The Appalachian Writers Association (AWA) grew from programs at East Tennessee State University in 1982-1983. The minutes of its first “Official/Unofficial” business meeting, which occurred at ETSU, include the following information:
Appalachian Writers Association Official/Unofficial Business meeting—East Tennessee State University, July 23, 1983. Jay Robert Reese presided, explaining that ten people had agreed to serve as an advisory board to AWA for the coming year and that a board meeting would be called early in the fall. Items to be considered would be drawing up a constitution for the 1984 conference, AWA tax deference, how the next conference would be financed, its site, and related issues. Reese said that the organization should be independent by 1984. He read names of persons who had agreed to serve on the advisory committee, and it was noted by a male AWA member that ninety percent of those chosen were male.
The following list was suggested by Reese, some persons to be contacted about serving: Jim Nicholl, Bill Best, Mark Leziac (Appalachian Arts), Tom Lee, Charlotte Ross, Barry Buxton, Delmar Baxter, Jim Wayne Miller, Garry Barker, Parks Lanier, Sidney Farr, Sharyn McCrumb, Patricia Shirley, Benny Lee Sinclair, and Barbara Smith.
Executive directors were to be Jay Reese and Joe Muncey. Reese suggested that AWA set up a bank account separately from the Appalachian Council for the Arts. AWA dues have been $10/year, and Reese said it should be kept to that amount in the future, if possible. Reese said the advising board should tackle the stability of the conference (i.e., should it be moved around to institutions such as The University of Tennessee-Knoxville, Berea, the University of North Carolina?) and noted that most of the AWA members were from eastern Kentucky and East Tennessee.
Since its inception, the AWA held conferences in many southern Appalachian universities, including Berea College, Cumberland University, East Tennessee State University, Gardner-Webb University, King University, Morehead State University, Radford University, Virginia Tech, and Western Carolina University. Its keynote speakers have included such writers of note as Harriette Arnow, George Ella Lyon, Silas House, Lee Smith, Ron Rash, Sharyn McCrumb, Charlotte Ross, James Alexander Thom, Jim Wayne Miller, Denise Giardina, and Robert Morgan. Aside from its prestigious Appalachian Book of the Year Award, it offered contests in varying genres, such as the Hariette Arnow Award for Short Fiction, the James Still Award for Poetry, The Wilma Dykeman Award for Essay, the Josefina Niggli Award for Playwriting, and the Tom Jackson Award for Young Writers.
Over the years, many changes occurred in the AWA. In the mid-1990s, the membership determined that it would be better for a site to host the conference for three consecutive years rather than move from site to site annually; Western Carolina University was the first to make this change. The AWA also began a practice of moving program chairpersons into positions of executive officers to provide continuity of experience and advice. With rising inflation, conference fees increased as well, with annual membership dues for regular members increasing to $15 but remaining $5 for students in public schools, colleges/universities, and technical schools. In its heyday, the conference remained mostly self-supporting, with additional hospitality and generosity of host institutions, and the AWA continued as a not-for-profit organization. Unincorporated, the AWA remained officially unaffiliated with any institution, a totally volunteer effort funded through dues, donations, and conference fees.