Robin Rinaldi, 51, has been my friend and colleague since 2005, when she came onboard as a senior editor at 7×7 Magazine, the San Francisco glossy where I was research editor. In that all-girl office, her roles included the sage soul, the voice of reason, and the sympathetic ear.
Of course, there’s more to the woman than meets the eye, and her recent sex memoir, The Wild Oats Project, laid bare (so to speak) many of her insecurities and neuroses, from the guilt she felt after cheating on her husband to the unfailing loyalty she had for her extremely flawed, but nevertheless big-hearted, father. As a writer, Rinaldi’s prose is authentic, insightful, and easy to read: Her book takes you on a roller coaster of a midlife crisis and doesn’t let you off the ride until the very last word; even then, the experience of reading it stays with you, if only in the form of “What Would Robin Do?” (highly applicable in many situations, I can happily attest).
Rinaldi’s essays in The New York Times, The Atlantic, and O, The Oprah Magazine, among others, cover her personal experiences with everything from slut-shaming to anti-depressants. If you’re lucky, like me, her hard-earned wisdom is just a phone call or a flight to Los Angeles away. For the rest of you, her words are written, and truthfully, that’s just as good.
I was delighted to chat with her for The Fine Line. — Leilani Marie Labong
Besides having more life to write about, how has your writing changed over the last three decades?
I think it’s changed in the same way most writing changes with age and practice: It gets better, and not by adding anything fancy but by knowing what to subtract. I edit a lot of younger writers, and I can almost tell someone’s age by how much they overstate things and also by how much they generalize. With time I’ve learned to simplify and to write specifics instead of generalities. Young writers tend toward generalities because they don’t yet have anything specific under their belts. That’s certainly how I was.
What do you enjoy (and not enjoy) about writing now that you’re in your early 50s?
I enjoy what I’ve always enjoyed: pinpointing a deeply felt, somewhat elusive emotion in such a way that when others read it, they say, “I feel that too, but I couldn’t put it into words. Thank you for describing it.” That’s kind of a writer’s job description, no? Writing is also a great vehicle for political anger or feelings of powerlessness, which can be rampant in an election cycle. What I don’t enjoy is trying to drum up inspiration when it’s not free-flowing, the inherent rejection involved in the writing life, and writer’s envy. I think most women are familiar with envy to some extent — we’re trained to respond to each other that way, in fact — but writer’s envy is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. It physically hurts, deep in the stomach. It’s a real chance for growth.
The Wild Oats Project is a self-proclaimed “midlife quest for passion at any cost.” What have you discovered about passion in middle age?
In scanning my life from puberty to middle age, I can now see that passion, or lust, or whatever you want to call it, was about a lot more than sex or romance. Even though it seemed to center around various lovers or partners at various points in time, in retrospect it wasn’t actually about those men. Passion, or lust, is pure life force rising out of us. More often in my life, it rose up when it was time to change. When it was time to relocate, or move out on my own, or change my life. It’s a paradox, because passion feels so personal while it’s happening, but I don’t think it is. I think it’s about life force and momentum.
You’ve been an inspiration to women but also a target. What have you learned from hate mail?
I’ve learned so many things from hate mail. First, men are much more comfortable sending it than women are. Second, people who write hate mail have something they’re trying to protect — some high-stakes situation they are trying to maintain or control — and something you wrote or said has undone that balance. Third, a person can become somewhat immune to other people’s disapproval with time, but you have to take it in first, let it course through you and make you a little sick, kind of like a vaccine. In the long run it strengthens you. Lastly, and this is maybe most important, if you can bring yourself to respond to hate mail with understanding, and find just one thing to agree with in the hater’s world view, and start your response with, “Dear John, I see your point. I agree that X … ” and then go on from there, you would not believe how many haters will turn right around and become positively civil and want to talk more about the issue at hand. That’s when you really see that their response is momentary, changeable, and not at all personal.
What ambitions do you have now that you couldn’t have imagined in your 20s or 30s?
Now that I’m in my 50s, the way I get things done is as important as how much I get done. In my 20s and 30s I was just a productivity machine: The more I could accomplish in a day, the better I felt. Now I try to find a way to enjoy the act of production itself; otherwise, why do it? It’s also true that the older you get, the more you start thinking about how your work can help other people. When I think of the conditions some women around the world live under, I want very badly to write something to help them. I just haven’t figured out what yet — or why I’m the best person to do that. Lastly, I suddenly in my 50s long for a house with a front porch. My real estate fantasies used to center around urban lofts and a Parisian pied-à-terre. This front porch thing is new and definitely feels related to maturity and peace of mind.
What other memoirs/memoirists do you recommend for women your age?
I find it really inspiring to look ahead to older writers and then look down the line to younger ones. In the older crew I recommend Vivian Gornick, a stellar memoirist, journalist, and teacher who’s been writing for 50 years. She’s an exacting and intellectual writer but completely accessible. I can’t even recommend one of her books; just start with the memoirs and then read them all. In the young category, there are several to admire: Lena Dunham, of course; but also Jessica Valenti’s new memoir, Sex Object; Lindy West’s Shrill, and Aspen Matis’ Girl in the Woods. When I read these young women, or even when I watch Girls, I’m filled with optimism about the future. They are badass. They are not going to let things slide backward on their watch.
What projects do you have coming up?
I have an essay in the anthology The Bitch Is Back: Older, Wiser, and (Getting) Happier, which was just published. It’s got amazing writers like Pam Houston and Kate Christensen writing about body image, marriage, sex, and happiness in middle age. I’m currently the managing editor for Together.guide, an online magazine and podcast about real-life relationships and what it takes to make them work. Oh, and I’ve recently begun teaching yoga, which for me is the perfect balance to writing and living up inside my head all the time. My goal is to be one of those 80-year-old women who can still do a 90-minute vinyasa class. Wish me luck with that.
For more about Rinaldi, go to robinrinaldi.com.