Comedian and writer Sara Benincasa is like a dream BFF.
She’s sweet, she’s smart, she’s hilarious and she throws birthday parties that include pumpkin painting stations.
She’s also written a brilliant new book called Agorafabulous!: Dispatches from My Bedroom.
Like Tina Fey’s Bossypants or Mindy Kaling’s Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?, it’s a collection of personal essays from a smart and funny female comedian, but Sara’s book specifically tackles the time in her life that she struggled with agoraphobia and how she recovered from it.
It’s her story of survival and reading it makes you feel more courageous to battle your own demons. As I was reading it, I kept wanting to pick up my phone to text her things like, “You too? I freaked out when I went to Europe for the first time!” or “You too? I also loved visiting that weird gnome-fairy store on Newbury Street when I had a rough day!” or “You too? I have also suffered from panic attacks and depression and am terrified to tell people about it without looking like a freak!”
I was thrilled when Sara invited me out for sushi to discuss the book in her own words, how she started writing and how she gets the courage to tackle such dark issues in such a fearless way.
So, Sara…what’s the book about?
Well, Meghan…the book is called Agorafabulous!: Dispatches from My Bedroom, and it is about agoraphobia, which is a fear of travel. Technically it means “phobia”, which means fear, and “agora”, which means marketplace. So, I say that my diagnosis is that I’m afraid of the mall, which is not true because I love the mall! And I’ve had panic attacks in many, many places, but never actually in a mall, which is weird because malls are like a hotspot for having panic attacks. But I love the mall. I find the mall very comforting. I’m from New Jersey, so it’s like my spiritual homeland. It’s the closest thing I know to like a “house of worship” or a zen retreat.
So, it’s about my struggle with that when I was a teenager and into my early twenties, with agoraphobia (which is a panic disorder) and depression.
(At this point, the waitress brought Sara’s mango iced tea and my wine and we got excited.)
So, it’s a fun time. It’s funny. It’s not meant to be a depressing book about depression. It’s a happy book about depression.
I know that when I write or when I do comedy, I have trouble keeping “the darkness” light sometimes. How did you manage to tackle it or what was your approach to make it funny for other people?
Well, what I sought to do was to make fun of myself that would make other people comfortable laughing at themselves, because I think it is possible to make light of a really serious dark topic without disrespecting people who deal with particular issues. So, I’m never going to make fun of someone else for having a panic attack on a train, but I’m going to make fun of myself for it. I think it’s really funny. The idea of being in such a safe environment and being completely terrified. There’s something inherently amusing about that.
(At this point, Sara’s miso soup came and she was very excited about it.)
So, you write a lot. You haven’t just written this book, but you also write about politics and relationships for a lot of different websites. How did you start writing?
I started writing when I was really little because I had these awesome teachers who really encouraged me and my parents really encouraged me. So, I remember writing, like, Sweet Valley High fan fiction when I was in first grade and my parents found it. There was stuff in it like making out and sex and my parents found it and they got really disturbed because they just let me read whatever I wanted. I was their first kid. I guess they just really didn’t have a lot of training in stuff because they would just let me read whatever I wanted to. They just thought it was great and cute. I don’t think they realized they might have to do a little bit of censorship. So, I was reading like Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret–
–Oh, I read that when I was like six and I was like, “What are ‘maxi pad belts’?!?!”
Yeah, I was terrified by it. So, I read that stuff and some of the racier stuff in Sweet Valley High. I ended up writing this fan fiction and it was pretty intense. I think Jessica ended up doing it with Todd. So, I was writing this stuff when I was, like, seven and my parents were really disturbed. They were thinking, “Oh my God, is she being abused by someone who’s teaching her these things?” No, I was just going to the library and reading whatever they’d let me read.
(At this point our salads came and we got really excited and went on a tangent about Dr. Andrew Weil. He’s pretty exciting. As is salad.)
So, what made you start doing comedy? How did you transition from agoraphobia to being on stage?
I hit rock bottom with my agoraphobia when I was 21. And it was a really slow, difficult climb out of that gutter over a number of years. So, I think once I felt better, I thought, “I just need to take every opportunity I can”, because I felt that I had kind of looked into the abyss in a way and seen the possibility of suicide and chosen not to do that. So I thought, “Well, I’m still here. I’m still around on Earth so I need to have some experiences. If I want to do something, I really need to go for it.”
I was in graduate school here in New York, which was a huge deal because I had used to be afraid to come into the city. I mean, I was afraid of so many things: planes, trains, cars, tall buildings, streets with tall buildings on them. So just being in this city was a huge victory for me. And then, I had a friend in my graduate school class who had just quit her job in Talent at Comedy Central. She said, “You know, you should really do stand up. You’re really funny in class. I think that you would really like it.” So, she brought me around and introduced me to people, like her old bosses at Comedy Central and so many different comedians and that’s how I got into it. And I also took a class in sketch comedy writing at the PIT with Kevin Allison, who is such a gifted teacher, and that was about six years ago.
(At this point, the waitress took away our finished salads and we were blasé about it, but excited about all the vegetables we’d just eaten.)
So doing comedy was this magical “f#$k you” to my demons, because what could be more anti-agoraphobia than standing alone on a stage in front of lots of strangers trying to make them laugh? It’s so counter-intuitive that it was really like challenging my biggest fears.
(At this point, our sushi and sashimi platters came and we got excited again.)
You talk a lot about sex and politics in your writing, and those are both–I don’t want to say “dangerous”–but when a woman is attacked in the press or in politics, it’s usually related to her sexuality. I was just curious how you get the courage to dip into those more controversial topics knowing you might be attacked unfairly?
Those are the things that intrigue me and I was raised to talk politics with men–with my father and my grandfather. So, I was never told that politics was a realm that I shouldn’t get into and that I shouldn’t fight about. One of my comedy role models is the writer Molly Ivins, who died a few years ago. She was such a brilliant syndicated columnist–so funny and so out there. So, it just never occurs to me not to write about those things even if I get blowback about it (which I do), but every time you speak up, whether you’re a man or a woman, in a public forum you’re speaking for yourself, but also you’re speaking for other people who don’t have the opportunity. There are going to be people who say, “Thank you for saying that.”
I mean, sometimes laughter is the sign of agreement and even relief. Like, “Thank you…” for someone else saying that. Laughter is the original “like” on Facebook. So, I think we have a responsibility to celebrate and really enjoy the right we have in a relatively free society to get to speak up on our own behalf.
And I just think sex is so funny. I think it’s funny because, well, it’s so sticky, that’s one thing, but also because I was afraid of it for so long. I was afraid of everything for so long. I like to talk on stage about things that scare me. It helps me stare them down.
(At this point the waitress asked if our sushi was okay. We said it was and then we got excited trying to figure out what the weirder rolls of sushi left on our plates were.)
What advice would you have for young writers who are trying to get their foot in the door or to find their voice?
I would say write as much as you can. If you’re still in school, whether you’re in high school or middle school or college or whatever, find your school’s publication and try and write for them. Even if it’s not the kind of writing you usually do. I mean, you’ll benefit from writing a sports story even if you’re not into sports. You’ll benefit from writing a Q&A even if you’re nervous about the idea of interviewing somebody. It’s really good practice. It’s all practice. School is your gym. You get to train. You get to experiment. You get to try out different exercises. See what works for you; see what doesn’t. By the time you’re done, you’ll have so many clips and such a portfolio of writing that you can present that you’ll get hired at a real place and you can call yourself a professional writer.
Actually, you can start writing for pay when you’re in high school. There are different opportunities out there. Try and write for your local newspaper. Pick a topic that you’re really into and start blogging about it. It doesn’t have to be a personal diary. I say from experience, you get older and those things are still online and it’s very embarrassing. Just remember that it’s on the internet forever. It’s written in indelible ink, essentially.
And be nice to people because eventually you’re going to have to work with everybody.
Is there anything else you want to say about the book?
I guess the real reason I wrote the book was that when I was going through really tough times, I used to keep books in my bed with me almost like a comfort object like a teddy bear. (And I totally still have a stuffed animal. No big deal. Immature? Whatever.) And I want to write the kind of book that other people find comforting, especially younger women. I travel a lot and talk at colleges a lot, and the thing I hear over and over again from people who say, “Thank you for talking about this. I feel like less of a freak.” That’s how I felt when I was going through the worst of it and would hear someone speak about it. I’d feel like less of a freak.
So I think that us crazy types have an obligation to look after one another and to be as open as we can be, while still feeling safe about what we deal with because I really think we can save each other in that way.
All photos by Mindy Tucker