In his wonderful autobiography Born to Run, Bruce Springsteen tells the story of making it in the music industry. Springsteen walks through the highs and lows in transitioning from bar band to touring sensation, he chronicles the formation of the legendary E Street Band, and he dispenses sage advice for creators everywhere.
In the early 70’s Springsteen had released two moderately successful records, Greetings from Asbury Park, New Jersey and The Wild, The Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle. He was playing to crowds of thousands and had sold about 25,000 albums. This was good, considering just a few years prior he was playing to crowds of dozens at any local bar that would have him.
Though, Springsteen could see it was problematic. He had one more guaranteed album on his record contract. He knew that this album would either extend his career or push him back into self-described cult-rock status. Springsteen said 25,000 fans wasn’t bad, in fact it was pretty amazing for a kid in his early 20’s. But the third album would either ensure that was the height of his success or just the beginning of a massive chapter still to come.
Springsteen sat down to write the title song of his third record, Born to Run. In hindsight, we know that Born to Run was the hit he was hoping for, but at the time it was just a figment in Springsteen’s mind. We can learn a lot about writing from how Springsteen managed to get Born to Run onto paper.
Writing Requires Showing
Springsteen explains over and over again that he doesn’t work in “tell-business”, he works in “show-business.” It’s his job to show his audience the world his songs create. Springsteen brings his characters to life through the music. All of the songs in Born to Run are meant to provide a glimpse into the life of a day in Asbury Park. Springsteen explains that it begins in the morning and the title song, perched right in the middle of the album, transitions the story to night.
You can tell a story but it is a whole other thing to show people the world you’ve created. Writing isn’t exactly “show-business” but it might as well be. Putting words to paper can either be boring or exciting. The difference is in showing vs. telling the story.
Writing Takes Time
It took Bruce Springsteen six months to get Born to Run on paper. Six months for 344 words. The words had to stew. They had to develop. Then they had to be finessed and rearranged until they properly told the story that Springsteen envisioned.
Not every story needs to take half a year, but there is something to be said for not rushing. Spend time with the stories you’re working on. Pause them. Come back to them. Don’t hit the publish button until the story matches the vision in your mind.
Writing Takes Necessity
Springsteen not only had the story in his mind that needed to get out, but he also had a looming contract renewal hanging over his head. He needed a hit. He wanted to eat and knew that this record would allow him to do so.
Publishing your words might not have consequences of eating or not, but there should be some stakes that makes hitting publish necessary. Does this story need to be told? Do your words expose a piece of yourself? Does someone need to hear what you’re saying?
Success Requires Repetition
Ultimately Born to Run was a huge hit. It propelled Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band to tour North America and Europe. His record contract would be renewed and ultimately send him on a path towards induction in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Though, he still had bills to pay.
Springsteen explains that it took seven years after Born to Run was released — a full ten years after his first contract was signed — before he became truly profitable. Granted, some of this was due to bad contracts and deals in his early days but there is still a lesson to learn.
True success doesn’t happen overnight. A story might go viral and statistics and recommendations might go through the roof. But it’s fleeting. It lasts for a moment and then the world moves onto the next thing. Springsteen became profitable after ten years because he kept working. He continued to produce quality stuff that people continued to devour.
Successfully writing isn’t a flash in the pan. It takes time and it takes dedication. Don’t strive for immediate glory, follow Bruce Springsteen’s example and play the long game. Strive to bring your stories to life in a way that captures the audience’s attention. Then, once you’ve got their attention, don’t let go.