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Real Artists Have Day Jobs and Other Life Lessons from a Career Hustler

Comedian Sara Benincasa talks mental health, the college-industrial complex and her latest book

Comedian Sara Benincasa has seen some shit. Not all the shit, mind you — you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who’s gone through everything, and as she’s quick to note, she’s had a good deal of support along the way. But at 35, she’s already: slogged through six years of undergrad in the face of debilitating depression, OCD and agoraphobia; worked as a high school teacher on a $10,000 salary; earned an Ivy League graduate school degree; racked up tens of thousands in credit card and student loan debt; spoken to thousands of teens across the country about mental health; and written four books in as many years and is working on a fifth.

In other words, Benincasa has survived enough obstacles, made enough mistakes, and conquered enough major milestones to know what she’s talking about. Her fourth and most recent book, Real Artists Have Day Jobs, which came out earlier this month, is a culmination of those life lessons, in the form of 52 (yes, 52) hilariously deadpan essays tackling common-sense topics like sex, family relationships, abuse, mental health, self-esteem, pet ownership…even dental hygiene.

“It’s not advice from a place of mastery of the world,” she cautions, when we meet up in her new neighborhood, Silver Lake. “It’s just advice based on the many times I’ve fucked up, and the few times I’ve gotten something right.”

When I first read your essay on Medium that inspired this book, I thought about science fiction writer, Octavia Butler — she eventually quit her job, and became that “starving artist” for a while. If she were doing that today, would you say she should have kept her job? Have we entered a post-romantic era for that sort of lifestyle?
It depends on your comfort level. She wasn’t doing that as a pose, or to be cute, or impress people; she was being authentic and doing what she needed to do to be true to herself. If you can’t or don’t want to do that, that’s okay — you can still make great art. The message of Real Artists Have Day Jobs is not that you require a day job to be a real artist; it’s that many artists do have day jobs. The presence or lack of a steady paycheck does not indicate whether you’re a “real” artist. You’re a real artist if you make art.

I wanted to write this book to fight back against the stereotype that artists are just sitting around in a romantic attic, painting and having feelings all the time, or that you have to be wealthy or go to college to create art.

The college thing is an exceptional fallacy of this day and age.
It’s bullshit. I have two friends who dropped out of high school, they’re both writers now; one is an extremely successful TV writer and producer. I don’t advocate that path, and I don’t think they would either, but you don’t need to have a bunch of fancy degrees. If you have the privilege to go to a good college, judge it based on the alumni network, because you’re essentially buying friends and future colleagues.

So what do you have to do?
You owe it to yourself to be a good person and a good force in the world, apologize when you make mistakes, take care of yourself, and then by extension take care of other people. You need to earn a living, but working hard doesn’t mean working yourself into a horrific stupor of unhappiness. I don’t think it’s possible to balance any of that work-life balance shit. But you have to take care of your mental and physical health or you won’t be able to work at all. I had to quit teaching because I recognized that as a writer, it was better for me to have jobs that didn’t involve ensuring the safety of children, because that’s a full-time job, and I wasn’t ready for that in my early twenties. There’s no emotional time left when you’re teaching. And I needed to make enough money to live and have time to write.

How did you get to the point where writing was your full-time job?
When I was a kid I thought if you were a writer, you were rich. I go to schools to talk to middle and high school kids. Sometimes they’ll just straight-up go, “Are you rich? Are you famous?” And I’m like, “No,” and they’re like, “Then why are you here?” I had a lot of day jobs over the years, and it took me a long time to realize that hard work is a good thing, and that there’s no romance to the idea of a starving artist — it has “starving” in it, that’s not good!

Where did the idea for this book originate?
I had been doing an advice column at Jezebel for a time, and also did it on my Tumblr, so after the column ended, I just kept doing it there, because I just enjoyed it. I wanted to do a book of funny essays that addressed different common issues that came up in my own life, in my friends’ lives. I have friends in their 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s — if they’re much older, I’ll go, “You’ve learned so much,” and they always laugh and go, “Yeah, I know a bunch of shit, but I still don’t know how to change my oil, and I still have an asshole friend I can’t get rid of.” Then there’s also such wisdom from people who are younger than me. So it’s for any adult who feels like they’ve missed a step.

How does one collect such a wide variety of friends?
The internet is a big one, also neighbors and landlords and stuff like that. Anyone who works alone, from home — which is [getting to be] more and more of us, in this country — it’s a different model from a lot of our parents’. Telecommuting wasn’t an option, so they were always working with others. For us, it can get lonely sometimes, so I’ve realized over the years how important it is to have some sort of sense of community, to know the names of the humans you run into every day.

I’m agoraphobic, so my default setting is to hide away when stressed, and then develop a fear of leaving. So for my own mental health, I have to make myself go out every day, and engage with human beings. Many people would love having the option of not doing that, and I get it. But for me, it’s not a quick journey from a day spent alone to utter madness, but it’s a quicker one than it would be for most people.

Other than that, how else do you self-police during the day?
I have a psychiatrist, I have a therapist, I have parents that love me, I have friends… I have a community and accountability. And quite frankly, I have privilege. I have the privilege of being able to afford a psychiatrist and a therapist. That’s a missing piece that doesn’t get acknowledged enough. I think artists are often caught up in talking about the “muse” and not about, “Oh yeah, my mom and dad spotted me for fuckin’ years so that I could buy groceries and have therapy.”

People do jobs they really don’t want to do, they do work that’s illegal in order to make ends meet, and to make their dream happen. Sometimes it’s great, sometimes it sucks. Some people get payday loans and put everything on credit cards. I’m still tens of thousands of dollars in credit card and student loan debt from covering the gaps in New York in my 20s.

How does that affect your day-to-day routine?
You have to prioritize. You have to look at the money, where it’s coming from, when it’s coming. So if I write recaps [for TV shows], that pays pretty quickly. I have to do that on time and well enough. That takes precedence over my longer-term stuff.

When I write a book, I get a check up front, then I write for a year, deliver a manuscript, go back and forth with my editor, and they send it to production and I get the second half of the check. I have to do other stuff in between. There’s a balance between doing my beautiful art and doing stuff to pay the bills. You have to do a lot of time management. And I suck at time management.

What other kinds of advice do you still need for yourself?
Money management for freelancers, for sure. Physical health management for freelancers. Psychological health for people who work alone.

Yeah, that’s a growing issue for younger workers, especially.
I would say a big piece of advice I would give people is that you’re going to get laid off, and you’re going to get fired. If you’re coming out of college now, especially if you’re in media or the arts, you’re not gonna have your job forever, even if you want it. It might not be because you’re incompetent; you might get fired because they wanted to trump up a reason to get rid of you and not have to pay you unemployment. Maybe if you’re in the medical field you have a little more security, but I know doctors who have lost jobs, certainly nurses. Career security is a complete illusion, and as long as you know that, it’s cool. Hustle and drive and resilience are important always, as is the ability to promote yourself.

How did you learn how to self-promote?
I think I realized at some point that no one was going to promote me except me. I learned it through comedy, saw how people promoted themselves. I’ve always had a weird love for advertising and marketing, which sounds soulless, but I love it. It’s storytelling, and it’s emotional manipulation, and I’m all about it.

Being my own publicist is what enabled me to hire a publicist. Even if you’re not a performer, you can advocate for yourself. You have to take the temperature of the room to see what’s appropriate, but you have to promote yourself with confidence, without acting like you think you’re the best thing ever.

You’ve got a chapter about that, right? “Ask for Exactly What You Want”?
I’m lucky enough to have a few mentors; one is Diablo Cody, who’s the executive producer on my Agorafabulous pilot project. The first time I met her, she asked, “What do you want to do with this? What role do you want to have?” And I said, “I don’t know, I guess, well, I know it’s my life story, so I don’t know if this will make people uncomfortable, but do you think that I could maybe be a writer on the show?” I wasn’t in the Writers’ Guild; I didn’t have any scripts in a drawer. I didn’t go to school for this shit.

But Diablo looked right at me, and she said, “If you were a man, would you ask me that question?” And it blew my 31-year-old mind. I said no, I would just assume I would be involved. She was like, “Yup. So, what do you want to do? If you want something, just say it, even if it sounds crazy in your head.

Devon Maloney is a culture writer living in Los Angeles whose work has appeared in Wired and Vanity Fair, among others. She previously wrote about the new Captain America movie’s approach to talking about inequality for MEL.

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