Read Like a Writer, Part 11: Pace, Voice, and Tone in Springsteen’s Born to Run 2

THIS IS THE SECOND OF THREE ARTICLES, in which I discuss Bruce Springsteen’s memoir, Born to Run. Today, I’m exploring how Springsteen controls pace, voice, and tone in his writing.

Voice and Tone: Springsteen describes the characters in his life

I think one of the ways Springsteen’s voice and tone come through most clearly in this memoir is in his descriptions of the various characters in his life. Throughout the book, his tone is modest, that of a Jersey boy who worked hard, had some good luck, and somehow managed to become successful — to his complete bewilderment. I admire that tone. For me, it makes his entire story more believable. If he took on the tone of deserving his good fortune (which, or course he actually does) or of having a disconnect toward his roots, I might be more inclined to dismiss his story as inauthentic. As it is, I think he struck the perfect balance between “I worked really, really hard to get where I am” and “wow, can you believe it?”. 

His authentic voice also shines through his writing, especially in how he describes the people he loves.

I’ve included only five brief examples below, but these are typical. Many are made with a long series of hyphenated adjectives. Some pull from the stereotypes of hot-headed, blue-collar working men, like Springsteen’s father, with whom he was so familiar. Other descriptions employ conflicting or opposing images that work to create an element of surprise and bring some humor to his characterizations.

Tex was a temperamental, redheaded, comb-overed, loudmouthed, lascivious, pussy-joke-telling factory worker. (p. 69). 

The greasers were a teen subcult, leather-jacketed, sharkskin-suit-wearing, see-through-nylon-sock-clinging, beat-your-ass-with-an-Italian-shoe, pompadoured, preening, take-more-time-to-get-ready-for-school-in-the-morning-than-my-auntie-Jane, fight-you-at-the-drop-of-a-hat, Italian-descended, don’t-give-a-fuck-about-you inhabitants of their own little terrestrial universe. (p. 76).

Tom Potter was a fifty-year-old salt-and-pepper-haired, big-gutted, pirate-belt-wearing, sexually preoccupied, goateed boho who opened and ran the strangest music club I’d ever seen. . . . His wife, Margaret, was a pixie-cut-wearing, sexually ambiguous, guitar-playing beautician and bandleader for Margaret and the Distractions. (p. 104).

[Frank Marzotti] . . . struck a rather discordant note in our image. He was the only true musician amongst us. (p. 72).

The motor mouth of Mike Appel was a fierce and surgical instrument when put to proper use. (p. 170).

What strikes me about these characterizations is not only the clarity of Springsteen’s voice, but the unique imagery he uses. Also, how often he “breaks the rules” — I’m pretty sure my editor would have asked me to reduce the number of adjectives used to describe people — but in ways that really work to give us a sense of how these people moved through the world. Perhaps part of the success of these techniques comes through the repetition of style.


Controlling the Pace

Slowing pace through reflection.

Springsteen includes a lot of reflection (telling) in this memoir, which slows the pace considerably between scenes. In these two examples, he reflects upon the meaning of his music and how his home life affected his relationships with women.

My writing was focusing itself around identity issues — who am I, who are we, what and where is home, what constitutes manhood, adulthood, what are your freedoms and your responsibilities. I was interested in what it meant to be an American, one small participant in current history at a time when the future seemed as hazy and shape-shifting as that thin line on the horizon. Can a rock ’ n ’ roll artist help sculpt that line, shade its direction ? (p. 216).

It was rarely the women themselves I was trying to get away from. I had many lovely girlfriends I cared for and who really cared for me. It was what they triggered, the emotional exposure, the implications of a life of commitments and family burdens. (pp. 272-273).

Speeding up pace in scene.

Though Springsteen did include huge chunks of reflection, I never found the reading tedious. It was apparent that he had done some very deep thinking about his responses to life, how he got where he was and achieved so much success. And there is a lot of variety in the writing — varying sentences lengths, unique images and metaphors, and effective transitions.

When he wanted to speed up the pace, Springsteen often moved into present tense, which worked to make the scenes feel immediate; they were happening right NOW. Switches between present and past tense occurred more frequently toward the end of the book, most often when relating performance scenes. I found this technique interesting and would like to explore this idea in my next writing project.

Other techniques include repetition of phrases (“say it, say it, say it”), ellipses used in a way that my editor would definitely disapprove, followed by a long series of very short sentences of 4-7 words each.  He used all of these techniques in his description of playing during the Super Bowl:

I’ve got to fix it. I tear through the theater, simultaneously reaming out Mike Appel while ripping down every poster and disposing of every flyer I can get my hands on. I need a clean environment to work in. I need to reclaim the theater for my fans, for me and for my band. By showtime, I’m fucked. I’m pathetically wrecked and nervous. (p. 228).

It goes rushing by, then the knee slide. Too much adrenaline, a late drop, too much speed, here I come, Mike . . . BOOM! And I’m onto his camera, the lens implanted into my crotch with one leg off the stage. I use his camera to push myself back up and . . . say it, say it, say it, say it . . . BLAM! “BORN TO RUN” . . . my story . . . Something bright and hot blows up behind me. Later I’ll hear there were fireworks. I never see any. Just the ones going off in my head. I’m out of breath. I try to slow it down. That ain’t gonna happen. I already hear the crowd singing the last eight bars of “Born to Run,” oh, oh, oh, oh . . . then it’s straight into “Working on a Dream” . . . your story . . . and mine I hope. Steve is on my right, Patti on my left. (p. 463).

Overall, Springsteen exhibits the confidence of a skilled and self-possessed writer. Qualities that we can all aspire to have. I enjoyed reading his story and appreciated that in the end he shares a little about his process of writing the memoir longhand in a notebook over a period of seven years. 

As you consider your own work, what techniques might you want to “borrow” from Springsteen or play with for your next writing project?

The next and final post in this series, will be posted in mid-December. Join me then for Read Like a Writer, Part 12: Structure – Born to Run.

Feature image: by Luiginter from San Maurizio al Lambro, Milano, Italia

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2 thoughts on “Read Like a Writer, Part 11: Pace, Voice, and Tone in Springsteen’s Born to Run

  • Sara Etgen-Baker

    thanks for sharing your insights on Springsteen’s memoir. It is definitely a compelling read full of passion, sincerity, and out-and-out humbleness. And intertwining the present tense with the past is a unique technique that seems to be appropriate. It is one I think I could use naturally. I, think, however, some inexperienced/young editors might find that unacceptable and might be critical of it…just thinking aloud! Have a great day!

    • Amber Lea Starfire Post author

      Thanks, Sara. I agree — and not only inexperienced editors. I’m thinking about our critique groups and how often we limit ourselves by the “rules of writing.” I’ve noticed that many good writers break those rules regularly. They are just skilled enough to make it work.