Arts & Life, Music

Curing a songwriter’s silence

By: Paige Goodman

Hey all you songwriters, novelists, playwrights and poets, listen up! If you’ve ever sat in front of your laptop (or typewriter for all you hipsters who think technology is so yesterday) and stared at the screen for hours, absentmindedly playing with your bellybutton while drinking cup after cup of coffee, all the while cursing your empty brain, void of any interesting thought or image and thus unable to fill a single line with witty dialogue or a meaningful lyric…*deep breath*… I’m here to help.

Veteran Saskatchewan musician Mark Ceaser sat down with me to reveal his deepest, darkest songwriting secrets. Here are his top five tips for all those who suffer in wordless, thoughtless, uninspired silence.


Get out of your dimly lit, ice-box of a basement suite and go for a walk. Winter in Saskatchewan “sucks hippo dick,” as playwright David Mamet might say, but let the change of seasons be an inspiration to you instead of something to complain about. “A change of setting, a change of season, any kind of change” inspires Ceaser, who attended a songwriting retreat at Emma Lake last September and came back with new ideas and several finished songs. Many writers find taking a break from the computer and appreciating nature gets the creative juices flowing.


“Actually I get a lot of lyrics listening to music I’ve never heard before. One of my favourite things is to put on headphones and turn the volume down just enough so I can’t really hear the words. And then I’ll sit there with my laptop and I’ll type out what I think I hear. So it’s kind of got the same rhythm, same tone to it, but it’s just kind of gibberish… and then I’ll save it,” Ceaser explains. He later returns to his gibberish lyrics, scans through it, then picks out interesting lines to work with. This exercise can benefit all writers looking for different imagery to use as a starting point for a story.


We’ve all been inspired by another writer’s pure genius, and maybe once or twice felt a little jealous of their complete mastery of language and imagery. So why not try to emulate a master’s talents? “I’ve purposefully tried to write a song that already existed, like same sort of chord structure, similar theme, thinking I was going to sound like Neil Young… or Bruce Springsteen,” Ceaser says. “I’ve specifically sat down and pretended, ‘Ok I’m Bruce Springsteen, I’m going to write a Bruce Springsteen song.’ And then when it’s done it sounds nothing like a Springsteen song… but it at least gives me something to focus on, and it helps me pretend, you know, ‘What would Bruce write about?’”


“You draw on something real, so that there is a real connection there…then exaggerate the hell out of it. Make it more of a universal thing too, so it’s not too personal that somebody else couldn’t connect to it.” I have a good friend who lives by this rule. He has the best true stories, like the time he fell from a tree and saved himself by pulling out his pocket knife and sticking it in the trunk. Or when he awoke to a burglar breaking into his house, chased him down the street in his underwear, tackled him, and then sat on his back until the cops came… In Ceaser’s case, he wrote a song about his grandfather, who was the storyteller in his family. “Some of the facts are true…and some of them I changed slightly just to make the song flow better… When I sing it… I still know that I’m singing about my grandfather, but the feelings and details behind it are not so specific, so that somebody else can feel like I’m singing about their grandfather too.”


Head, heart, loins and feet. These are the four areas that can be affected by songwriting. Are your lyrics intellectually appealing, do they make your audience think? Do they tug on the heartstrings? Is your song sexy, lusty and busty? Will it make people get up and dance? “A hit song will have at least two or three out of the four elements.” Bonus points for anyone who can make the audience simultaneously laugh, cry and dance around while making out.


If all else fails, try Hemingway’s technique: “Write drunk; edit sober.” It may sound a little counterproductive, but it actually helps free your inhibitions. You may even stop thinking about the fact that you can’t think of anything and just write. Even if everything you come up with is a heap of spelling and grammatical errors, there may be the kernel of an idea planted among the manure. Just avoid overindulging, or you’ll be editing the inside of your toilet bowl masterpiece the next day.

Mark Ceaser is going back into the recording studio in December to work on some new material. Visit his website if you’d like to hear the product of his inspiration.


Paige is an actor from Saskatoon with a BFA in Drama from the University of Saskatchewan. She recently co-produced and performed in the Canadian premiere of Farragut North by Beau Willimon, presented by Live Five Independent Theatre. She hopes to get into Ryerson’s Master of Journalism program next fall. 

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