, my room, my record, my head and…. Live.” That cry for help became his hit single.
3.) Success comes with risk. “Born in the USA,” on which Dancing in the Dark appears, and Glory Days, among many other hits, made Springsteen a massive star. But he is well aware of the “chance involved in engaging a mass audience.” And of the risk. “Was the effort of seeking that audience worth the exposure, the discomfort of the spotlight and the amount of life that’d be handed over?” he asks, “What was the danger of dilution of your core message, your purpose, the reductions of your best intention to empty symbolism or worse?”
These are the questions every writer must ask herself, too: is it worth it to try to get your story out of your head and onto the page in a way that others can relate to? Is the leap of faith worth it?
Springsteen answers his own questions a few lines down: “So, move with spirit, but be aware that along with the thrill and satisfaction of exploiting your full talents, you may find the clear bounds of your music’s limitations, as well as your own.”
I love that – move with spirit, seek the thrill and satisfaction of connecting with people, but beware that the result may not necessarily be boundless joy. This seems to me to be a wonderful mantra for creation, because it puts the focus squarely onto the work itself – the doing of the work to the best of your ability – and not on the result of it.