"I was terrible at it," she says. "Very, very bad maintenance worker."
Benincasa worked part of her way through college by cleaning up messes, badly—including the actual dump some nihilistic supervillain took beneath the liner of a trash can one day, an experience she describes as "humbling." She also later spent some time working at a law firm that specialized in immigration for fashion models, helping to import Bulgarian teenagers for a life of catwalk-traipsing. (She lasted about six weeks.) But even though Benincasa didn’t have any books bearing her name or any appearances on TV shows behind her yet, she wasn’t harboring dreams of becoming an artist back then.
Because she already was an artist.
"You are an artist regardless of what you put down on your income tax form in April," Benincasa says. "You are an artist no matter what, as long as you do your art. If you don't do your art, you're not an artist. It's pretty simple."
The evidence of Benincasa's artistry is a lot more substantial now than it was when she was also a janitor. After spending many years grinding it out in offices by day and writing and performing comedy at night, she has become an in-demand writer in many mediums. First there was her memoir, Agorafabulous, then came Great, her YA reimagining of The Great Gatsby, followed by an original semi-raunchy YA novel, DC Trip, for which she recently got a deal to write the screenplay for an eventual film. (Not to mention the Agorafabulous TV pilot she wrote for Ben Stiller's Red Hour and Diablo Cody.) It's the experiences that helped Benincasa build her current platform, though, that inform her latest book, Real Artists Have Day Jobs (And Other Awesome Things They Don’t Teach You In School).
Part how-to on balancing passion and practicality, part anti-Imposter Syndrome pep talk, and part memoir, Real Artists Have Day Jobs is a painfully honest inventory of getting started as a creative professional. As the book hits stores, Co.Create spoke with Benincasa about what it takes to make a living while making art—until you can make a living making art.
"I think it's important when you're starting out to collaborate with people who are awesome and don't give it away for free to just anyone," Benincasa says. "If you're going to do something for free, make sure that your collaborators are really smart, really talented, really effective, and really determined. Find people whose determination matches your own. Look for people who already have a track record, even if it's a brief one of doing good work. This doesn't mean you only work for free for famous or successful artists—just look at like-minded individuals who seem like they have a chance of creating something really amazing. When you work for free, be strategic. I mean, always be strategic, but particularly at first. Don't just create a painting on commission for someone who has very little respect for art and just wants to get some free house decor. And don't work for free forever."
"It's really important to know that every successful person in this world has had to put in work, has had to put in time, and has had to do some things that they didn't love along the way," Benincasa says. "Real artists have day jobs. Many artistic legends have had jobs that had nothing to do with art. I mean briefly Maya Angelou was a cable car conductor. Sandra Cisneros, the author of The House on Mango Street, was an administrative assistant. J.K. Rowling was a secretary. There are so many great artists throughout history who have done other things because they didn't have a patron, or if they did have a patron, that patron couldn't cover all their expenses so they had to work. And some of them, it would seem, found a great deal of meaning in that work as well as in their artistic endeavors."
"I once was an associate editor at Pharmaceutical Executive magazine, and a higher-up editor at one point said that I just didn't seem like I wanted to be there and I seemed like I was much more interested in my comedy career. And she was right," Benincasa says. "Thank God a few weeks later I got hired away to go blog somewhere, and shortly after that I got my first job in entertainment, which was hosting and producing radio. If people at a job get the impression that you think you're better than the job, even if you don't intend that, it's a problem. So don't be an asshole. If you have a job, do the work. And if you'd rather be doing something else, put your time and energy on the side into doing something else and get a day job that doesn't need you to be committed.
"In the corporate culture and environment I was in, they needed me to act like I wanted to be there and I wasn't gonna do that. So that doesn't mean that I was real and down to earth and they weren't. I just needed a job that didn't care if I was screwing around all night doing something else. There are plenty of those jobs out there. If you just want to punch a time card, there are people who will hire you to do that. It’s not gonna be the deepest work in the world, but it's going to take less of your emotional time and you'll do better work on your art. But you should bring at least some modicum of decency to whatever workplace you're in, and if you cannot summon the power to do that then get the fuck out."
"If you're an artist, you're gonna have to work your ass off. If you're an artist and you love it, you'll make the time because, well, you have to," Benincasa says. "I have seen artists with a lot more demands on their life than I have currently and they make the time to do it. And when I ask friends who are writers and have kids how they make the time to write, they say, ‘I just have to produce. I get a half hour while the kid is asleep and I sit down and I write—that's what happens.’ And they just do it. There is very little romanticism about it. Being an artist of any kind generally isn't romantic. It's not a fairy tale. You have to do the work. If you don't do your art, you're not an artist: You're a dabbler. And dabbling is fine. If you're a dabbler, be a dabbler. I dabble in cooking. I'm terrible at it. I am not a chef."
"Even perhaps before you quit your full-time staff job, invest in an accountant who works with freelancers and talk to that person about what deductions you can and can't take, expenses, and whether it’s advantageous for you to incorporate or not. Really learn it," Benincasa says. "Also, set a general time that you get up every day and a general time you put the work away. It's gonna change but when you're a freelancer, you have freedom but the work never goes away. You can always work, which means you can always lose your personal life, so be careful about that. I make my own hours, which is awesome and I love it, but it also requires a greater amount of discipline and I don't necessarily have that. So I think routine can be vital. But I don't stick to the same routine every single day. Everybody finds their own recipe."
"I'm not sure I have a thick skin. I've been told I'm 'good at taking a note,' which practically translates to not being precious about one's work," Benincasa says. "If a note or criticism or edit comes from a smart, constructive place and it's going to make my work better, I'm not going to turn up my nose at it. Why wouldn't I be glad to incorporate it? No one wants to hear that one's work is garbage, though. That's not helpful. And anyone who tells you that is probably not actually interested in helping you improve or communicate ideas in a better way. But let's not be adorable little flowers quivering in the breeze here. You've got to prune and sometimes chop. Sometimes you've got to blow the whole fucker up and start from scratch. I learned a lot by watching Diablo Cody in pitches and listening to her on calls. I learned how to advocate for something one does believe in, for a choice in which one has faith. I also learned that it is never, ever a bad idea to wear excellent eye-catching shoes to a pitch meeting in Los Angeles."
"At 35, I've come to a few important realizations," Benincasa says. "One is that I enjoy raw vegetables. Another is that good and/or great sex really is a necessary ingredient to a life well lived. And finally, I no longer need to use panic as a motivating factor with work. Yes, I still procrastinate at times. In part it's to create the energy and pressure that comes along with a deadline (or a past deadline). But you can do good work without throwing yourself into a tizzy. This may seem obvious to healthy humans, but it took me awhile to figure it out. And now I am attempting to put it into practice.