Jennie Nash is an acclaimed author and book coach. I first met her when I was a student at the Writers’ Studio at UCLA, and she was the guest speaker in a class I was taking with author, Lisa Cron. (Flash forward to present, I’m currently writing my third book with Story Genius, a novel-writing workshop and brainchild of Nash and Cron. *Never stop learning!) Jennie points out there are four fantastic lessons to be learned from Bruce Springsteen’s new memoir, Born to Run. This is from Jennie Nash:
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 (including an anecdote about the church at the end of his block and its dominance in his life), and
4. Pay attention to the music. As Jennie points out, “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.”
Jennie Nash is the Chief Creative Officer and Founder of AuthorAccelerator.com, a book coaching system that offers accountability and feedback so you can write your best book. To sign up for her weekly coaching newsletter, visit Jennienash.com.