Do we need to apply compassion to our political enemies? author George Saunders asked during his keynote note address at the 2018 Association of Writers Writing Programs conference held in Tampa, Fla., March 7-10.

“Unfortunately, yes,” said Saunders, who received the 2017 Man Booker Prize for Lincoln In the Bardo and was talking about covering the Trump rallies for The New Yorker. “But I don’t mean we have to be gentle,” he said to a standing-room crowd of 1,800 people. This year’s AWP conference, which featured 2,000 presenters and 600 exhibitors, was held at the Tampa Convention Center, along Tampa Bay. Total attendance was 10,000, down from 12,000 last year— due in part to snow storms in the Northeast that caused flight cancellations.

In addition to Saunders’ insistence on compassion—both in life and in writing fiction—another theme of the conference was identity. There were panels such as “Knowing Your Place: Identity and Space in Young Adult Fiction,” “Don’t Ask Me Where I’m From: Exploring Beauty and Bravery in Stories About Muslims,” and “Creatures from the Black Lagoon: Feminist Writing from the Deep South of Florida.”

One panel, “The Ecstasy and the Laundry,” moderated by fiction writer Jess Row, explored identity and gender stereotypes within families of writers. Fiction writer Caitlin Horrocks expressed the importance of establishing writing times when having children, “You need to have a conversation about what happens after that first year of having a child.” Harrocks husband, poet W. Todd Kaneko noted how many male writers had as many books as wives: “I”m not going to be that dad.” Critic and NBCC president Kate Tuttle, speaking on her own identity as a writer said, “My husband [Kevin Young] is a poet and for years I’d meet some of his fellow poets and they were surprised that I have my own career as a critic.”

Many of the panels addressed the craft of writing and the role of criticism. Graywolf Press publisher Fiona McCrae moderated a panel with Maud Casey, Christopher Castellani, and Edwidge Danticat based on the books they wrote for Graywolf’s The Art Of series. “I love to read beautiful criticism, and it is an art in itself but in that space I feel like a visitor,” said Danticat. “I approach it more like a conversation between passionate readers.”

Colette Bancroft, book editor of the Tampa Bay Times, moderated a discussion between novelists Nathan Englander and Lauren Groff on, among other things, the importance on getting feedback during the writing process. “It’s massively important,” said Groff. “My husband, as a general reader, is my first reader. Then I have a great group of readers, then my agent and my editor.” Englander observed that “it took me a while to realize that the book is a living thing.”

Kate Tuttle moderated a discussion between Jeffrey Eugenides, Lorrie Moore, and Dana Spiotta. The conversation ranged from ideas (“I collect juicy stories,” said Moore, talking about people she knows, “and I will take things from your life and put them into fiction”) and on false starts and failures ( “It all feels like one long failure,” said Spiotta, to which the packed room of attendees responded with a communal laugh).

Many of the participants commented that while the conference wasn’t as crowded as last year, they felt they were able to have more intimate conversations and were generally pleased. AWP always feels invigorating,” said Cordelia Calvert, senior publicist at Liveright/Norton, which had a booth at the event. “And it’s so refreshing to see such a robust and devoted community come out to visit the presses they love.”

Joey Franklin, assistant professor of English at Brigham Young University, also gave the conference and venue high marks. “I’ve been to AWP every year since 2008,” said Franklin, noting that this conference had a particularly good mix of craft and pedagogy. As for Tampa, Franklin said, “Everyone I talked to wished Tampa’s downtown was a little more lively, but the waterfront, palm trees, and the blue skies may have ruined me for future conferences in less temperate climates.”

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