I just finished the 510 page Bruce Springsteen memoir, Born to Run. I am not, as I have stated, a Springsteen fan, and, in fact, had to stop reading at various points in the story to look up lyrics he assumed everyone would know; and to look up videos of Clarence Clemon’s saxophone solos, which everyone also apparently knows; and to look up the iconic Born to Run album cover (above), which is, well, iconic. I enjoyed the story immensely, however, because it highlighted two ideas which I am somewhat obsessed about: 1.) how an artist becomes an artist and sustains their creative inspiration over time and 2.) how a narrative can be structured to sustain a reader’s interest from start to finish.
Springsteen delivers on his promise to take readers inside the story of his unlikely rise to superstardom, which is idea #1. Who doesn’t want to get inside the brain of the inspired kid buying his first guitar, or the teenager who refused to give up when told, “No,” one more time, or the mature musician who had to fight to make his band relevant over and over and over again? It’s a gripping read because we get to watch exactly how someone never gives up, and we get a glimpse of what it takes to make it in what Springsteen calls “the big big time.”
The following gorgeous piece of praise was written by novelist Richard Ford in his review in The New York Times. It speaks to the thrill of getting to peek inside at how someone makes magic through their art – and I don’t know about you, but Ford writing here about Springsteen makes me want to be someone who never gives up on making things:
But he’s also straight up and smart about just what the whole Springsteen enterprise requires. Talent. O.K., that’s one. A great band behind you for all the years. Two. But also alarming self-certainty at a preposterously young age (“It is ultimately my stage,” “my band,” “my will,” “my musicians”). Near-feral discipline he’s more than willing to impose on self and anybody else in earshot — especially the band. Studious and encyclopedic knowledge of the genre and rock history. An ungodly number of irreplaceable life hours spent practicing, practicing, practicing in small, ill-lit rooms. A ruthless calculation to be nothing less than great, powered by a conviction that greatness can exist and be redeeming. A willingness to imagine himself as a dutiful and grateful avatar of his own adored fan base. An ease with his influences, teachers and heroes. An uncommon awareness of his personal frailties (“About my voice. First of all, I don’t have much of one”). A Picasso-like certainty that all art comes out of a “rambunctious gang feeling” born of the neighborhood. And a complex fear of failure mingled with the understanding that success is often the enemy of the very authenticity he’s seeking — so you gotta stay on your guard 24-7. Or, at least, from 1967 to now. “If you want to burn bright, hard and long,” the Boss writes, “you will need to depend upon more than your initial instincts. You will need to develop some craft and a creative intelligence that will lead you farther when things get dicey.”
As for question #2, the question of narrative drive, a celebrity memoir gives us a strong lens through which we can evaluate what works and what doesn't, and Born to Run offers lessons in spades. Here are 5 – and there are spoilers here for sure.
1. Narrative drive comes from pursuing one main idea with relentless focus. In this book, it’s the idea about how a regular kid became a rock star. That question drives through the whole story and comes to light in powerful scenes like the one I described, above. Every story, whether middle-grade fiction, dystopian fantasy, or celebrity memoir, needs to have this kind of focus and purpose.
2. Celebrities can include everything and the kitchen sink. We mortals can’t. There were several points in Born to Run that felt to me – the non-fan -- to be gratuitous. A passage about the horse farm Springsteen bought, and his learning to ride, didn’t tie into the main story line, or amplify it or add to it in any way. I kept thinking, “Why is this here?” – and the second your reader is thinking that, you’ve lost them. Unless, of course, you are Bruce Springsteen and your core audience are your super fans who probably hang on your every word. But you and I are not Bruce Springsteen and so we have to be more ruthless with what we allow to stay in our stories. If it doesn’t serve the story, get rid of it. If you are writing memoir, you have to be especially vigilant about this. What is central to your life, may not be important to your story.
3. Celebrities can be self-indulgent. We mortals can’t. Springsteen shares many intimate truths about his life, which I thought was very generous. He writes movingly about the deep struggles he has had with major depression, and it feels like he shares just enough to let you in without making you uncomfortable that he’s just spilling his guts in order to sell books. I thought it was beautifully done. There were other places in the book, however, when he writes about his relationship with his dad, that felt more like it was there for the author than it was for the reader. It felt a little like watching someone else’s therapy sessions – which is different than being invited into a tale that has been crafted to take you on a journey – and it stops the story cold. We can forgive Springsteen because, again, he’s Springsteen, but your readers will not forgive you for the same sin. Note that in fiction, self-indulgence is the characters standing around musing about what they think or what they want or what they believe in a way that is disconnected from the action of the story. It shuts out the reader in exactly the same way.
4. “And then this happened” is the enemy of narrative drive. Very late in the memoir, Springsteen has a series of short chapters that read to me as if someone said to him, “Oh and you have to write about your kids, and you have to write about being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame,” and he dutifully did it. Some of these sections don’t have the heart and soul of the rest of the book – and they are not connected to the main question the way so much of the rest of the story is. If you have that nagging voice in your head – “I need to throw in this scene,” “I better include that moment,” – try to step back and evaluate what the scene or moment has to do with the story you are telling. If you can’t answer, it doesn’t belong in the book.
5. Satisfaction comes from delivering the goods. One of my favorite parts of the book was when Springsteen describes (on p 488) the private rehearsal for a one-off evening performance he played with the Rolling Stones in Newark, New Jersey. He sounds like a kid in a candy store – which is to say that after decades at the top of his game, he could still tap into the dream every artist dreams of being able to just DO the thing they love:
“I’m pretending to be a peer but it’s not easy. Inside I’m reeling as Mick [Jagger] motions to me to take the second verse. It feels good. It’s within the meat of my voice, and if I can’t swing `Tumbling Dice’ I should go back to my broom handle and my mirror…. I’m having so much fun and I can’t let anyone know! ‘You got to roll me…You got to roll me.’ Mick and I are trading lines in the coda back and forth like a couple of white Sam and Saves, then it’s over. Mick says, ‘That was great.’
We played it exactly one time.
….The next night we did it for twenty thousand thunderstruck New Jerseyans in Newark. It was a thrill but it didn’t have the mystic kick of the night before, when I got to sit in, in that little room with just those four guys, the GREATEST GARAGE BAND IN THE WORLD, in my small piece of rock ‘n’ roll heaven.”
I felt, at that moment, that the story arc had come to an end. I felt satisfied that I got to see how a kid with a guitar became a star, and I got a chance to feel a bit of what that must have been like, and I was given evidence that the star really is just a regular guy who was once a kid with a dream. The story, in other words, delivered on the central question, and that is what every good story needs to strive to do.
Just for fun – in case you are not one of the 25 million people who has watched this YouTube video -- listen to Born to Run and the sax solo at 2:11. You can HEAR how these guys certainly know a little something about narrative drive