Robert Dinsmoor is a freelance writer and yoga teacher. He has published hundreds of articles on health and medicine as well as pieces for Games, Paper, National Lampoon, and Nickelodeon Magazine and scripts for Nickelodeon and MTV. He has written fictive memoirs titled Tales of the Troupe, The Yoga Divas and Other Stories, and You Can Leave Anytime and co-authored a children’s picture book called Does Dixie Like Me?
Time to chat with Rob!
What is your latest book?
You Can Leave Anytime is a memoir about being admitted to a drug and alcohol rehab facility and staying a lot longer than I intended. I went from a nicely unstructured life as a freelance writer to having to live in a world of strict rules—some arbitrary and some downright silly. It was like being back in grade school again. So, it’s about how people regress when they lose their sense of control and are treated like children. Naturally, it’s also about addiction and recovery, and I think the take-home message is that you have to find methods that work for you rather than blindly following any sort of dogma.
What are the greatest challenges to writing short stories?
For me, it’s the plot. Even with a simple plot, you need to introduce it, build on it, make it peak, and resolve it. I’ve written a lot of stories where I liked the premise but I couldn’t make the plot work. One trick to plot, I think, is not becoming too attached to what you were planning. I had a great screenwriting professor, Maury Rapf, who taught me a thing or two. He would sit there puffing away at his pipe and blithely offer suggestions for altering the characters in my precious screenplay. At first I was defensive, but finally realized his suggestions really did move the plot forward. On the other hand, many writers go too far in the opposite direction, making them follow the plot almost against their will, often at the climax.
If you were to advertise your book in a bumper sticker, what would it say?
It would have the title and say, “Getting into rehab was easy . . . “
What else have you written?
I’ve written hundreds of skits, short stories, and even some plays, many of them pretty dreadful. I wrote a pretty good screenplay called “Insensibility,” about the discovery of ether anesthesia in 19th century Boston and how it ruined the lives of its discoverers. Then I amassed Tales of the Troupe, which I still love, and it’s about my days writing for a comedy troupe in New York City in the 1980s. It was followed by The Yoga Divas and Other Stories, about the strange situations I found myself in while practicing and teaching yoga. With my best friend Helen Retynsky Kamins, I wrote a children’s picture book called Does Dixie Like Me? which she illustrated.
It’s about how I gradually earned the trust of her Border Collie Dixie. At the time of this writing, Dixie does like me! Currently, I’m assembling a collection of short stories called 32 Dogs, the title of which is based on a set of rhyming couplets I wrote about a lynch mob that was scared away by the family dogs. The collection is about where love meets ferocity. Finally, I’m working on a novel called Ageless Dilettantes, about a character who is immune to age and disease and gads about throughout the decades getting himself into dangerous situations.
You’ve written about very personal matters, especially your latest book, You Can Leave Anytime. What are the pros and cons of writing about your life without the shield of fiction?
The upside to writing about your own life is you’re the expert on it and you’ve already got a cast of characters you don’t have to invent. The first problem is how you present your own character. One of the things I’ve learned from yoga and Eastern philosophies is not to try not to judge myself or others, and that has allowed me to be fairly honest in portraying myself, without the need to make myself look good. The same goes with other people.
Can you tell me about your life writing about health and medical issues? How has freelance life changed over the years? Has the knowledge you’ve gained helped you in your day-to-day life? (Made you a good candidate for a quiz show?)
People are always asking me about their ailments and I try to give them what knowledge I can before they see their doctors. The business of medical writing has changed a lot, and the most striking thing for me has been how much easier it is now to access information. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, I would have to go to a medical library and search a 10-foot row of tomes called the Index Medicus, printed in 6-point type. I would have to figure out all the possible search terms and it would take hours. If I was lucky, the medical library would actually have the article I wanted, but often it wouldn’t and occasionally I went home empty-handed with eyestrain. Eventually, I was able to do searches on-line to get the titles of articles, and now many of the articles are available on-line and I can now do in several minutes what used to take me an entire day. Hallelujah!
We all know the old saying: You can’t judge a book by its cover. This is true. However, how much importance do you place on your book cover design?
I think it’s very important. I sometimes get drawn into a book by its cover, especially if it’s an author I’m unfamiliar with. I like cover designs that suggest some degree of novelty or mystery. I’ve been very fortunate in having very colorful, well-designed covers designed by professional artists who happen to be friends. In fact, the cover of You Can Leave Anytime was designed by Helen, who also figures heavily in the book. The cover suggests a sort of tropical paradise but with a chain-link fence, security fence, rats, and even an alligator. She said that was the way she pictured the facility based on my description when she was my phone contact.
A lot of authors are frustrated by readers who don’t understand how important reviews are. What would you say to a reader who doesn’t think his or her review matters?
I read reviews of products I’m going to buy and you probably do to. I think some people are intimidated by the idea of posting a review. The review doesn’t have to be perfect, and you might even find it fun to write one. If you’re completely cowed by the idea, just give my book five stars, write “Magnificent!” and be done with it!
Do you ever suffer from writer’s block? If so, how do you get around it?
I never run out of ideas, but sometimes I get stuck on a project. One of the things I do then is read some of my best writing, conclude, “Damn that’s good!” and it gives me confidence to write more. I also find it inspirational to read my favorite authors.
Care to brag about your family?
Since you asked, sure! Dad was a very highly regarded psychology professor who studied under B.F. Skinner and was chosen to write a foreword to one edition of Byond Freedome and Dignity. He also ran for Congress on a platform of getting the U.S. out of Viet Nam—back in 1966—and got arrested in a peace march when LBJ was in Indianapolis. My brother is a clinical psychologist with four great kids, including one who is a photojournalist and political activist and one who teaches “at risk” kids. Mom ran a psychology journal out of our basement. She was also a political activist who ran a campaign for one of her best friends. Her friend became the first female mayor of my hometown, Bloomington, Indiana. The other thing you have to know about my mother was that she helped a lot of people in their time of need and was universally loved.
What was the most valuable class you ever took in school? Why?
I was the only guy in my typing class in high school and took some crap over that but I was glad to be able to type my own term papers in college and all of my writing after that. I got my first job in New York because I could type 85+ words a minute and I probably type much faster on a computer. I can’t imagine that my writing would flow so well if I had to hunt and peck.
What’s your favorite film of all time? Favorite book?
I was stoned the first time I saw Shadow of a Doubt in college and fell asleep. On seeing it a second time, in my 20s, it sent chills down my spine. It was Hitchcock’s favorite film, about a girl named Charlie who suspects that her beloved Uncle Charlie is a notorious serial killer called “The Merry Widow Strangler.” It’s about lost innocence, with undertones of incest. Joseph Cotton was priceless as Uncle Charlie and I absolutely love his absent-minded, cold-blooded monologues about women and the general rottenness of people in general. My favorite book is probably Carrion Comfort by Dan Simmons, even with its ridiculous ending involving a giant chessboard. It’s about mind vampires who can tap into other people’s nervous systems and control them like puppets. They include two aging Southern belles, a Hollywood producer, some Washington politicians, and a Nazi, and what I really love about the book is it gets inside their heads and makes you feel their appalling narcissism, sense of entitlement, and lack of empathy for others—and yet the author makes you actually feel sorry for them from time to time. The mind vampires may be fantasy but, alas, their mindset is not.
What’s your biggest pet peeve?
Just in case I haven’t been sounding misanthropic enough . . . I can’t stand people who stand obliviously in doorways and hallways, blocking other people. Usually, they’re texting and listening to their iPods. It’s not just younger people, either. One thing I learned from living in New York City for 10 years is not to block pedestrian traffic or you’ll get body-checked out of the way. And that is so tempting to do now . . .
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