Weekend Author Highlight: Sara Benincasa

Weekend Author Highlight is a (new) recurring column where we chat with Medium authors about their process, life, and idiosyncrasies. This weekend, Sara Benincasa discusses being a woman on the internet, how she handles criticism, and ghosts.

1. Which of your Medium stories should people read to get a sense of who you are as a writer? As a person?
I think the Medium story that best exemplifies both is “Why Am I So Fat?” There are moments in which I have been vastly more sensitive and emotional on Medium, as in the essays “Stick Around” and “High School Is Forever,” but I think “Why Am I So Fat?” provides an accurate snapshot of my attitude about life these days. The follow-up essay, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Fat,” is also a good one, in terms of finding out who I am as a person and a writer.

2.We took a glance at your archive — quite a spread! Sara, you are prolific. How do you decide what to write about, and how do you control for quality?
I usually publish things on Medium that feature a topic about which I am so passionate that I cannot wait for a conventional outlet to determine whether the essay has merit. I use Medium as a reader because I enjoy exploring the different voices, and I use it as a writer because sometimes I simply don’t want to wait to say something important. I will often go to Medium to express whatever I’m thinking. I usually don’t run my ideas past anyone in advance. I do sometimes tweak and edit after I initially publish an essay.

3. Speaking of your output, do you sometimes feel like your creativity is a finite resource? If so, how do you refill it?
My creativity is not a finite resource but my energy certainly is. I have to take care of myself or I can’t do my work. And I love my work. I’m going to consult with a hand and wrist surgeon soon because I’m having difficulty with Carpal Tunnel Syndrome. Increasingly I have become reliant on talk-to-text in order to communicate when texting and emailing with family and friends. I also just punch people in the face with my elbows now. It’s usually because I’m so goddamn frustrated by all of the typos produced by talk-to-text.

4. You’re not just a visible woman on the internet, you’re a visible woman with opinions. And despite the pitfalls of being a lady online, you’re pretty open to discussing those opinions with people who disagree with you. (Civilly, we might add.) But how do you engage with criticism that’s lobbed at you, rather than at your writing and ideas? 
I was raised in an environment in which political disagreement was encouraged. You could still be friends afterwards. You could still love each other afterwards. I take great pleasure in debate. For years my dad mostly voted Republican, but he is a social moderate who has always cherished his status as an independent voter. He has never voted along party lines. His own dad was a liberal Irish Catholic Democrat of the Joe Biden variety, and they would debate all the time in the ’80s over the dinner table.

When someone is simply being a jerk for the sake of being a jerk, or being critical and mean for the sake of being mean, I may mock ’em right back. It’s always a planned move for a good reason: I want to demonstrate that you don’t have to simply smile gracefully or ignore people who call you stupid or worse.

Of course there are times when criticism is simply a projection of one’s own fears and jealousies. When I wrote about being called fat, there were a very few people for whom my essay was upsetting because they did not regard me as sufficiently fat. I did not look exactly like their idea of “fat” and therefore I did not have the authority to respond to someone who rudely demanded to know why I had personally gained weight.

One woman theorized that I was a size 10 and that this was not a real plus size. Well, I wear a size 14 in most conventional stores, but I wasn’t exactly going to post a photograph of the tag on my jeans. That’s not the fucking point. I don’t particularly care about the size on my jeans, but she clearly did. A lot.

It was illuminating to see someone who truly believes herself to be a righteous warrior for “acceptance” get very concerned with the exact size of my body as determined by the very fashion industry she purports to oppose. She went into quite a lot of detail about my body, including how I might look in different outfits, how I might move in space, and who might find me sexually attractive in real life. It was rather lurid, in retrospect.

Many people walk around with a lot of pain. My empathy stops where their disrespect for others begins.

In a more useful way, a couple of writers were concerned not with what I had written but rather with the popular response to the essay. They did not like that I was held up as a positive example when, for them, I do not appear in photographs to be larger than average in size. “Average” is subjective, of course. Their quarrel was not with my right to write the essay, but rather with the way in which I was described in some quarters as extraordinary. In their opinion, I really had not done anything particularly revolutionary. I agree that my essay was not revolutionary. Funny, sure. Cathartic for me and perhaps for others? Absolutely. But it wasn’t some kind of new milestone in the fight against rampant fatphobic assholery. It was just my story.

Why might the popular response to the essay cause them concern and even anger? How did they personally feel excluded from that conversation? What is the difference between “good fat” and “bad fat”? In a couple of cases, I re-tweeted and shared critical commentary about the piece. Some people regard any disagreement as open warfare. But again, I was taught that good people could disagree about many things and could talk it out, and that such disagreement was not some sort of passive aggressive attack. It’s always a pleasure to make a friend or find a debate “opponent” who takes this approach as well.

When women disagree, some people are inclined to call it a “cat fight” or to declare that now everything is going to explode and everyone is going to die in flames of doom because two ladies had different ideas about a thing. In truth, I thought it was an interesting discussion that would prove illuminating to people who had never had to deal with body-shaming or harassment. I’ve been harassed multiple times in my life. I’ve also been physically grabbed by strangers a few times since I was 14 years old. And I am part of the majority of women in this regard, not the minority.

If you read the essay, I don’t claim to be some kind of Joan of Arc warrior heroine. I am clearly most interested in telling someone to fuck off in as creative detail as I can possibly muster. I wrote the first draft in about 10 minutes in the middle of the night.

Like anyone else, I write in the context of a larger culture, in the context of my background, in the context of my privilege, in the context of our society. All I can do with my work is to keep going with an eye toward improving. I apologize when I fuck up. I listen to others whom I admire. I endeavor to do better in future.

I’m glad I wrote “Why Am I So Fat?” as well as the follow-up essay. I learned a lot and enjoyed chatting with a lot of folks about these ideas.

Often, it’s not the most polished thing that I write that receives the most acclaim. It’s the thing with the most heart and passion. It might be rough around the edges and not necessarily the most beautiful literary prose. But I’ve always wanted to make people feel less scared and less alone. That’s what books did for me when I was a bullied little kid or a suicidal young adult. And maybe the casual approach is one way to help folks connect with what I do.

5. Aliens or ghosts? Ghosts all the fucking way. Look, aliens are fascinating and they always will be. I once went on a date with a gentleman who casually mentioned during the evening that in his first few months of life, he had been kidnapped by a loving and kind team of aliens. You sort of hope someone will drop that information before you’ve made out with him, but life comes at you fast.

I’m glad he enjoyed his time with the otherworldly creatures, but I prefer to think about ghosts. A lot of people claim that ghosts stick around because they have unfinished business here on earth but what if they just want to party? Or maybe these ghosts really like the ability to pass through walls. You could go to see A Tribe Called Quest for free that way anytime you wanted. You could see any movie without ever having to pay. That alone is a great reason to hang out on earth awhile longer.

6. Your writing is full of warmth and vulnerability; it’s a combination a lot of readers find welcoming. Do you have boundaries with your audience that separate your written self from your IRL self? Are there certain topics you won’t touch? Rules of engagement you have in place? Well, I try where possible to stay in my lane. I can write about my own experience. So in the case of “Why Am I So Fat?” I didn’t speak for all women. I didn’t speak for all people who’ve ever been called fat. I spoke for me.

To co-opt or appropriate the lived experience of another human being is not just rude or impolite. It is, at its very worst, an act of thievery. At times it is an unconscious act of thievery done in the service of what the author believes is a good thing. When I center myself in the discussion of someone else’s life and experience, I do a great disservice. Other people’s stories do not exist as props to make my witty point. This is not to suggest that I can only talk about myself in some sort of navel-gazing fashion. That would be incredibly dull to me and mind numbingly boring to any audience. But my story is what I know best.

7. Would You Rather Speak Like This On The Internet For The Rest of Your Life Or SPEAK LIKE THIS ON THE INTERNET FOR THE REST OF YOUR LIFE?
The weird initial capitalization would be my preference because it’s just so bizarre. It turns everything into a book or movie title. It sort of looks like something the founding fathers might have utilized in their own writing at a time when American English was not standardized. I’m kind of into it.

8. Can you name a couple of Medium writers people are sleeping on? Any stories you read again and again?
Well no one is sleeping on the very popular Anil Dash, but he’s great. I would also read everything The Ringer publishes, as all those writers are top notch. Bill Simmons, where you at? Call me up. I can write about sports. I will learn about cricket and I will write the hell out of a longform poignant yet humorous essay about cricket. Or curling. I will cover curling. That’s my beat.

Speaking of The Ringer: This is the most fucking insane thing I have ever read. I cannot imagine how much time it took mad genius Sam Donsky to write this. It upsets me and it blows my mind and I think that he should be worshiped as a demigod in several small villages surrounding Metropolitan New York City, and some of those villages should be in my own beloved home state of New Jersey. I want to throw my entire laptop through a window but then I also want to go after my laptop and retrieve it and tell it that I love it and that I will never hurt it again, just so that I can read this essay forever. Is this even an essay? Are we even alive right now? What the fuck is happening? God is real, and he lives in this essay and probably in Penn Station underneath Madison Square Garden, specifically in the Amtrak area at the Auntie Anne’s pretzel kiosk. There are two of them. Welcome to New York. It’s been waiting for you.

Some other worthy reads:

Southern Fried Pride by Jasmine Beach-Ferrara
This is a beautiful story by an activist and pastor who also happens to be my former professor from Warren Wilson College in Swannanoa, North Carolina. Jasmine is an intersectional feminist and she has been a fantastic voice for positive change and equality across the spectrum in the state of North Carolina, which is my very favorite state after my home state of New Jersey (I live in California, currently my third favorite state in the nation.) Just a few months ago, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals found that the Republican Party in North Carolina deliberately tried to prevent black people from voting. And the state GOP promotes rampant homophobia and transphobia. I have a North Carolina tattoo on my arm, and people like Jasmine make me want to keep it there without covering it with an intricate image of Joe Biden high-fiving a dragon in a Scorpions t-shirt.

I Need To Talk About My Miscarriage by ashley williams
I met Ashley when I played a bit part on an episode of TV Land’s The Jim Gaffigan Show, where Ashley was Jim’s costar. I had a miscarriage many years ago and while my experience was different than Ashley’s, that’s the whole point of this essay really… Everyone’s experience with miscarriage is different and should be honored as necessary. We should not feel shame or blame, because it is not our fault.

A Love Letter to My Ancestors by Carey J
Carey writes so beautifully and movingly here. What a wonderful read this is.

The Lost Children of ‘Runaway Train’ by Elon Green
This essay put me in the mind of Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer; of the fable of the Pied Piper of Hamelin; and of the suicide of someone I once knew a little. It is very sad. It is most assuredly haunting. And there are lessons here, I think.

9. What are you working on next? Well, I travel around the country speaking as a mental health advocate at colleges and universities. That’s the most emotionally rewarding work I do, I think. And I’m always looking for more paying work as a writer in general. Hire me, publications and organizations of the world!

I’ve published five books and one of them, Real Artists Have Day Jobs, was inspired by a piece that I first published here on Medium in 2014. You can vote for the book as a Goodreads Best Book of 2016 in the Humor category, or you can vote for Michael Ian Black, Amy Schumer, Mara Wilson, Phoebe Robinson, Zach Anner or some other talented humans. You can also buy the book and I would be delighted if you did so.

I’m finishing up a screenplay adaptation of my book DC Trip, which came out in 2015. I’m working on that with Adaptive Studios, who brought back Project Greenlight, and with Bona Fide, the fellows behind such amazing films as Election, Nebraska, Little Miss Sunshine and Little Children.

I’m currently developing a nighttime soap version of my contemporary young adult novel Great, which came out in 2014 and is my queer spin on Gatsby with young women in all the primary roles. Our vision for the television show is far more diverse and smart and funny than the novel, but I still think the novel is enjoyable.

I’ve been working for a few years now on Agorafabulous, the TV version of my memoir, and I’ve been so fortunate to collaborate with Diablo Cody and other cool people. We’ve sold it to a couple networks over the years and I hope we find the right home for it at last. It’s about my own nervous breakdown and descent into agoraphobia, as well as the healing power of comedy and family and the great state of New Jersey. I’m too old to play early-twenties me, but I’d like to play a barista with a bad attitude or a mysterious elderly employee of a pretzel stand at the local mall.

My big goals are that I want to pay off my credit card debt and my student loan debt and adopt a dog and have lots of fulfilling sex with somebody I love who loves me back in a nice little house that I own. I would like to take road trips here and there. And I would like a garden. And a robust retirement fund. And a room full of board games and old PC games like King’s Quest and all the other Sierra Online games.And endow a scholarship at my alma mater, Warren Wilson. And raise one to six goats and probably a pig or three. Human babies optional. Bonus points if they have powers.