I’ve only just started reading it, but there are fantastic lessons to be learned even in the opening pages of Bruce Springsteen’s new memoir, Born to Run. Here are four:
1. Be generous.
At the top of the front jacket flap of the book, there is this quote from Springsteen:
“Writing about yourself is a funny business…. But in a project like this, the writer has made one promise, to show the reader his mind. In these pages, I’ve tried to do this.”
I knew the second I read those words that this memoir was going to be the real deal – not a sugar-coated celebrity spin-fest. Writers do indeed make a promise to their readers, and in memoir it's not only to tell the truth to the best of your ability, it’s to show the reader your mind. That’s a perfect description of the reason we read – to get inside someone else’s head. And it’s a perfect description of the writer’s task.
I thought this was an astute observation and it told me I was in the hands of a real writer.
2. Give the story a shape.
In the foreword of his book, Springsteen explains that he gave his story parameters. He did not, in other words, spit out every last little detail about his life. He crafted a tale designed to answer a specific question – “How did you do it?” How did you go from a small town New Jersey rebel to one of the most beloved rock stars of all time? Here is how he speaks about that:
“I’ve taken as my parameters the events in my life I believe shaped that story and my performance work. One of the questions I’m asked over and over again by fans on the street is “How do you do it?” In the following pages I will try to shed a little light on how and, more important, why.”
And do you see that last bit? The bit where he says he explained that he would also try to show us why he did it? Having that intention is what lifts a piece of work out of the realm of the mundane and into the realm of art. Springsteen has a clear, and profound intention. Every story should get to the why. It’s what makes the reader come, and what makes them stay.
Springsteen deepens his explanation of his intention in this Rolling Stone interview, where he talks about literally holding himself back from sharing every last little thing in the pages of the book. The piece is True Bruce: Springsteen Goes Deep, From Early Trauma to Future of E Street
Entertainment Weekly Question: You didn't hesitate to put in facts of your life that were halo-puncturing. Did you want to shatter your aura of saintliness a little?
Bruce Springsteen Answer: Yeah, that part of my thing has always annoyed me. It's too much, you know. So any dent in it I can make, I'm pleased to do. I mean, it wasn't something I was intent on doing. It was just writing about alife, and all of its many aspects. But I also decided that it was a book about my music first, and about my life kind of secondarily. If I didn't want to write about something, I didn't write about it. I didn't have any rules, except I wanted what was in the book to relate back to my music. So the revelations I made about my family or my own inner workings, I felt that could be central to understanding where some of my music came from. I didn't write all about myself. Plenty of things, I held back.
Having rules, parameters and intentions is how every writer moves forward. No story can contain everything, nor should it. We must choose, select, and intentionally shape our stories, whether we are writing memoir, fiction, or non-fiction. What you leave out is as important as what you leave in.
3. Be both specific and universal
All good stories speak about a very specific person’s very specific experience, but they also have their eyes on the bigger picture in order to make their story universal.
In this tiny little snippet of text, you can see Springsteen doing this:
“The bride and her hero are whisked away in their long black limousine, the one that drops you off at the beginning of your life. The other one is just around the corner waiting for another day to bring the tears and take you on that short drive straight out Throckmorton Street to the St. Rose graveyard on the edge of town.”
He’s telling a tiny story about the church at the end of his block and its dominance in his life, but it is both specific in that it describes a particular place (“the short drive out Throckmorton Street,” “ the St. Rose graveyard on the edge of town”) and universal in that it zooms out to take in realities of human nature (the Big Idea in the line “the one that drops you off at the beginning of your life” – note the switch to the use of “you” instead of “their” or “them,” a tiny detail that gives us a clue he is not just talking about his neighborhood.)
4. Pay attention to the music
Bruce Springsteen is a songwriter and a musician so it would stand to reason that he would be attuned to the music inherent in writing. I was delighted that he is so explicit about it. At one point in the book he talks about the poetry and music of the language of the church and how that informed his songwriting. And in this Entertainment Weekly interview, he speaks about how you achieve that musical sense while writing prose:
“It connects up to your musical rules, but you gotta create the music without the music. You gotta find the music in the way that the story moves and the rhythms shift and your voice shifts….You’ve got to create momentum purely on the page…..”
I love that quote because it’s so true. There is music in story – in how it flows. It rises and falls from scene to scene and chapter to chapter. There is dissonance and resolution, just like in music. There is a drumbeat that drive a story forward.
When a piece of writing is attuned to rhythm, you can hear the music in even one sentence of the writer’s work. If we return to the Springsteen quote above about the bride, you can hear it. Imagine for a minute if I had written the following version of that line. Say it out loud:
“The bride and her groom get in their black limousine, which drops them off at the church where they will start their life together.”
That’s a good sentence, a solid sentence. It does the job. But it doesn’t sing. It sounds a little bit like those documentaries about drunk driving or sex education that we used to have to watch in school – flat and without much heart. Add back in Springsteen’s flourishes and his killer rhythm and you get music. Read it aloud to hear the difference:
“The bride and her hero are whisked away in their long black limousine, the one that drops you off at the beginning of your life.
That sentence just went from good to great, and all because of the flow of it, the replacing of a few key words that hit the ear in a particular way (“hero” instead of “groom,” “whisked away” instead of “get in,” “long” connecting with “limousine.”)
I just got to the part of the Springsteen memoir where he hears the Beatles for the first time and then paints an old neighbor’s house to earn enough money to buy his first guitar, because he knows what he wants in his life. This story now has so much narrative drive, because we’re dying to know both the how of how he did it, and the why.