Any artist who writes, acts, sings, or performs comedy works in words, and just like any other material an artist can use to create, words can come to be used differently over time, or they may be used differently by one group of people than another. Here are just a few words and terms whose use in contemporary American popular culture is a bit different than their original meaning or context.. Including these words here is not meant to imply support or criticism of any use of the word. These are only described to generate ideas or notes for creating characters, routines, or other works of art in which the words might be used.
Triggered/Triggering: This is a hated word for many, one that causes some listeners and readers to cringe, roll their eyes, and ignore the writer or speaker. There are two reasons for this. One, the contemporary, popular meaning is extremely broad. Those classified as “Millenials (born 1981-1996) and younger seem to use this term the most, but it is not exclusive to those forty and under. People describe themselves as “triggered” or something as “triggering” when they mean they find it irritating, upsetting, annoying, disgusting, depressing, discouraging distressing,anxiety provoking, or in any other way bothersome.
Another reason this term tops the “hated words list” for many is because they think the person using it in place of so many other words or saying they’re “triggered” when they are in fact “dismayed” or “discouraged” or “upset” by something, unfairly equates the normal ups and downs of everyday life with the experiences of people who are “triggered” in the original sense of the word. Before “triggered” came to mean “upset in any way,” it was strictly used to describe the experiences of those who suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, a serious and often debilitating response to experiencing trauma, such as war or violent crime.
Lolita: In popular American culture, a “Lolita” is an attractive, seductive girl or very young woman who is just over the legal age of consent, or who is legally an adult, but still very immature and inexperienced and completely inappropriate for the man who is attracted to her. Popular films such as 2006’s “Mini’s First Time,” in which an older teen begins working as an escort and seduces the man who is officially in a relationship with her mother, are described as “Lolita” stories. There is also a fashion style known as “Lolita style” or “Lolita fashion.” Originating in Japan, the aestetic of “Lolita fashion” centers around looking “cute” and maintaining a doll-like appearance.
But there is nothing seductive, cute, or in any way pleasant or enticing about the novel “Lolita,” the source of the term. In Nabokov’s novel, Lolita, whose name is simply a nickname for “Dolores,” is far from sexy or seductive. And Humbert, the man who tells the story and interacts with the original “Lolita,” is neither the reluctant target of her attentions we so often see in popular “Lolita” films, nor is he simply someone who admires her for being “cute,” as one might react to a fashion trend. Both the character of Humbert and the plot are repulsive, and Lolita is a tragic figure. She’s a child, and he’s a pedophile who grooms and molests her.
Safe space (as used on college campuses): The most contemporary meaning of the term “safe space” refers to a place where people can go when they become distraught over anything that may be happening on their campus, or in the world around it. In such a space, the person is shielded from dealing with whatever may be causing distress, and is allowed to perform a variety of non-threatening, relaxing activities such as looking at pictures of cute animals, coloring, or sharing their feelings with someone else who is not permitted to criticize or judge them. Some people praise this as a necessary and compassionate way to protect the mental health of the community. Others criticize this practice, arguing that it teaches people to make everything about themelves and their feelings rather than learning to analyze, debate, and work to solve problems in society. Regardless of whether you support this or find it ridiculous, the term “safe space” meant something different many years ago.
“Safe space” used to refer specifically to a place people could go if they believed themselves to be in physical danger, a place that was always open, well-lit, and staffed with someone who could call security to arrange for someone to ride or walk home with a member of the community who was being followed or harassed, or who was intoxicated or otherwise unable to safely navigate their way home alone. Later, when paired with symbols of LGBTQ pride, it came to refer to a staff member or organization who would not shun someone for being a member of the LGBTQ community. The term may still be used in the two older ways in some communities.
Journey: In its traditional meaning, the word “journey” always refers to a long, usually meaningful, physical trip a person might take. If you and your friends travel from your hometown of Utica, New York to Tokyo, Japan, you might describe that as your “journey” to Tokyo. But if your friend called and asked if you’d like to have dinner at the Japanese restaurant four blocks from your apartment, you would be very unlikely to describe such an outing as your “journey” to dinner.
Today, the word “journey” is still used in its original manner when describing a physical trip, but it is also used to describe anything someone might go through, or a process someone might move through to reach a goal. Some people restrict their use of the word “journey” in this way to life altering, important events. A person describing what they went through during treatment for cancer or Covid-19 or a broken leg or back may describe it as a journey. Or they might describe something they must cope with for their entire time on this earth, such as Cerebral Palsy or a mood disorder, as a “journey.” Others use “journey” to describe things that are much more lighthearted and trivial, such as reaching a personal or professional goal. You might hear someone speak of their “Spanish journey” when describing their efforts to learn the language, or describe their home makeover as “quite a journey.”
Having a hustle/hustling: Seventies disco dance fad cracks aside, someone “having a hustle” used to imply that the person earned money in a less than honorable, upfront manner. Their method of earning money may have been illegal and/or unethical, or it may have just been a little less than completely upfront and honest, such as insisting that their product and their product alone would effectively clean your house siding or give you long lashes or provide all the nutrition you need, when it was the same cleaning method, mascara, or vitamin supplement available from several other sources.
Today, “having a hustle” or “hustling” is often used to describe someone who is entepreneurial. It means they are doing some type of work for themselves, with the goal of raising money. A person who tutors in a subject outside of their career field, does lawn care to help support their career as an artist, or refurbishes and sells furniture in addition to working a traditional nine to five office job “has a hustle.” If the term “side hustle” is used, it means the work is done to supplement their steady income.
How might your character or scene change if a word is used in an older meaning, versus a more modern one, or if you add a character who uses one of these terms in a more contemporary way?
We all cringe when someone hears a song or a poem, sees a play or film, or reads a short story or novel that we wrote and asks who every character is “supposed to be.” Even worse is when someone gets upset or angry with us because our character did something or said something, and the person just assumes we think the same way, or did the same thing.
In the past, I have gotten this reaction so often, I make an effort to ensure that any parents I mention are the exact opposite of my parents in every way, down to the smallest detail. Most of the mothers do not enjoy cooking or baking and are not skilled at it. My mother can make those cake sculptures you see on baking competition shows and singlehandedly cater dinners. The fathers tend to be frail, preppy or nerdy types. My own father is a tough retired police officer and outdoorsman. The mother in my first novel, “Lifting the Shadows,” was inspired by someone’s mother, but it was not my own.
All my fellow artists already know the rest of this, but it might be useful to share for the next time you get “Am I in your novel?” Or “Is the woman in your song supposed to be your sister?” from someone in your life.
Sometimes, real people are inserted directly into novels, songs, poems, or fictional screenplays. This may or may not mean anything else about the piece is true or actually happened.
I am a real person in a song. Lou Santacroce’s “The One Who Holds My Heart” was written for and about me, from his perspective. It was the best gift anyone could ever give me, an honor, and of course, it is now my absolute favorite song. Pieces written for and about someone in this way can be assumed to be completely genuine expressions of the way the actual artist sees a real subject.
The fiction genre known as “historical fiction” is another example of real people being inserted directly into creative works. Novelist T.C. Boyle is known for taking historical figures, turning them into characters, and then inventing people he imagines associating with them. While the characters may be loosely based on the historical figures, writers have absolute license to fictionalize anything they want to fictionalize. Research anything you wonder about, because there is absolutely no guarantee that it is historically accurate.
Real people might also be inserted directly into a work of art as part of the setting or as a minor character. This does not in any way suggest that the other characters are real, or that anything that happened to them actually occurred. If someone writes a novel about a crowd of Deadheads following the Grateful Dead on tour, and a character talks about something Jerry Garcia did, this in no way suggests that Jerry Garcia actually did anything like that. Again, be sure to research these types of details. The novelist could have taken nothing more from reality than Garcia’s name and the fact that he was the front man for The Grateful Dead.
Most artists use details from all over the place when we create. A character may have a few traits of someone real without “being” that person.
My novels feature thick women. Both Brenda and Heather have red or reddish hair. This of course can also describe me, but the characters are not me. The characters are similar because they are all part of the arts scene in and around Utica, and most of the people I’ve observed in the modern day arts scene in and around Utica either favor 60’s and 70s retro, 90’s retro, or geek chic style. I’ve got a dark haired rockabilly woman too, and a blonde woman who changes her style a few times before arriving at “geek chic.”
For the rest of the details, some of what happened was taken from things I experienced, and other details were based on everything from case studies and research to gossip I overheard while sitting in a diner drinking coffee or walking around a mall. Most artists write this way. Using one detail of a person in a character does not mean the entire character is based on that person.
Much of what you see in any type of creative writing is completely made up.
Jen Cross is the founder, as well as a writer and workshop facilitator at “Writing Ourselves Whole,” an organization offering writing groups and individual writing sessions and coaching for survivors of sexual trauma. Services are offered in the Bay area and online.
Jen offered workshops of varying themes to her classmates while in graduate school at Goddard College. I learned a lot from taking a few of them. Although the participants in both current and past workshops draw on real experiences, the method she uses demands that all work produced be assumed to be fiction. If the exercise focuses on writing about your reaction to a picture, other participants are still asked to refer to the work with words like “Your narrator” or “your characters,” rather than “you,” or “your friends.”
This is a good rule to follow when reading, watching or listening to anything presented as fiction. Even if you know the artist and the situation well, and are completely sure a character or plotline is taken directly from reality, you still have no way of knowing if thoughts and feelings were real, or were just the artist’s imaginings of what someone else might be thinking or feeling in that situation.
Those who are adamant that a character is them, or a song is about your first boss, or a play is about your cousin, are not likely to be swayed, but hopefully this helps soothe friends and family members worried that your novel, play, or song is "about them."
This is not a sponsored post. All thoughts, observations, and recommendations are my own. Nobody mentioned in this article necessarily supports or endorses the content.
by Lou Santacroce
(written in commemoration of multi-instrumentalist Milo Fine’s 40 years in music)
Chapter One of “Musicage,” a book consisting of conversations between John Cage and Joan Retallack is titled after one of his sayings: “Art is either a complaint or do something else” (which, admittedly, is his mesostic of something said/written by Jasper Johns). It strikes me that this is what every real artist has done thruought history, and what all true artists are doing today: registering a complaint. The art of the past survives because it represented a complaint about and against the prevailing and accepted art/trends/trendiness of that era’s status quo. That they are accepted as part of the artistic status quo in the present age is irrelevant to how they were perceived in their own day.
The amazing thing is that these rebels and revolutionaries of yore -- so revered today that they are presented to us as models which we must copy if we are to be considered artists by the blessing-bestowing, grant-granting establishment -- were never wholly accepted as artists in their own time. Rembrandt received a commission from a group of guild members who wanted to see themselves memorialized on canvas; they refused to pay him when he returned with a life-sized work depicting them in animated conversation, standing on the street after a meeting – i.e., as real people – rather than in the accepted portraiture mode: seated, expressionless and immobile as statues. Manet’s paintings – though they were routinely allowed into exhibitions -- were also routinely hung so high that people had difficulty seeing them. Cezanne’s early canvases were attacked by gallery patrons wielding umbrellas. Joyce’s publishers sold out the entire first printing of “Dubliners;” every copy was bought by a self-appointed guardian of literary morality who then burned the lot. “Ulysses” was banned in the US for 30 years. Early critics of bop accused Charlie Parker of playing out of tune and people are still shaking their fists at Cecil Taylor. These, of course, are old stories.
What is it about these artists’ refusal to knuckle under to the status quo that so angered those critics of bygone days, and continues to make the critics of today flush crimson? What is it about those who refused to crank out the “business art” that I’m forced to look at while waiting in my doctor’s office, or the music I’m forced to listen to while working out at the local gym, or the eye candy disguised as literature that I see workers devouring on their lunch breaks…what is it about those mavericks, those real artists, that causes critics temperatures to rise? Several things; for one, people get testy not because they are being deprived of their Thomas Kinkade, Winton Marsalis or Daniele Steele fixes – since those charlatans, and others like them, will always be there to sooth the delicate sensibilities of the people whom H.L. Menken dubbed “the herd” – but because every time the sound of a Charlie Parker or a John Coltrane or a Cecil Taylor or a Milo Fine reaches their ears, every time a Samuel Beckett or a Patricia Highsmith dances across their eyes, every time their point of view is disturbed by a Worhol or Lichtenstein, what comes with it is the haunting and irrational fear that that these sounds, words and images will drive the business art, the muzak and the eye candy lit from the marketplace. And irrational is, indeed, the word; as if, suddenly, Barnes and Noble were going to stock nothing but Beckett and Musil; Amazon were going only going to carry CD’s by Evan Parker and Morton Feldman ; Van Vliet (yes, I like his canvases, and not just because he used to be Captain Beefheart) reproductions were going to elbow big-eyed street waifs out of existence at the local arts & crafts store, and the consumers who, above all else, must have something simplistic to consume will have nothing at which to throw their money or bury their heads in so as to forget the banality of their miserable lives.
The critical herd panics even more, since most of them make their living by explaining the easily explained to people who desperately need permission to like or dislike something. How, after all, will they make their living trying to explain what they cannot comprehend? So, they write and speak the language of hysteria, as in (to use a ridiculous example) the wailing and gnashing of critical teeth over the advent of the Sex Pistols and the punk movement of the late 1970’s, as if John Lydon were truly the antichrist (remember how well that comparison worked when they tried it on Mick Jagger during the 1960’s?) who would bring all of music crashing down around us.
Second, the herd bears a seething and lingering resentment toward the above-mentioned artists and others like them, not because they merely bucked an existing system, but because – in many cases – they risked virtually everything to do so. Charlie Parker could have made a decent living wailing away in Jay McShann’s band (or Ellington’s; Duke made the offer) and Coltrane could have done the same by sticking with the early, “Favorite Things” version of his “sheets of sound” innovations (or, again, by joining Ellington). If Cecil Taylor had gone no further than his early work (say, the “Jumpin’ Punkins” period), he would have had a reputation similar to Lennie Tristano’s and would have lived a lot more comfortably through his middle years. And Milo Fine could have ended up as the mid-west's go-to drummer and spent a lot less time cleaning offices.
So, why didn’t they? Because there’s something more important than being comfortable. Art is more important than being comfortable; real art is, in itself, a form of discomfort; discomfort with the present tense, with the notion that this is the way it is and the way it shall, should and always be; and these beliefs, combined with the knowledge that it really IS worth sacrificing everything in order to take the next step, to register the complaint and to keep registering the complaint until SOMETHING begins to move, angers “the heard” like nothing you can imagine; the fact that SOMEONE had the guts to take that fateful, sometimes fatal step and THEY did not! You see, deep down, the herd knows and feels its collective cowardliness. They feel it every hour of every day as they perform mind-numbing tasks at soul-stealing jobs. It gnaws at them as they trudge from home, to work, to the bar, and back home to their oldies radio stations and Nostalgia TV channels (re-living the days when things were better HOW?); the knowledge that there is something better and the knowledge that they do not have the courage to reach out and try for it. Do they ever complain? Sure; they complain to their friends in the bar (complaints that always end in , “Ahhh, whaddaya gonna do?”), they complain to a TV set that runs the same piece of footage over and over (hey, it’s a 24 hour “news and information” channel; gotta fill that time SOME way) while disembodied commentators (always the same voices) make the same disembodied comments just before the commercial break. But, pass the bar? Dump the TV? Change the station? That’s not the type of complaining they’re made for. Too much risk, not enough guarantee of return. Hey: in the end, even Cage liked his apartment in New York City and his cottage in the country too much to complain too loudly.
So, to all of those REAL artists who still hold their hand to the flame: keep complaining. Complain stridently or complain softly, but keep registering those complaints.
Lou Santacroce is a singer-songwriter, music program host, novelist, and arts writer from Utica, New York. For more of his writing about the arts, visit the "Nonfiction Books About the Arts" section of this site. His music and novels are also available here at Artist Cafe Utica. Lou's current music program is "Masters of Jazz," heard exclusively on Phoenix Radio, 95.5 FM or streaming at www.955theheat.com every Sunday from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m.
Art in all forms reflects the culture in which it is created and/or set.. Characters may eat foods, shop in stores, or reference celebrities or places unique to their region or country. Commonly held beliefs are often reflected. Below are five things Americans commonly believe…that just aren’t true. Have you ever created a character who held any of these beliefs?
Tearing or cutting the tags off your mattresses and pillows is against the law.
The “do not remove under penalty of law” tag is often interpreted to mean that you can be fined or jailed if you’re caught removing them, no matter how ratty they get or how much they stick out and poke you when you try to sleep. But if you read the rest of the sentence it says, “except by consumer.” This means that the person who buys the mattress or pillow is completely within his or her legal rights to remove the tag.
The “do not remove” tag is there for the people who make and sell the pillows and mattresses. It is there as a form of consumer protection. In the past, mattresses and pillows could be stuffed with all sorts of dangerous materials, including rotting straw or old rags. The tags on your pillows and mattresses are there to let you know that your item is stuffed with nice, fresh, safe fill, not to threaten you that a cop will show up at your door if you snip it off when it gets dirty or pops out of your pillowcase and annoys you.
The Bible says that God helps those who help themselves.
It doesn’t. That was a quote from Benjamin Franklin. The message of the Bible is actually the exact opposite of that. It’s full of verses about loving your neighbor, not judging other people, doing unto others what you would do unto the Lord, honoring those in your household, sharing what you have, and putting others first.
The entire Christian faith is based on the knowledge that salvation is a free gift given by Jesus Christ to anyone who accepts it by accepting Him as their Lord and Savior. Salvation cannot be both a free gift from a loving God and something you have to coax Him into granting you by doing things for yourself.
“Separation of church and state” means it’s illegal to say a prayer in a public school.
Saying a prayer in a public school is not only legal, it’s protected under the same amendment people mistakenly believe bans it. The school, as an agent of the state, is not allowed to make prayer a part of the official curriculum. It is also not allowed to tell students and faculty that they can’t pray as individuals. Suppose I get a job as a tutor or teacher’s aide in a public school. I cannot hold a study group in which I require all students to pray before we begin. I can’t stand up and announce that when I work with a teacher, we’re going to launch his or her class with a prayer. That would make the prayer part of the official school curriculum, and therefore, in violation of the law against separation of church and state.
I would, however, have every right to sit in the cafeteria and pray before I eat my lunch. I would have every right to pause in the doorway and say a private prayer before entering the classroom. I could sit there and pray as a private citizen all day if I chose to. Anyone who tried to stop me would be violating my first amendment rights to freedom of religion. And if other staff members and students chose to sit with me and pray during lunch, that would be within their first amendment rights as well.
Cutting your hair causes it to grow faster.
Hair growth depends on a variety of factors, including genetics, overall health of the person, and the health of the hair. Healthy hair grows faster, and cutting off split ends and portions of hair damaged by coloring, perming, or using a lot of styling tools and products can be a part of making hair healthy again. But the act of cutting the hair does not make it grow faster.
We think our hair grows faster when we cut it because we notice it more. Even if you’re one to just get a trim to look neat for work and pay no real mind to your appearance, getting a haircut takes time out of your day, and usually costs money. It stands out, so you are aware of the difference in your hair on that day, and the difference in it as it starts to grow. If cutting your hair truly sped up its rate of growth, your hair would grow faster and faster with each cut throughout your life.
The first amendment gives you the right to say whatever you want without unwanted consequences or reactions.
We’ve all seen a real-life example of this one. Somebody walks around the building talking about what a dump their workplace is, gets fired, and then challenges it on the grounds of “free speech.” Or you tell off someone trolling on your social media, and they reply that telling them to get lost is a violation of their right to free speech.
Both of these individuals are wrong. The first amendment protects you from punishment or persecution by the government for what you say or write, not from other people having a problem with it, or from any consequences the things you say or write may bring.
“Interdisciplinary art” is a term that can be unclear, even to experienced artists. We may see it on other artists’ web pages, in grant applications, or in job or academic program descriptions, but still be uncertain as to what about the artist or art is “interdisciplinary.” There is some debate over what constitutes interdisciplinary art, but in general, art can be described as interdisciplinary in one of the following three ways.
Artists that work in more than one discipline with a unifying theme or purpose are usually described as interdisciplinary artists.
Sometimes, you will hear artists that produce more than one type of art describe their work as “interdisciplinary.” This can be a bit confusing, as many of us can do more than one thing in the arts. It’s not at all uncommon to meet a painter who also enjoys writing and performing stand up comedy, an actor who can sing, a novelist who can sing and play guitar, or a singer-songwriter who has also written a novel. These people may or may not be interdisciplinary artists.
Anyone who practices more than one type of art is free to call themselves an interdisciplinary artist if they wish, but in general, an interdisciplinary artist is someone whose work in two or or more art forms has a unifying theme or purpose. If I keep writing novels with the goal of providing encouragement, comfort, and insight for people who may be dealing with real-life issues my characters face, and I also start singing covers of favorite songs at open mics, I am not an interdisciplinary artist, because my creative writing and my music would not have a similar theme or purpose. If I learn to write songs, and begin writing and performing original songs featuring the same characters that show up in my novels, then I would be an interdisciplinary artist.
Art work that requires more than one genre to produce can be defined as interdisciplinary, though it is not necessarily categorized that way.
The television show, “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” blended a traditional television comedy/drama story line with singing and dancing numbers in order to tell the story of the main characters. This is probably the clearest contemporary example of interdisciplinary art. YouTube creators who write and perform skits or engage in storytelling that is enhanced by graphics they design are also interdisciplinary artists. Musicals are another clear example of interdisciplinary arts, as the film or play includes acting, singing, and sometimes dancing in order to produce the work.
Other art forms are not defined as interdisciplinary art by most, though the practice of more than one art form is clearly present. Many contemporary opera singers are also skilled actors, and both study and use acting techniques along with their singing. Rap blends skills in spoken word art and music. Rapping is not singing, and all rappers cannot necessarily sing, but they must have some knowledge of music in order to produce spoken word that goes with music. Someone who places lines of text within a painting or sculpture may consider themselves a painter or sculptor and not a writer, but they must know enough about writing to produce lines that have the desired impact when paired with their visual art work.
Art work that blends art practice with another field is sometimes defined as “interdisciplinary art.”
Defining art as “interdisciplinary” when art is blended with a field outside the arts is probably the biggest gray area here. All art mixes the practice of art with something else. Artists do not live in capsule hotels with no sensory input other than our own art work, and if we did, we would probably start producing works about social isolation or loneliness or the food downstairs in the cafeteria.
Everybody’s art has a purpose and a theme. If you write parodies or comedy sketches, your purpose is to bring laughter to people. If you write horror fiction, your purpose is to allow people to experience frightening things in a safe environment. Anybody whose art career includes teaching is both practicing their art and working in the field of education at the same time.
Art defined as “interdisciplinary” because it blends art with a field outside of the arts or seeks to reach a goal that is often a goal in a different field is typically art produced specifically to be used in that field or to reach that goal. My reason for writing about the topics I choose may be to provide inspiration, comfort, and insight to those who are facing the issues my characters face, but I am a novelist, and my ultimate goal is to produce a novel. If I sat down and said, “I want to teach the public about mental health, so I am going to produce a series of novels that depict mental health issues in a completely realistic manner,” I would be an interdisciplinary artist, blending the fields of psychology and creative writing. Someone who simply enjoys writing soft, mellow songs is not necessarily an interdisciplinary artist, but if they work with a health care provider with the goal of producing music to relax clients or patients, they are blending the disciplines of health care and music.
This practice is often seen in issues of social justice, in which an artist produces paintings, drawings, plays, or other art work intended to inspire awareness and action on a specific issue.
Next time you hear someone described as an interdisciplinary artist, check out their work. And if you discover any opportunities in the arts, and think your work may be defined as interdisciplinary in any of the above ways, do not hesitate to pursue the opportunity. Interdisciplinary art’s definition can stretch beyond even what I’ve described here, and you never know what you might find.