Sara Benincasa is a Renaissance woman of the arts. She does stand-up, she shines on YouTube and on TV, she enriches podcasts with both humor and weight, she wrote a hilariously poignant memoir (Agorafabulous!) and a gender-bending YA novel. Oh, and did I mention that she lives with agoraphobia, general anxiety, and depression—at one point she was peeing in bowls because she was too paralyzed to leave her bedroom—and suffers from debilitating panic attacks? Right, that’s part of her story, too.
Benincasa doesn’t gloss over the details in her new book, Real Artists Have Day Jobs (And Other Awesome Things They Don’t Teach You In School), a collection of 52 essays about writing, feminism, mental health, career growth, rainbows, dental hygiene, and the importance of masturbation, plus other addictive, entertaining, and moving subjects.
LIZ LAZZARA: Am I leaving anything out in my introductory description of you?
SARA BENINCASA: No, those are the big ones. I’m super fucking codependent, but that’s not in the DSM. I take a lot of Prozac, so I’m doing well. And I have also been very fortunate to have a lot of access to good therapy—and some shitty therapy!—but I’ve had access to good therapy in my life, so it’s pretty well in check these days.
I have a Klonopin prescription. I use that a few times a year, I guess. Less and less as I’ve gotten older, which is really cool because that means my panic attacks have been fewer and farther between, or that when I have had them, I felt that I was able to manage them through breathing techniques or different interventions—which is cool.
For a while, I took Abilify as a booster. A low dose is often used to boost an antidepressant, but I don’t take it anymore. For me, I found that it’s not good for me, but I have friends and family members who take it for schizophrenia and bipolar, and for them it’s life changing. I took Paxil at first, and it didn’t help me, but it has helped my friends a lot. Everyone’s personal chemistry is different. Everybody’s a little different.
There’s no one-size-fits-all solution. However, I’m also not the type of person to say, “Whatever works, man. If you just need to do ayahuasca, like, everyday”—no! What are you talking about? And it’s always important for me to say I’m not an expert in any of this. My role is to redirect people to resources that can help them. I can provide comfort and witness to someone’s pain to some extent. But generally speaking, it’s, “Here are some resources. Check it out. And I wish you the best.”
What exactly inspired you to write a book about your life? I know you said on an episode of the podcast Jordan, Jesse, Go! that the work of comedian Maria Bamford inspired you to write about your own issues. What else inspires you?
Maria was and remains an inspiration. Margaret Cho, for even longer, has been an inspiration to me in talking about her darkness. When I was suicidally depressed when I was 21, I found books to be very comforting, and I would even keep them in my bed, like a teddy bear or something. I wanted to write a book that was like that, and I tried to write it as soon as I was feeling better.
There are people who are teachers, who are thinkers and doers, and that’s great. Those are the people whose work truly inspired me—not people who pretended to have it all together. I got to read a lot of self-help, and I guess [that] eventually led to Real Artists Have Day Jobs, because I wanted to write something that subverted the self-help genre while honoring the aspects of it I really like. And while being really fucking funny.
This book is particularly good for people like 18 to, say, 34, especially people who are going into college, or are just out, or are in that mid-to-late-20s malaise like, “What the fuck am I doing with my life?”
I remember reading something from your Medium article “NSFW”—you said that art “can’t exist in a vacuum. Once you create it, other people react to it. Art lives once in your mind, again when you create it, and again and again and again when other folks react to it.” How have people reacted to what you’ve written, and how has that been for you?
It has been largely wonderful. There are moments when it’s hard, when somebody doesn’t like it, and you feel bad. Especially if they’re really smart about not liking it, and you can’t just dismiss them as a racist troll on YouTube or something. But when the person takes the time to be insightfully critical, that’s more difficult. However, you can also grow from that. In the ideal situation, you grow from that.
You have to work out who you are and who you want to be in private, and there has to be a you that exists beyond and aside from how other people react to you. You don’t have to fulminate against everyone that doesn’t like things that you like, and everyone who criticizes you is not a hater. Some of them have legitimate concerns with your work. Some of them are just assholes! The best thing to do is to filter out as much of it as you can.
I find that my life as an adult in my thirties is a constant period of listening and questioning myself and questioning others and reflecting. And then you have to take a break and chill out, and then you create and you keep creating. You intersperse periods of creation with periods of reflection because you can’t run on fumes. If you haven’t taken time to take care of yourself, your work will be garbage or non-existent.
I was actually going to ask if you have any tips for self-care, since you’ve been dealing with this healing process since [you were] 21. What has worked for you in terms of managing mental illness and regular, everyday stress?
Identify people in your life who are helpers in a good way. In a way that is good for you and appears to be good for them. We waste a lot of time trying to get things out of people who cannot give those things. It doesn’t mean giving them a pass for being abusive or neglectful. But it does mean saying, “I need what I need, and I’m going to get it, and I’m going to stop bashing my head against this wall.”
And all of these things that I talk about are things that I’m learning and exploring and figuring out as we speak, usually on a day-to-day basis. I don’t have any of this figured out. I just have little bits of things that I’ve figured out that I think might be helpful for people, and there were enough of them to make a book [laughs].
Has working from home or home-like spaces made it easier for you in terms of the agoraphobia? Has it worsened the depression/anxiety aspects? How does that career fit into how your headspace works?
It’s great for me now. It’s 2016. I started working from home, full-time freelance, in 2012. And of course, I still have business meetings. If I’m going in to pitch a TV show, I go into the network and say, “Hey, wanna buy this?” So I do have interaction with other humans.
But as I have continued in my work-from-home career, more and more people in our country have become full-time freelance, and more and more offices have closed or become remote or become part time, so I chose to move to a city where that has long been the case. Los Angeles is a place where nobody looks at you funny if you show up at a coffee shop or a restaurant with a laptop.
But it has taken a while. Writing my first book, I got so depressed. I was living in Queens at the time, and I moved home to Jersey for a few months to get help because I was writing about traumatic issues. When you write, you relive an incident in your life, so it was traumatizing. I would recommend to anyone who’s thinking about going into memoir: Get a shrink!
Chapter seven of Real Artists Have Day Jobs is called “When You Don’t Know What To Do, Ask A Successful Woman.” I would say you’re a successful woman, and since I am a 27-year-old woman who just quit her day job, what is your advice for somebody who wants to be a more successful freelancer, or wants to write a book that gets published, or get yourself out there and achieve the thing you want to do when you’re like “oh shit—I’m a little fish in a really big pond”?
My advice for you, Liz, is to always remember that no one can tell your story except you. People can tell stories that may on the surface appear to be similar to yours. People can stories that appear adjacent to yours. But no one can tell your story except for you.
With that in mind, you can look at people to whom you may compare yourself, and say, “Okay, they’re doing their thing. I can’t do their thing. I can do my thing. I’m figuring out what my thing is.” Keep your eyes on your own paper, and work on your own stuff.
I would also say that it can help to look at successful women you admire, and look at their careers, and look at how they lived their lives, and see what appeals to you and what doesn’t. I can look at someone who is way ahead of me in that, like Amy Poehler. I can look at someone who is a bit closer to where I am, like Roxane Gay. So figure out who your Amy Poehler is and look at that person, and figure out who your Roxane Gay is and look at that person.
I have one last quick question, and it is your question, from “Ask Questions”: What is your number-one big career goal? And actually I’m going to expand that into “career and life goal”—In your ideal future, where are you, and what are you doing?
I am living in a beautiful home that I own, probably with somebody else, and having awesome sex. I probably have a well-adjusted adult child, but not necessarily. I have awesome pets, and I run a nonprofit that does good work and doesn’t stress me out too fucking much. I have created successful television shows, films, and books.
And most of all, we could lose the rest of it if I am truly happy in the world. If I am happy and feel really good about what I’m doing in the world and the people with whom I am surrounded, then that is awesome.