It was early afternoon, and on the docket for the summer residency at Fairfield University's low-residency MFA program in creative writing was award-winning memoirist and acclaimed author Carlos Eire, a T. Lawrason Riggs Professor of History and Religious Studies at Yale University, and a historian of late medieval and early modern Europe. I'd heard the name and hoped the talk would be interesting, but everyone knows how afternoon lectures can be. This, however, was an afternoon not to be missed.
Eire is a soft-spoken man, and a deeper thinker. He's also a natural teacher. Whenever he made a point he didn't want us to miss, he would step away from the lectern at the front of the sanctuary (the seminar was held in the Chapel of Our Lady of the Assumption at St. Edmund's Retreat Center). His observations on the writing process, the writing life, and himself as a writer and teacher, important as they were, receded in the bright light of the honesty of the man, the writer.
As Eire spoke, he touched on the temptation to be less than forthright in the writing process, on how difficult a second book can be to write, and on how his 2003 National Book Award in Nonfiction for the memoir “Waiting for Snow in Havana” came about at least in part through people he knew. Eire even told of a visit to France, where after he delivered an important paper, someone mentioned the prize-winning memoir. The French host scoffed at the award, and denounced the likelihood that Eire would win a comparable prize for the paper he had just delivered. Notwithstanding Eire's storytelling skills, and his ability to deadpan an ostentatious French accent, all of us, poets and writers alike, sat in rapt attention.
Why such a response? Eire didn't just share stories, he shared his soul, and in a way that engaged the audience without putting himself on a pedestal and us at his feet. He let us in on his shortcomings, failures, successes and heartaches with such transparency that only after the lecture, which was more like sharing a glass of Rioja with an old friend, did we realize how much of himself and his life he gave us.
Aside from the pragmatic aspects of Eire's talk — such as don't be surprised if you have trouble selling your book in one form and have to repackage it in another, or if you find that who you know really does matter, or if you're asked to do something unethical or are found to have done something that needs to be fixed — the take-away was, don't forget that you're human, and that who you are matters as much, if not more, than what you write. That the two are, in fact, inseparable. The amazing thing is that Eire did with this concept what all writers, regardless of genre, aspire to do, he accomplished it showing by example, not telling by way of admonition.
For anyone who aspires to learn, write or teach, Eire, who received his Ph.D. from Yale and specializes in the Protestant and Catholic Reformations, is an example in all these areas. He is also a man of faith and of doubt, admitting, too, the times he questioned what he believed, and what he had been taught. Clearly, there is mercy for those who doubt, and a lot to be said for being who you are, regardless.