This post is sponsored by the Miami Writers Institute.
Rosecrans Baldwin is the author of Paris, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down, a travel memoir that GQ named one of its Favorite Things of 2012. The book chronicles Baldwin’s experience living and working in Paris, a city to which he, like so many Americans, felt a powerful romantic attraction since adolescence and which he, unlike so many Americans, came to know in all of its inglorious modern glory as a copy writer at a Paris ad agency. (You can read a very entertaining excerpt at GQ.com.) Baldwin is also the author of the acclaimed debut novel You Lost Me There, a co-founder of the online magazine The Morning News, and a book reviewer for NPR’s All Things Considered.
All of which explains why he will be teaching a four-day workshop on writing memoir at the Miami Writers Institute in early May. Ahead of his trip down to Miami, I emailed Baldwin a few questions about his approach to writing Paris, I Love You and memoir in general. Here’s the Q&A.
You’ve written travel memoir, fiction, and personal essays — what common threads exist in your approach to all kinds of writing for publication?
RB: In all forms, the emphasis is voice. Tone. A manner of persuasion. Whether it’s a novel or an essay, the reader should feel they’re being told a story, one that makes them increasingly hungry.
Like any literary genre, memoir has different connotations for different people. What does it mean to you?
RB: When I think of the truly great memoirs, I think of the highest levels of literature. Primo Levi, Mary Karr, James Baldwin, Joan Didion. There’s obviously plenty of middle-rank memoir to feed people’s love of the genre — I enjoyed the hell out of Keith Richards’ Life — and lots of crap. It’s hard not to think of the crap, frankly. But I did a panel last week with Mary Karr, and we were talking about how great memoirs store so much detailed, felt, complex humanity. That’s what a good memoir can be: a fine-chosen box of life.
You moved to Paris in 2007, then published the memoir Paris, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down in 2012. I think most people think of memoir as a look back at a distant past — how did you create distance between the present and your recent life in Paris when you started writing Paris, I Love You?
RB: Well, the book’s more travel than memoir, and specifically a story about what it’s like to work in a French office. So the chronology and distance weren’t the difficult parts. The hard parts were taking the facts and turning them into something interesting.
Staying on Paris, I Love You, your job in the ad agency seems like a perfect role for someone who would eventually write about the clash between Paris imagined/marketed and the “real” Paris. Did you appreciate the irony going into the job or only once you started plotting out your memoir?
RB: Good point — and no, not until afterward. While I was there, I could barely get to meetings on time, let alone understand anyone at the conference table … so there wasn’t a lot of room in my head for that sort of introspection.
Was there a point when you knew you were going to write about your experience in Paris and became aware of yourself as a character in a soon-to-be-written memoir? If so, how do you temper that to keep your experience authentic?
RB: While I lived there, I wrote a series of letters for the online magazine The Morning News. It wasn’t too hard to make myself a character in those pieces, but mostly because I focused on everything else — my co-workers, their daily habits, the city’s charms. Often, good memoirs are more about what’s going on around the narrator, less about what’s going on in inside them.
The average person’s hectic, messy day-to-day life, even over the course of a single week, seems at odds with the relatively clean structure of literature. How did you conquer the mess in order to turn your life in Paris into a memoir?
RB: With ruthless editing. Someday, I’m sure, Google will invent a 360-degree camera that sits on our head, and you can record your entire life, and then spend another 80 years in cryogenic hibernation watching the whole thing all over again. Until then, memoir writers have to rely on their hatchets to find what really matters to the story they want to tell.
What is your most indispensable piece of advice to someone who wants to write a memoir?
RB: Don’t give up. That’s probably the only truly valuable piece of advice about writing that there is!
To learn more about Baldwin’s upcoming workshop on writing memoir at the Miami Writers Institute, visit flcenterlitarts.com.