What Bruce Springsteen taught me about writing

Persistence, heart and passion are essential to creating memorable prose that will move your readers. Take it from this legendary rock star.

My love for Bruce Springsteen began on a bus from Cleveland to Chicago.

I sat down next to a young guy wearing a polo shirt and khaki pants who was headed to the Windy City to catch a Springsteen show and return the same night on the midnight bus to Cleveland.

He asked if I had any Springsteen music on my phone. I did.

He asked if I’d seen him in concert. I hadn’t.

Without hesitation, he offered me his extra ticket to that night’s show. “Anyone with Bruce on their phone needs to experience him live,” he said. “Trust me.”

I protested the entire four-hour trip, but to no avail. He handed me the ticket when we stepped off the bus, and he walked away, hoping I’d show.

I did.

I walked into the United Center for the first time, standing on the wooden floor that Michael Jordan made famous. I teetered with as much anticipation as a little kid about to take his first lick of ice cream.

I could not have prepared myself for what happened in those next three hours.

It was a revival, it was time suspended, it was electrifying and freeing. It was a thesaurus full of “laissez les bon temps rouler” synonyms. It can’t be explained, only experienced.

“You don’t understand, put me in front of a band and an audience, and I will bury the house,” Springsteen writes in his autobiography, “Born to Run.”

I learned just how he’s honed that craft for the past 40 years as I pored through the pages of his new memoir, as many have. It’s a New York Times best-seller.

By his own admission, Springsteen’s not the best singer or guitar player, but what he can do is write.

My voice was never going to win any prizes. My guitar accompaniment on acoustic was rudimentary, so that left the songs. The songs would have to be fireworks … the world was filled with plenty of good guitar players, many of them my match or better, but how many good songwriters were there?

Here are lessons on writing from The Boss, whose grit and determination took him from his small hometown of Freehold, New Jersey, to rock icon.

1. Evergreen stories have legs. The themes in Springsteen’s early music still ring true today: family, identity, love, the working class, redemption. Those issues can still tug at you; they are timeless. He writes of an album released in 1978:

The songs from Darkness on the Edge of Town remain at the core of our live performances today and are perhaps the purest distillation of what I wanted my rock ‘n’ roll music to be about.

Carve out themes in your writing that you can revisit over time. Those will likely be stories that your audience will always care about. Trendy and timely topics certainly have impact, but don’t underestimate the power of evergreen stories.

2. Rewriting has limits. Deadlines are essential to writers. Without them, many stories may never see the light of day. All writers know that rewriting can be endless, but there comes a time when you have to stop writing, file your story and call it a day.

In 1975, Springsteen was under the gun to produce a hit record for Columbia or he’d “be sent back to the minors deep in the South Jersey pines.” Enter “Born to Run.” It was full of beauty, power and magic, and he knew it. Yet after the record was produced, he wasn’t satisfied.

I wrestled with Born to Run for a few more months, rejecting it, refusing to release it and finally throwing it in a hotel swimming pool …. I just couldn’t release it. All I could hear was what I perceived as the record’s flaws.

Urged by his producers, he had to let it go and release the album. It catapulted him into stardom. It landed him on the covers of Time and Newsweek.

3. Write until you strike gold. Performing, like writing, can be a grind. Springsteen still tours regularly and has “left enough sweat on stages around the world to fill at least one of the seven seas.” There are days he doesn’t want to perform, but does because he knows he’ll inevitably hit that sweet spot.

Are there nights you don’t want to go on? … Yep. But on those nights, there will come a moment when something happens, the band takes flight, a face lights up in the audience, someone, with their eyes closed, singing along to the words, the music you’ve written, and suddenly you’re bound together by the feeling of the things that matter to you the most.

Similarly, writers continue to crank out copy on days when we’d rather not. But you’ll eventually hit your stride—you’ll string together a passage, lede or transition that has you sit back and smile with pride when you know you nailed it.

4. Personalize your writing. Springsteen wanted to be a voice that reflected the world he lived in. He did that by writing from the heart about his fears, questions and doubts.

I wanted my music grounded in my life, in the life of my family and in the blood and lives of the people I’d known. Most of my writing is emotionally autobiographical. I’ve learned you’ve got to pull up the things that mean something to you in order for them to mean anything to your audience.

Don’t be afraid to let readers in and show them who you are. As in songwriting, your words must have heart and capture some emotion.

… All the telling detail in the world doesn’t matter if the song lacks an emotional center. That’s something you have to pull out of yourself from the commonality you feel with the man or woman you’re writing about.

Emotion will almost always supersede perfection. You don’t have to be the most eloquent writer for your words to move your reader. As Springsteen would say, a polished voice isn’t always a convincing one: “They can hit all the high notes, but they cannot capture the full emotional content of a song. They cannot sing deeply.”

5. Read for inspiration. If you’re stuck in a rut, pick up books written by authors you admire—the men and women who made you want to be a writer. Or pop in a movie or play a song that will kick-start your creative juices.

In the early stages of writing “Born to Run,” Springsteen listened to Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison, Phil Spector and Duane Eddy. Country music from Hank Williams and others influenced “The River” while Woody Guthrie, American gothic short stories of Flannery O’Connor and noir novels of James M. Cain served as inspiration for “Nebraska.”

6. Everyone needs an editor. Do not underestimate the importance of an editor. As talented a songwriter as Springsteen is, even he needs one. He found that in Jon Landau, a writer who become a close friend and mentor for much of his career.

He guarded against overplaying and guided our record toward a more streamlined sound. It made Born to Run simultaneously seeped in rock history and modern. We made dense, dramatic rock ‘n’ roll.

It’s been many moons since that first Springsteen show. The feeling I had when I walked out of the United Center dazed and bewildered has never left me. Something in me shifted.

Eliciting such a powerful and lasting reaction is what every writer—songwriter or otherwise—should strive to achieve with their words. It’s what has Springsteen fans returning to show after show, year after year, to watch him storm the stage and bury the house each and every time.

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