[Practical Meerkat] On Craft: The Boss and the Through-Line

Lunacon was a lovely time – slightly weird, since I was day-tripping it, but I came out the other side feeling far more rested than usual, so I’ll call the experiment a success (when you live half an hour drive from the hotel, why not sleep in your own bed at night?).  There were the usual convention moments, but we also spent some time, in various groupings, talking about the craft of writing (since the best way to reconsider your own approach us to look at it from someone else’s angle).  And one of the things we talked about was the through-line, in all its various uses.

The through-line is the theme or idea that runs though a body of work, that connects all the aspects and keeps it moving forward in a cohesive manner.  You can have a wildly messy story, a series of events that seem unconnected, or random, but if they are all connected by that through-line, they come together.  It’s more than a theme, really: it’s the emotional core that drives all actions.

One advantage to the highway drive to/from Lunacon was that I have now listened to the new Springsteen album enough to have an opinion.  And that opinion is: not the best work he’s ever done, over a long and fabulous career, but it’s up there.  And once again, he manages to simmer down everything we’re worrying about, everything we fear, and voice it for us – not just Americans, but everyone facing a crumbling or crumbled economy, a political system that has abandoned its founding principles, a world that seems determined to make everything as hard as damned possible.

And yet – like he did with The Rising, Bruce again manages to be realistic about the woes and damages of life without depressing the $uck out of you.  In fact, several of the songs that you’d think would make you feel bad turn out to be anthems of determination and survival. And it’s not because the music is uplifting, or the lyrics are hopeful, because they’re not:

“They destroyed our families’ factories and they took our homes
They left our bodies on the plains
The vultures picked our bones”

(from “Death to My Hometown”)

and yet at the same time, he manages to rein us in and redirect us, to something purposeful, not destructive:

“Yeah, we know that come tomorrow, none of this will be here…
Hold tight to your anger, don’t fall to your fears”

(from “Wrecking Ball”)

That’s a neat trick: writing something depressing, and angering, without letting the listener (reader) slip too far.  It’s a neat trick and a difficult one, because too often, we set the through-line as something essential to the story, something obvious, one of our major themes within the story.  But if the through-line to this album were worry, or anger, or depression.. it would overwhelm us, instead of raising us up.

And the only thing I can think of, the only reason that all of this works, that you don’t want to just throw down and give up, is that the through-line of every song isn’t fear, or anger, or even hope.  It’s something far more subtle than that, something you don’t think of, listening to the lyrics.  It’s love.

And that, I think, is a lesson for prose writers, too.  Don’t pluck the mot obvious strand for your through-line.  Think more about what you want the story to do, rather than what the story says.  Pick the subtle, the contrasting theme, and layer it from within, from the spine on out.

Easy to say.  hard to do.  Worth the effort.


[all lyrics copyright Bruce Springsteen, 2012.  Used for educational/illustrative purposes only  http://brucespringsteen.net/ for all your Boss needs.]

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