#AWP17 Conference Report — Heidi Fettig Parton on “The Craft of Empathy”

awp#AWP17 Panel Report: F151 The Craft of Empathy

Description: Writing with empathy in mind, especially in nonfiction, can create texture in our work and be transformative for both writer and reader. On this panel we explore various angles of perspective: scenes where narrators show empathy toward other characters—especially ones who are unlikeable—and vice versa, reflections that suggest empathy of a memoirist for a younger self, as well as techniques for showing empathy, as a writer, for the reader, and from both reader and writer for the nonhuman world.

Panelists: (moderator), , ,

Conference Report

“Empathy is the deeper understanding that we’re all working towards as readers and writers,” Ana Maria Spagna told the audience of the #AWP17 Friday morning panel she moderated. Spagna referenced a 2013 study, which revealed that those who read fiction are more empathetic than those who don’t. Spagna suggested this was also true of creative nonfiction readers.

Kate Hopper, author of Ready for Air: A Journey Through Premature Motherhood, said something that could be heralded as the ultimate message of #AWP17: What we’re doing now as writers—employing empathy—has never been more important. As an editor, Hopper often encounters vilified family members in writers’ early drafts. This results in an “unreliable” narrator because no character is all bad. The use of empathy, however, helps create well-rounded characters.

Over the past few years, I’ve become somewhat of a regular at Hopper’s writing retreats. It’s not just the great food and company that keeps me coming back, it’s Hopper’s highly effective writing prompts and exercises. At Friday’s session, Hopper suggested that writers spend 15 minutes making a list of positive moments shared with a difficult character. She also suggested first writing about that character in his or her best, or most natural, element. Even in cases where empathy proves impossible, such as those involving perpetrators of abuse, detailed observation of the character might still provide a semblance of well-roundedness.

Returning to the microphone, Spagna suggested “giving” scenes to a supporting character as a means to develop empathy for difficult characters. The use of dialogue is one way that views, outside those of the narrator, can bubble to the surface. Interaction between characters can also be used to build empathy for a narrator’s earlier self. Spagna used a scene from Hopper’s Ready for Air as an example. Spagna revealed how Hopper visited her daughter in the NICU and thought, I don’t want this tiny yellow thing to be my baby. In this scene, the narrator’s husband displayed gentleness and understanding towards Hopper’s lack of maternal feelings. Mary Karr employs a similar technique in Lit: A Memoir when, just two days sober, she doesn’t let herself off the hook for her past behavior. Instead, she gives the scene to her four-year old son, creating empathy towards her son instead of herself. This allows the reader to trust Karr as a narrator.

Spagna then introduced Adriana Paramo, a Colombian born writer and cultural anthropologist. Paramo writes social memoir based on stories gathered from fieldwork. Paramo read from Looking for Esperanza, her book of stories about undocumented female farmworkers. Paramo’s discussion focused on her efforts to evoke empathy in readers towards those she writes about. If, after finishing Looking for Esperanza, readers contemplate which undocumented worker has put the salad on their plate, Paramo has done her job. She admitted, she doesn’t always succeed.

Paramo once spoke at a book club comprised of expats living in Qatar. Two white South African women—daughters of apartheid—wanted to know why Paramo was defending “illegal” workers in Looking for Esperanza. Paramo realized she’d unwittingly ended up in unfriendly territory. She first asked that these workers be referred to as undocumented rather than illegal. She then explained how these women had crossed the border to make better lives for their children. Paramo left us with the understanding that, while writers cannot control the reaction of readers, they might still raise their readers’ awareness.

Lewis and Clark professor, Kim Stafford, discussed 100 Tricks Every Boy Can Do: How My Brother Disappeared, written about his brother’s suicide. Stafford’s family members had strong reactions to this book, both before and after it published. Stafford realized that he had challenged the unspoken family code of not talking about his brother, of not even saying his name. Stafford concluded that what killed his brother was his family’s inability to talk about difficult things.

Readers have told Stafford that they’ve purchased this book for their sons, as a preventive measure against masculine silence. Stafford’s own son once said, “Dad, we didn’t become human when we invented tools . . . we became human when we looked across the fire and told each other stories.” In writing about tragedy, Stafford concluded, “a writer looks across the fire into the eyes of another. A writer lives by tropism toward the difficult, where the well-lit problem begins to heal.”

After the panel, Stafford gave out copies of his new book, The Flavor of Unity: Post-Election Poems. One of the poems, Practicing the Complex Yes, provides a guide for engaging in civil conversations with those of differing political views. This poem, Hopper suggested during the Q & A, also serves as a blueprint for building empathy.


Heidi Fettig Parton is a MFA candidate in Bay Path University’s creative nonfiction program. She’s written for Angels Flight, literary west (AFLW), Rebelle Society, St. Croix 360, The Mighty and others. She’s currently an editorial intern at Agate magazine and is writing a memoir that requires great empathy towards all her previous selves.

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