Bruce Springsteen has served as an unofficial spokesman for the marginalized and average Joe with plaintive, sympathetic songs about their stations in the American experience. With lyrics that make listeners feel as if they’re directly hearing from unemployed workers, war veterans and petty thieves, it shouldn’t come as any surprise that Springsteen is a talented memoirist.
Last year, Springsteen released Born to Run, a 508-page autobiography that rather than coming off as yet another celebrity vanity vehicle, instead was proof of his devotion to and love for the written word. Sentences sparkle with emotion, clarity and the same sense of obligation to entertain that Springsteen has when performing three-hour concerts.
Of course, we all can’t be Springsteen. But we can certainly try to write like Springsteen. There’s no harm in using some of the tricks of his trade, so here’s a cheat sheet on how to reach the promised land of successful writing.
Need a Little of That Human Touch
Rarely does Springsteen write from a distance. With relatable imagery – the push of a hard job, a parent’s disapproving glance, a screen door slamming shut – his song lyrics and autobiography target young and old, male and female, the materially poor and spiritually rich.
Sure, most of the stuff you write won’t be biographical, and allusions to fast cars and girls named Mary and Janey probably won’t fit in many pieces, especially marketing content. But you can certainly mimic Springsteen’s approach of putting yourself in your readers’ shoes. For example, most people have no sympathy for a rock star trying to break a contract because it doesn’t pay well, but Springsteen kept me interested in his struggle with his first agent by detailing human elements that I understood: fear, insecurity and naiveté. It wasn’t just about millions of dollars.
Don’t Let Concepts Pass Them By
Use relatable phrasings that keep concepts clear. Look – or listen – no further than Springsteen’s 1985 hit, Glory Days. He wanted to convey that endless reminiscing only brings you back to where you were so he wrote a simple story: Man walks into a roadside bar, drinks a few beers with a buddy who could throw a mean fastball in high school, but all the friend could do was revisit past successes. The chorus delivers the lesson learned: “Glory days, well they’ll pass you by.”
Compare Glory Days to Sweet Thing, a song that also contemplates the allure of reminiscing, on Van Morrison’s album Astral Weeks. “And I shall drive my chariot down your streets and cry, ‘Hey, it’s me, I’m dynamite.’ And I don’t know why. And you shall take me strong in your arms again.” There’s no denying the beautiful poetry of those lyrics, but I have to be in a certain place to fully appreciate them. Odds are your readers will squeeze your written work into a busy, noisy day. Don’t make them go back to reread, or expect them to be in a certain mood or place that allows for critical analysis, no matter how pretty the words. Save poetry for journals that are meant to be read underneath a willow tree.
In his autobiography, Springsteen wanted to relay how, as a young man, he was desperate for a rock and roll career, so he wrote about a seemingly common routine: working a thankless job for a bit of money. He tarred an elderly neighbor’s roof in 90-percent humidity so he could buy an acoustic guitar sold at an auto parts shop. Indeed, ambition isn’t exclusive to Springsteen but the way he shared that memory illustrated he was not hesitant to write with passion, just as he did in revisiting the many dark episodes caused by his lifelong depression.
Don’t be afraid to be passionate when writing. Just as it is for Springsteen, your name will be the one in lights, on a byline. Don’t concede your vision – especially if you have something important to relay – but be sure readers will want to invest time in your story. Write with an understanding of your readers, clarity and honest emotion and you’ll deliver a hit song people will play in their heads all day.