In her new book Real Artists Have Day Jobs, comedian Sara Benincasa sculpts decades of complex, hard-won experiences into readily accessible insights. By softening her suggestions into anecdotal gel caps, Benincasa coaxes readers into swallowing truths that might otherwise have been hard to take. Her advice is straightforward, field-tested, and safe to integrate into ongoing text volleys. It’s also totally riddled with expletives.
Benincasa has come out with four books in four years, including DC Trip, Great, and Agorafabulous!: Dispatches From My Bedroom. She’s currently adapting DC Trip into a film with the producers of Little Miss Sunshine, Nebraska, and Election. She’s also adapting her memoir into a pilot with executive producers Diablo Cody and Ben Stiller’s Red Hour. She identifies as Internet-known (@SaraJBenincasa), but not actually famous.
Together, the fifty-two essays in Real Artists Have Day Jobs have the makings of a latter-day almanac. Some corroborate reliable truisms (“This Too Shall Pass,” “There Will Be Shit Days,” “A Vagina Is Not a Time Machine”). Others pay homage to earnest self-help standbys (“Feel All the Feelings,” “Breathe,” “Walk Your Way to a Solution”). The rest just shatter illusions with some good old-fashioned commands (“Give It Away Now,” “Identify a Personal Prejudice and Educate It into Nonexistence,” “Ask for Exactly What You Want,” “Do It Anyway”).
Influential people have called Sara Benincasa hilarious, loopy, honest, and sexy. In a country where making a living as an artist is a punchline, Benincasa is really the only Sarah Palin impersonator you can trust.
The Rumpus: When Galapagos Art Space relocated to Detroit, Robert Elmes wrote that real estate in Brooklyn had been costing local artists full-time careers in unrelated industries. “You can’t paint at night in your kitchen and hope to be a good artist,” he argued. “It doesn’t work that way.” In Real Artists Have Day Jobs, you counter that art does not need an artist’s full-time attention.
Benincasa: There are very few artists making it full-time on their art in Detroit. There are very few artists making it on their own full-time in Chicago. In New York. In Swannanoa, North Carolina, where I went to Warren Wilson College. In El Paso, Texas. Unless you come ready-made with a source of passive income like a trust fund, you will need to make abundant sacrifices.
The world will not give you an endowment for your finger-painting. Your finger-painting may be marvelous, but our government and society do not value art adequately. We should fulminate against that and seek to change it, but in the meantime you have to make choices. If you’re an artist who likes to have a steady income for yourself, for your children, for your partner, to help you engage in elder care as you take care of your parents or grandparents, that’s a good thing.
I’m not saying that all your art is good art, by the way. I’m not saying you’re a good artist. You might fucking suck. But if you do your art, you’re an artist.
Rumpus: What do you do, professionally and personally, when you want something and either the suits or potential love interests go with the other guy?
Benincasa: If we’re talking about professional disappointment, I think you try to get other people to pay you to do what you want. If they won’t do it, then you try your best to fund it yourself with crowdfunding or with private investors.
I wrote a short film called The Focus Group. Inspired in equal parts by my own life and The Twilight Zone, a woman who feels overweight and unloved gets an opportunity to participate in a focus group about her life, about her body and her choices. Is the choice to lose a ton of weight through plastic surgery? Is the choice to try to adhere to standards that are not her own? What is the difference between choosing to be happier and choosing to be someone who is not you?
I put that out to some professional associates and said, “Do you think we can get money for this?” They were very concerned that I wasn’t focusing enough on my paying work, questioning this distraction. So I made it myself. It’s not out publicly yet, but it’s been a nice calling card for us. The director Heather Fink and I have both gotten other jobs because of it, showing it privately to other people.
When you’re disappointed romantically—when people evolve or they move on, when somebody doesn’t love you in the same way anymore or you don’t love somebody in the same way—it’s devastating. Just because you leave a relationship doesn’t mean that you don’t love that person. It doesn’t mean that you don’t miss that person terribly.
I had a dog named Morley Safer.
Morley Safer died the other day. (Not my dog! Not my former dog.) People all fucking day were texting me, emailing me, Facebooking me.
I mean look, I chose to make Morley Safer the dog a star because she’s perfect. She and I had a topless cameo in Girls this year that we shot when we still lived together.
In Girls, there’s a character named Fran who was Hannah’s boyfriend for a while, played by Jake Lacy. Hannah goes through his phone and finds nudies of all his ex-girlfriends. I’m one of the ex-girlfriends. When Lena emailed about it, I was like, “Yes of course I want to do this but also, can I put Morley Safer in the nude?”
Rumpus: And she was thrilled, clearly.
Benincasa: She has an awesome dog named Lamby, who’s famous.
Benincasa: Oh, L-A-M-B-Y! You gotta look up Lamby! Lamby Antonoff-Dunham, man. Lamby’s a fuckin’ superstar.
The concept of the episode is that Fran tells Hannah, Lena’s character, that yes he has nudes of his ex-girlfriends, but it’s not because he’s still interested in them. It’s because he thinks porn is offensive.
Rumpus: That’s right.
Benincasa: And some of the girls in porn aren’t doing it consensually, so at least he’s jerking off to people he knows did this on purpose! Then poor Hannah goes on this quest to like, be the right kind of attractive for him and take photos that he’ll be into.
At the time, I was still living with this precious angel. I wasn’t going to make some public statement. “Oh yeah, I moved out of my apartment and moved away from my dog that I love very much. I moved out of this relationship with someone I loved for years and years and years. Here’s an announcement!” I’m not famous enough to warrant that. I’m not an actual famous person. I’m Internet-known. I’m Internet-known to like thirty thousand people who follow me on Twitter.
Then real Morley Safer dies. So all these press people were emailing me like, “Oh my gosh, do you want to make a comment?” It got so relentless. I miss the dog! Here’s this dog that you miss so much, and by the way, here’s remembrance of the fact that you made a really difficult choice that was hurtful to you and hurtful to somebody else. I tweeted at my publicist for Real Artists Have Day Jobs, Joseph Papa, “Dude, can I hire you privately just to tell people that I don’t live with my ex-boyfriend’s dog?”
I thought about getting a dog myself out here, but I just don’t have the money yet to keep a dog in the finery that she deserves.
Rumpus: You have a whole chapter on asking successful women for help.
Benincasa: I did that yesterday!
Rumpus: I did too! Do you identify as a successful woman yourself, or is success Sisyphean? Is the next step perennially out of reach, with imposter syndrome always crouching nearby with a bloody machete?
Benincasa: I identify as successful, but I adjusted my definition of success to include what I do.
Rumpus: To include what’s actually happening.
Benincasa: Right. I used to think that success meant being wealthy, being married, having children, and owning a home. I do not, right now in this moment today, want to be married. After entertaining proposals, researching the cost of a wedding, and looking at friends who are married, I realized that if I do get married one day, I want it to be in the right situation with the right person.
I don’t want kids right now today. I have never felt this intense urge that some of my friends have felt to physically bring forth a human or to form it inside of my person. Since I was a little girl I’ve wanted to adopt someday, but I want to be in a financial situation to be able to do that. I want to be solid emotionally. I want to be psychologically sound. I want to be a great mom! And right now I’m not in Great Mom Place. I am in Great Stepmom Place! I think being a stepmom would be rad! Being a stepmom wouldn’t be my second choice.
I’ve been so transient for the past ten years. Between January 1 and April 1 of this year, I was on the road for twenty-five days. Once I had friends who actually owned houses—once I saw that when stuff breaks in houses you have to deal with it—I didn’t need to own a house.
What I really wanted wasn’t what I thought I was supposed to want. It wasn’t what people had told me I should want or that books and movies and TV had put across. What I really wanted was to be a working artist, which I am. I wanted to put money away for retirement, which I do. A tiiiiiiiiiiny bit, like it’s tiny, it wouldn’t last for, oh god. I wanted to have friends who I love, which I do. I wanted to have great sex, which is an ongoing quest!
I’m doing great in many ways. I’ve published four books. I’m working on a pitch for my second novel Great, about queer youths doin’ Gatsby stuff à la Gossip Girl. I’m developing my first book, Agorafabulous: A Memoir, for TV with Diablo Cody as Executive Producer. We’ve sold it to two networks in the past four years, I hope we sell it again!
Rumpus: There’s a track record!
Benincasa: Maybe one day it’ll get made! I have an audio series in development. I just did the first draft of the DC Trip screenplay with these amazing producers who did Little Miss Sunshine and Nebraska.
I’m also not doing great in some ways. I’m paying down credit card debt. I’m paying down student loan debt. I don’t have enough retirement savings. I don’t have a steady partner who I’m in love with.
When I was twenty-one, I was suicidal. I was afraid to leave my bedroom. I was urinating in bowls because I was afraid to go to the bathroom. My friends Alexandra and Katherine, who remain some of my best friends today, called my parents and told them that I was in trouble and to come get me. For a long time I thought it was magic that my parents happened to call me and be like, “How are you?”
Rumpus: “Funny you should ask!”
Benincasa: “I think about killing myself all the time!” I redefine success to include wanting to be alive. Success isn’t not wanting to kill yourself, but success is definitely not actually doing it. I’m “on the right side of the dirt,” as my father sometimes says.
Happy to me is not what I thought happy was. Happy is actually better, because it includes room for sadness. A definition of success must leave room for failure, because it’s part of it.
Rumpus: Kevin Spacey credits Jack Lemmon with coining the phrase sending the elevator back down. “If you’ve done well in whatever business you’re in,” Spacey explains, “it is your duty to send the elevator back down and try to help bring up the next generation of undiscovered talent.” Is Real Artists Have Day Jobs that guidebook? Giving back advice on any mountain you’ve managed to climb, to see if that “story of a past trouble can help somebody else lead a better life,” as you say towards the end?
Benincasa: One of the best practices in the manual of human existence is to assist people who need help when you can safely do so. The best people help those who need help.
I think that if you want help from somebody, you ask. You ask not expecting anyone to give it to you, unless it is a friend or a loved one with whom you should have those expectations, because friends should help friends. Even so, when I ask friends for blurbs or for endorsements or instructions, I always leave room for the fact that they’re probably busy and have a million more things to do in their day than give me Ryan Gosling’s phone number. Which I’ve never asked for, just by way of casual example.
Rumpus: Why should an artist resist the urge to be a lone genius?
Benincasa: I have a friend who’s an artist with whom I’ve never worked, who does not, I’ve noticed, credit the individuals who help along the way. It’s always presented as though this person did it solo.
Rumpus: What are the consequences of pretending to have gotten there without help?
Benincasa: It’s a lie.
It’s not just about ego-scratching. It’s about acknowledging. If you say that you did it all yourself, you’re absolutely lying. Most people don’t want to work with liars. They’ll work with a liar if the liar makes them money and gives them credit, but not if a person’s lying extends to not making them money and not giving them credit.
Shonda Rhimes, Whitney Cummings, Patton Oswalt, Diablo Cody, Lena Dunham, Amy Schumer, Beyoncé, Cecily Strong, Adam McKay, Laverne Cox—all of these individuals are people I’ve seen talk not just about their own strength and self-reliance and hard work, but also about collaboration. That strengthens my belief that they are incredibly talented and hardworking on their own. It strengthens my respect for them.
If someone like Laverne Cox, who as a queer person of color, much less a trans person of color, much less a trans person of color working in the arts from the South? If someone who has the odds stacked against her on paper can acknowledge that her success has come as a result of collaboration, work, and self-reliance, why would I ever try to pretend that I wasn’t influenced, or that everything I do just comes from within my soul?
Rumpus: Are you ready for a newly-minted popularity with dentists, or have they been a target demographic all along?
Benincasa: I have a chapter about going to the dentist! I would love that, man. I love dentists. I love Hannibal Buress’s character Lincoln on Broad City, coolest dentist ever. There’s a movie in which Steve Martin plays a dentist.
Rumpus: Little Shop of Horrors?
Benincasa: Novocaine. Great movie about dentistry, great movie about life. I have a model of my own teeth. It’s a decorative piece that I have in the bathroom.
Rumpus: Have you read The Story of My Teeth?
Benincasa: I have not!
Rumpus: It’s a novel by Valeria Luiselli, about an auctioneer who sells meaningless objects at an insane markup by telling irresistible stories about their origins so he can afford dental implants.
Benincasa: There’s a film called Teeth directed by Mitchell Lichtenstein that Jess Weixler is in. I believe her vagina has teeth. The myth of vagina dentata is one of my favorite things. I am also super into people who grow benign tumors that have teeth and hair.
Rumpus: I’m gonna break off this whole section of the interview and pitch it to Dentistry Today.
Benincasa: If you are scared of any kind of procedure, Google professionals who work with people with anxiety. You can ask to speak to the physician or the dentist and be like, “Look, I get nervous about this stuff, are you good with, y’know? Are you used to that?” You’ll sound charming and self-deprecating. People love that.
Rumpus: Speaking of disposable income! Can you connect the dots for artists who would benefit from reading your book by detailing what buying your book does for you personally as an artist? On behalf of every artist that hopes to make art someone will pay for, how is that purchase an investment in and a vote for you as an artist?
Benincasa: Let’s say somebody buys my book at their local independent bookshop that miraculously still exists. I highly suggest going to @indiebound on Twitter.
Rumpus: That’s me.
Benincasa: OH YEAH, DUH. I forgot about that! Ohmygosh, that’s so funny.
Rumpus: That’s proof that I didn’t feed that to you.
Benincasa: You should include that, full disclosure. Include that you didn’t mean to mention it. I totally forgot that’s you.
Go through your independent bookseller if you can. If you don’t have somebody at a brick and mortar shop that you can go to, you can also find an independent bookseller online who can ship to you.
Do not buy my book at Walmart. If you buy my book at Walmart, I don’t want you to read it. I want you to set it on fire. Because that’s what you just did with your money.
When you buy a book through an indie, you put some money into an independent store and owner in your community. You’ve put some money into someone’s life and someone’s livelihood, into keeping the lights on, into helping them be alive. That’s a great thing.
Beyond that, you have sent money to a major publisher. Congratulations! I don’t understand the magic, but what I do understand is that the business of publishing books is a difficult one. I sign a book contract that says, “Hey, Sara. Here’s however many thousands of dollars. Once your book earns out this advance, then you get royalties.” The alchemy is interesting. It’s not as straightforward as, “Okay, Sara. We’ve paid you $100 as an advance. Once your book sells $100 worth of copies, then you get royalties.” They have their own internal scheme that decides when your book has earned out. I’m on my fourth book and I have never made a royalty. Most authors I know have not gotten royalty checks. Here are the authors I know who have gotten royalty checks: Neil Gaiman.
Rumpus: Therapists have a recurring role throughout Real Artists Have Day Jobs as champions, especially in this piece towards the end that gets into firing family members and having a therapist supervise. For those who haven’t found their way to a trustworthy or effective therapist, what are your suggestions for where to start? Hotlines? Directories? Community resources?
Benincasa: One resource is the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 1-800-273-TALK. That’s 1-800-273-8255. They route you to the nearest crisis center to receive immediate counseling and referrals. Check out RAINN, the Rape Abuse and Incest Network. They are great and I always refer to them. You can call 911 of course. You can talk to NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness. There’s NEDA, the National Eating Disorders Association. I go to Al-Anon and CoDA, Co-Dependents Anonymous. Those are great organizations for people who have struggled with care-taking, martyrdom and co-dependence. If you are someone who has been verbally or physically abused by an alcoholic or a drug addict at any time in your life, whether that person was drunk at the time or not, you can find a home at those places.
You may not be a Christian or a Jew or a Muslim or a person who participates in organized religion, but a lot of times there will be resources at local houses of worship. If you want to participate in a twelve-step program and you don’t believe in Jesus, you can find atheist gay rainbow Occupy Wall Street activists who will take you in and do a meeting with you. You’ll tweak it.
Rumpus: You have a resonant chapter on pruning shitty friends.
Benincasa: Oh yeah, I love it. I did some of that this week.
Rumpus: It’s like social topiary.
Benincasa: When I go to the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World, they have wonderful topiary in the shapes of characters. I apply the principle to my life. “Prune away that which is not a Disney princess!” I think Michelangelo said that.
Rumpus: Sounds like Michelangelo.
Benincasa: He said that.
Rumpus: What distinguishes supporting friends in crisis—forgiving folks for making human mistakes—from toxicity? What are the red flags of bad company?
Benincasa: I want to be around people who love me in the way that I want and need to be loved. I would like to be around people who I love in the way that they want me to love them. If those things don’t intersect, if we can’t meet in the Venn diagram center, then we probably shouldn’t be hanging out.
I used to think that having lots of friends meant that you were happy. That’s really not true. Having the right friends means that you’re happy.
You have to determine what it is for you. It’s not your job to determine if you’re good for somebody else. That’s their job. I realized that I was deeply unhappy in a relationship with this friend that I’d been talking to every day recently. I had to say, “You know what, this isn’t healthy. Let’s back off each other for a while. We can revisit this.” You can take breaks from friends, too. Friendship is so vital. A friend breakup can be as or more disturbing than a romantic breakup.
Rumpus: Do you have any good advice about the proposing of a break versus a breakup?
Benincasa: My book talks about different methods of leaving a friendship. One way is just to leave. If that’s not emotionally or physically safe for you, there are other ways.
If friends are taking more from you than they’re giving, it doesn’t matter if they are in the throes of addiction. It does not matter if they are suicidal. It does not matter if they were nice to you when you were kids. It doesn’t matter if you’ve told them things you’ve never told anybody else and only they can relate. If this person is draining you, this person is not right for you.
Something we talk about in recovery is, “You didn’t break it and you can’t fix it.” If you were an asshole to someone and you feel like you’re doing penance because you feel like you did break that person in some way? Surprise! You didn’t. You may feel like you’re doing penance for past wrongs. Your time is up. Penance is over.
It’s time to hand back responsibility for being an adult to everyone in the situation. You’re not helping anybody by staying in a romantic relationship that isn’t good for you or staying in a work relationship that sucks or staying in a friendship where you hate the other person. That’s not helping anyone.
In the short term, it absolutely feels devastating to break that bond. In the long term, it is the best possible thing. You’re actually doing something noble and good if you do it in the right way. You can leave them with, “I wish you the best, but I have to take care of myself.” Or you don’t have to wish them the best. It’s okay if you don’t. Maybe they don’t deserve the best. That’s not up to you to decide. You not wishing someone the best is not going to make anyone’s life not the best.
Take care of yourself. You’re not perfect, either. Work on that! If you need to make amends or ask for forgiveness, that’s something. But I believe that you can fire your family members. And if you can fire family members, you can certainly fire your friends.
Rumpus: We’re gonna end on sex.
Benincasa: You’re a great interviewer. This is probably, definitely, the best interview I’ve ever had.
Rumpus: No way! It’s the first one I’ve done for The Rumpus.
Benincasa: You and Marc Maron. You and Marc Maron are the best interviewers I’ve ever had.
Rumpus: Tell Marc.
Esther Perel, who wrote Mating in Captivity, just did a Facebook Live conversation where she observed that, while we don’t bat an eyelash at asking for business advice, we rarely turn to each other and ask, “What’s the best advice you’ve ever gotten about sex?”
Benincasa: Should it be something that I’ve read or something that’s been said to me directly?
Rumpus: Whatever has been the most resonant for you, however that came to you. Whatever has had the most positive effect on your sex life and your experience of it.
Benincasa: Great sex on a regular basis is not a privilege, it is a right. If you are not getting sex from your partner in a way that feels safe and good and wonderful and dangerous in the right ways, then you are in some way being violated. I’m not talking about rape. I’m talking about when you’re in a relationship with somebody who doesn’t give a fuck about your sexual needs. That’s a person who doesn’t give a fuck about you. Get out. It is better for you to be alone at home with your Hitachi magic wand than to waste one more moment with anyone who does not acknowledge and celebrate you as a beautiful, sexual being who deserves pleasure, who deserves to be fully met, who deserves to be heard, and who deserves to be loved.
I am in a place where I am able to have sex now, finally, and understand that I don’t divorce emotion from it. That doesn’t mean that I become possessive or jealous or self-loathing with regard to sex. I can be happy having sex with somebody one time and never have sex with that person again. That’s not a referendum on my attractiveness. That’s not a referendum on their quality as a human being.
Conscious sexuality isn’t just fucking other people. It’s remaining true to and taking care of yourself sexually. Taking a break from sex. Engaging in conscious celibacy.
Sexual betrayal doesn’t just mean being cheated on. When somebody does not honor your stated needs and desires, when somebody treats you like a fuck toy or as a fallback, when somebody treats you as a creature who’ll just be there no matter what, whether or not they’re honoring your very human and real desires, needs, and wants, that’s betrayal.
I would also say that cheating isn’t always bad. It sucks when it happens to you. You should probably feel bad about it if you do it. I’ve never cheated and felt great. But it can be a way out for some people. You have no idea what’s going on in that relationship.
I used to truck in garbage sex advice. I tried to be as good as I could, but the truth is there’s no pithy answer. We have these aphorisms that we love, these sayings. They’re applicable most of the time, but not always.
Rumpus: What’s one of the juiciest gems you’ve tucked into the book on body image and sex? I trust you to tease without spoiling.
Benincasa: Masturbate! Go masturbate with zero partners. Honestly, I have a chapter called “Go Fuck Yourself” because you should. It’s really good for you.