Finding His Voice in L.A.

Alumni6 min. read

The restless sense of inquiry of best-selling author Rosecrans Baldwin ’99 began at Colby

Rosecrans Baldwin
Rosecrans Baldwin '99 at his writing studio in Los Angeles, Calif. Baldwin is a bestselling author, a writer for GQ and a frequent contributor to Travel + Leisure.
By Bill Donahue ’86Photography by Alisha Jucevic
June 13, 2023

Was it a real-life nightmare or was it prophecy? 

Senior year at Colby, Rosecrans Baldwin ’99 walked into an off-campus party, and—wait! Was that a drawing of him tacked to the bulletin board? 

He hardly knew his hosts, but yeah, the drawing was of him, and it depicted a poet qua poet, dressed in a foppish tweed blazer and wrapped in a wool scarf, his hair Bob Dylan-curly and poofy as he scribbled in a small notebook. Awkwardly, one host confessed, “Um, we had a contest to see who could draw you best.”

In a way, that drawing got Baldwin. At Colby, he was so serious a poet that he corresponded with a fiction-writing classmate by sending handwritten disquisitions on aesthetics through the Colby post office. And in time Baldwin became a successful writer.

His 2021 nonfiction book, Everything Now: Lessons from the City-State of Los Angeles, spent time on the Los Angeles Times bestsellers list, won a Commonwealth Club California Book Award, and was named one of the best “California books” by the New York Times. It’s acclaimed for how it evokes a vast metropolis via a series of vignettes, mini-essays, and character sketches.

Critic Alexandra Jacobs, writing for the New York Times, praised the book’s “freewheeling and polyhedral” form and argued that Baldwin “may have written the perfect book about Los Angeles.”

A hungry mind beneath the mophead

Still, that bulletin board sketch of Baldwin was way off in its glibness. It missed the hungry mind beneath the mophead—the restless sense of inquiry that was born, Baldwin feels, at Colby. As a first-year student, he was determined to be a poet, but his work was cerebral and not based on his direct experience. Ira Sadoff, the Arthur Jeremiah Roberts Professor of Literature, Emeritus told him, “You need to write poems that only you can write.”

That was a challenge, Baldwin said. “I came from a culture that buried feelings, but then I started writing about girls. I wrote about addiction problems in my family. I began to see writing as an investigation, as a way to puzzle out how difficult it is to know ourselves or perhaps places or other people. Writing is so much better than talking for that. You can take time. You can tap into things you wouldn’t otherwise think of. You can sift history.”

Rosecrans Baldwin ’99 decided to focus on freelance writing after he had a panic attack at his desk while working as a copywriter for a design firm. “I felt like I was wasting my life,” he said.

Baldwin continued his investigation, post-Colby, when he moved to New York and began working as a copywriter for a web design firm. Every morning before work, he woke early—at 5 a.m.—so he could write poems for two hours on a legal pad. When he decided his fate was to write novels, not poetry, he kept waking to the 5 a.m. alarm and scribed a 700-page opus that garnered rejection notices from 25 publishers. Then at work one day, he had a panic attack at his desk. “I couldn’t move my fingers for like 30 seconds. I hated spending my days writing big documents that didn’t mean anything to anybody, and I felt like I was wasting my life,” he said. 

The life of a freelance writer

He quit and became a full-time freelance writer, specializing, at first, in flotsam—brochures for realtors, text for friends’ websites, a magazine article about dog grooming. 

In 2011, finally, he published his first novel, You Lost Me There, set on Maine’s Mount Desert Island. When he moved to Los Angeles three years later, he soon found himself facing a question. “L.A. is the most unstable city in the U.S.,” he explained. “There are earthquakes and disasters; there is massive inequity. And yet I feel rooted here. Why?” 

Everything Now is an investigation into that question, but it isn’t autobiographical. It is, rather, an array of cool, curious looks at a wide range of characters that give L.A. its variegated soul: an aspiring actress, a slew of self-help swindlers, and Baldwins’ lonely, sex-obsessed tennis partner. He opens the book with a proposition—“Los Angeles, California, is enormously ambiguous”—and then proceeds, over the next 250 pages, to swim in that ambiguity, showing us that L.A. is beautiful because it is “a shifting mosaic of human potential” and ergo unknowable. He hands the city off to its next chroniclers as a place in need of ongoing inquiry. Peter Harris, Colby’s Zacamy Professor of English, Emeritus, is surely proud.

But the book is indebted to Colby in myriad other ways—in its structure, for instance. 

For 18 months after he embarked on Everything Now, he was at sea as to how he’d organize his material on Los Angeles. Then he remembered a long-ago visit to a Colby residence hall room where, on the floor, lay a copy of philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein’s 1921 masterwork, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, which moves forward via series of numbered propositions, like so: 

1 The world is all that is the case. 
1.1 The world is the totality of facts, not of things. 

Everything Now is structured identically, albeit with more poetic propositions, so that the last section begins, “7.18 Sometimes in Los Angeles, it felt like time had stopped but life kept going.” 

Learning to read

In borrowing from Wittgenstein, Baldwin was exercising a muscle he honed at Colby. He was reading closely, just as Lee Family Professor of English Cedric Bryant taught him to do in a William Faulkner class that cracked open Faulkner’s impenetrable prose, giving him “a key to the puzzle, a way to appreciate the layers that went into the story. 

“I learned to read in Cedric Bryant’s class,” Baldwin said.

After graduation he was intent on invoking that lesson to save money and time: “I thought to myself, ‘If I just read enough, I won’t need to go to grad school and get an M.F.A.’” He read Iris Murdoch, Philip Roth, and Don DeLillo closely, and he took notes on index cards about, as he put it, “things I thought worked, things I found interesting, things that confused me.” Sometimes, as a warm-up exercise, he’ll write a few paragraphs mimicking his favorite writers “to get a sense,” he said, “of the rhythms and how logic gets worked out.”

When Baldwin spoke recently, via Zoom, he seemed to live primarily in the world of books, with real-life existing for him as a hazy backdrop. He picked his words carefully, as if he wished he had time to write them, and several times he rose from his desk to search for books illustrating his points. A collection of poems by his Beat idol Frank O’Hara served to drive home how, at Colby, he so wanted to be this poet. O’Hara was “moving, aspirational, quirky, richly voiced,” Baldwin said. “And he was of New York City in ways I admired: he worked at a museum, he was friends with lots of artists, he was a party animal.”

Books by Rosecrans Baldwin
Rosecrans Baldwin ’99 has written four books, including his most recent, Everything Now: Lessons from the City-State of Los Angeles, which spent time on the Los Angeles Times bestsellers list, won a Commonwealth Club California Book Award, and was named one of the best “California books” by the New York Times.

At this point, Baldwin has published four books—the novel about Mount Desert, Everything Now, another novel, and also a funny memoir about a not-so-merveilleux year he spent in a city he’d long dreamed of visiting, Paris. He co-wrote the screenplay for Stone Locals, a 2020 documentary about amateur rock climbers, and he’s published a host of nonfiction pieces in GQ and Travel + Leisure.

There are flecks of white in his beard, and he’s developed a middle-age obsession: tennis. Though he only took up the game at 30, he’ll now spend whole days listening to tennis matches on the radio. He plays four evenings a week in L.A.’s Griffith Park, watching coyotes wander the hills above him at twilight. He is happily married to his screenwriting partner, Rachel Knowles. 

Driven by self-doubt

Still, he is driven, as nearly all good writers are, by a consuming self-doubt—and a sense of discipline that gets him out of bed every morning. Years ago, at Colby, Sadoff told him, “Writing is something you do every day. The harder you work, the better it gets.”

It wasn’t unique advice but, Baldwin said, “It came at the right time.” And he has been heeding it for more than 25 years

Baldwin now writes from 8 a.m. to noon six days a week; in the evening, he edits his work. When he talks about literary output, he sounds like an accountant trapped in a writer’s body. “If you write six days a week,” he reasoned, “that means that two of those days can be bad. If two of them are OK and two of them are good, after six months you’ll have the draft of the novel. A third of it might be no good, another third might be so-so, but that’s better than nothing. The point is accumulation.”

“Working hard is the only way to manage the anxiety of not knowing where a book is going.”

Writer Rosecrans Baldwin ’99

Talking to Baldwin is a reminder of how precarious the writing life is. As a freelance writer, you live off your wits. You grab ideas or scenes out of the air and try to turn them into a story—and then into a car payment. You score accolades, perhaps—good reviews, whatever. And then, when you begin your next piece, you’re staring at a blank screen. “There’s no instruction manual,” he lamented, “and each time I start I’ve forgotten everything I’ve learned.”

For most of the past two years, Baldwin has been writing a novel. “I think of it as an erotic thriller,” he said, “but I don’t know the shape or the tone of it. It’s really in the scrambled egg phase, and the question is: How long can I sustain my sanity, working on a project that I don’t know what it is?”

The book is set in central France, where, a few years ago, Baldwin stayed in a vacation home. When he arrived late at night, a torrential rain was falling, and he couldn’t open the front door. “You had to turn the lock like eight times,” he remembered. When at last he entered, he had, he said, a “creepy sensation” that a squatter was lurking inside. That imagined squatter became a character in his book’s love triangle. “But I don’t know,” he said, anguished anew by the ongoing incoherence of his project. “The characters in the book could change too.”

When he was at Colby, Baldwin didn’t realize that the life of a writer was so improvisational. He said he hoped that a “giant index finger pointed at me and said, ‘Write!’ and then all this stuff would just come to me.” 

Is all the uncertainty anxiety-inducing? 

“It’s not wealth-inducing,” Rosecrans quipped. “But it works for me. I’m not interested in another way.” Indeed, he finds a delight in uncertainty—in how, as a writer, you have license to feast on the wonders that life throws in your path. 

“The writer Octavia Butler speaks of having ‘a radio imagination,’” he said, referencing the late Los Angeles science fiction novelist. “She says that occasionally signals will reach her, and I’m trying to keep the bands open myself. Right now I really want to find an idea for the next nonfiction book, so I keep reading. I keep meeting new people. I listen for things that excite me. I’m open to whatever comes next.” 

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