top of page

Tennessee Mountain Writers conference celebrates 35 years of sharing creative skills and energy

Photo by Lacy Snapp.

By Lacy Snapp


“We all drove through gaps to get here,” writer Jim Minick said during the April 4 kickoff reception for the 2024 Tennessee Mountain Writers annual conference. Minick was plugging his conference workshop on nonfiction, “Memory and Imagination: Exploring the Gaps.” The remark was indeed fitting for a room filled with writers fresh from navigating roads and bridges in and around Appalachia to experiment in new genres, uncover seeds for growing poetry, or to make new writing friends.


The yearly three-day gathering for workshops, readings and comradery, held at the Double Tree Hotel in Oak Ridge, grew out of East Tennessee Writers, a critique group formed during the 1980s. Pat Hope, chair of the TMW Board of Directors, has been involved since the conference first organized to celebrate the critique group’s 10th anniversary. Hope said the group “spent a decade traveling the roads of Tennessee, Georgia, Virginia, Kentucky, Alabama, and Mississippi looking for writing inspiration wherever they could find it.” After that inaugural gathering, she said, the group was confident in its ability to bring writers together.


Novelist and poet Susan O’Dell Underwood delivers the keynote address at the final banquet. (Photo by Raleigh Cody.)

The TMW annual conference has become a staple among the state’s writing community. Always held in Oak Ridge, its name comes from location rather any exclusive style of writing. The conference began as a collaboration and a labor of love, the foundations for which remain obvious. Participants say the generosity of conference organizers is endearing. “Those folks who run TMW are fabulous,” banquet speaker Susan O’Dell Underwood said. “I have never met such an energetic group, so giving to their community. I keep finding out lately just how lucky we really are in this region.”


Lexi McDonald, who was awarded a student scholarship to attend the conference, is studying for a Master of Fine Arts in poetry at the University of Tennessee Knoxville. “This was my first time at the TMW conference,” McDonald said, “and I found the sessions to be quite engaging and the folks involved warm. I could tell that a lot of love and care was put forth in the organization of the event from the sweet welcome bags to the lively sessions to the farewell dinner.”


Student scholarship recipients include, from left, Katherine Perkins (East Tennessee State University), Lexie Tallent (Grace Writers), and Lexi McDonald (University of Tennessee Knoxville). (Photo by Lacy Snapp.)

Genres on the workshop schedule included poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and writing for children. O’Dell Underwood gave two poetry workshops: “Chemistry: Engineering Our Poems” and “Architecture: Shaping Our Poems.”


McDonald’s favorite workshop was O’Dell Underwood’s on the engineering of poems. “She is such a lovely person and session leader who let the conference attendees direct the discussions of energy, sound, sense, and Keats’s ‘negative capability,’ while also teaching us to track these things present in canonical and emerging writers’ work,” McDonald said. “I left this session with three new poem ideas and more in the works from the prompts and discussion, and found myself using the idea of ‘energizing the reader and poem’ throughout the other sessions I attended, which only made them more helpful.”


Fiction workshops from novelist Pamela Schoenewaldt included “What’s It About? Pitches and Plot Lines” and “Dialogue: What’s It For, How to Make It Better.” Writing for Children sessions from Susan Eaddy included “Writing for Teens and Children 101” and “What Makes a Successful Picture Book?” Minick’s nonfiction sections, in addition to the one exploring “gaps,” included “Tips on Interviewing, Using Other People’s Stories to Make Art,” and “Playing with Time.”


Jake Lawson, who recently graduated from East Tennessee State University with a master’s degree in English, attended the conference last year as a student scholarship recipient and returned this year because of the friendships he made and his love of the event. He said Minick’s workshops influenced him “to chronicle the family stories I’ve heard my whole life.”


Beyond major genres, breakout sessions included:


  • “Writing for Magazines,” by Fred Sauceman, regional food writer and professor of Appalachian Studies at ETSU.

  • “Social Media for Writers,” with journalist Steve Wildsmith.

  • “The Ins and Outs of Submissions and Contest Entries,” led by Denton Loving, poetry author and editor at EastOver Press.

  • “Healing Pain with Your Pen,” by Rhea Carmon, Knoxville Poet Laureate 2020-2023.

  • “Confronting Imposter Syndrome for Writers,” with a panel including writers Chrissie Anderson Peters, Sharon Shadrick, and Sharon Waters.


The conference offered a balance of sessions based in creative writing and others centered on technical advice. There were craft workshops for building foundational understandings of the creative genres as well as special-topic approaches. These were complemented by sessions with practical formulas for approaching social media, submissions to publishers, and technical writing for magazines. Sauceman, a former editor of Now and Then magazine, the print forerunner of Appalachian Places, encouraged writers to “seek the real bowl of soup beans, not the adorned bowl of soup beans” as he spoke about how to authentically capture a particular place and culture. He shared experiences from reporting on the foodways of Appalachia with his wife, Jill, for their features published in Blue Ridge Country magazine.


Presenter Rhea Carmon poses with her book, Through the Clouds, after her “Healing Pain with Your Pen” workshop. (Photo by Lacy Snapp.)

Another popular session was Carmon’s “Healing Pain with Your Pen.” Carmon shares her gift of the spoken word as RheaSunshine, a name given to her in childhood by her mother. She works to create “connection and safe space” for others as a teacher and motivational poet. Carmon said that for many people, writing can be a place to work through life experiences that can be otherwise difficult to confront. She had participants acknowledging that “to feel pain is to be human,” and responding to prompts using a “stream of consciousness” approach in a safe and encouraging setting.


The “Confronting Imposter Syndrome for Writers” panel encouraged honest conversation about imposter syndrome — a common feeling for writers — and ways to combat it. Participants recited the mantra: “I am a writer!” They were to say this to those seated next to them, and consider repeating the affirmation at home in front of the mirror, or even change passwords into daily reminders.


Aside from workshops and lectures, activities included a reading from the year’s session presenters, an open mic for attendees, prompt-writing sessions, and the “Writers Block” room, which contained a silent auction, a used book sale to raise money for scholarships, and a book signing with the presenters. There were frequent raffles throughout the day, and each night ended with a hospitality suite for people to gather and socialize.


“The thing I love best about the conference is the community it provides,” Terry Shaw, co-founder of Howling Hills Publishing and a board member of Tennessee Mountain Writers, said. “It’s a warm, friendly event. Writers are supportive of each other, no matter the experience level. Friendships are formed, professional networks expand, and many attendees come back year after year.”

Beto Cumming, seated, runs the Iris Press table, which represents many local writers at the conference. (Photo by Lacy Snapp.)

Participants who choose the full conference registration are eligible for a manuscript evaluation with a presenter in the major genres, for which the participant can submit 10 double-spaced pages of prose or up to six poems. The attendee and presenter will sit down together during the weekend for one-on-one conversation, including feedback and suggestions.


During Saturday’s final banquet and meal, O’Dell Underwood’s keynote address, titled “Approaching Amor Fati,” reflected on her process for composing her novel Genesis Road and the parallels between womanhood, revision, and resilience. “I hope for you the same is true, that you can experience ‘Amor fati’ in your writing lives,” she said. “‘Amor fati,’ if you don’t know, means basically ‘love your fate.’ To deliberately choose to appreciate that your life makes sense. …But ‘amor fati’ means not just acceptance, but that you actually come to love whatever life has brought you. It’s your life. It’s your writing life. Who else should love it?”


O’Dell Underwood spoke of the often difficult and unseen process of writing, and her own journey of learning to integrate adversity and the world around her into her work. “I know it is difficult for many of us here to write diligently for decades and never have those manuscripts find publishers and readers. But I would not trade my writing life for any other life. My writing life makes sense to me even though sometimes it looked as if it conflicted with my ‘real’ life.”


One of the highlights of the final banquet each year is the announcement of the writing contest winners. Categories for the 2024 adult contest were fiction, poetry, nonfiction, children’s literature, and sci-fi/fantasy. Student categories include poetry and prose. There were 146 adult entries this year, and 32 student entries across the various genres. Awards include First, Second, and Third place, with some honorable mentions in each category.


Adult winners of the writing contest, from left, are Laura Miller, Chrissie Anderson Peters, Pam Campbell, Lacy Snapp, Jake Lawson, Vicki J. Cypcar, Lisa Shirley, Evelyn Rennich, Gay Marie Logsdon, Daniel Leonard, Laurie Doctor, and Steven Skaggs. (Photo by Raleigh Cody.)

Hope said she encourages beginning writers to attend the conference for networking opportunities, instruction, and inspiration. “I would say that if you’re a beginning writer and you've never been to a conference, this is a good one to start with because it’s low key and you’re not under any pressure,” she said. “Further, it’s just a wonderful way to get to know other writers. And, you get so inspired from it. You really just come away thinking, ‘You know, this is why I want to write.’”


Learn more about the conference and Tennessee Mountain Writers at the TMW website.


Lacy Snapp is an instructor in the Department of Literature and Language at ETSU, where she serves as assistant director of the Bert C. Bach Written Word Initiative. She serves as a board member of the Johnson City Poets Collective. Her work has appeared in many publications including her recent chapbook of poetry, Shadows on Wood.


Commenting has been turned off.
bottom of page