If you’ve attempted to write 50,000 words in one month, please raise your eyebrows. Then, imagine doing it like William Smitherman, from the confines of a prison on an outdated, tiny, flaky android tablet (feel free to keep your eyebrows raised and add a tilt of your head). The content you write can only be saved by sending it in one-electronic-stamp increments to the outside world while you sit in a noisy cage or hurtle to and from mandatory programs, struggling to avoid traps, obstacles, social obligations, and nearly poisonous food every single day (please move your head and eyebrows as you see fit).

These kinds of descriptions can feel like hyperbole. In the case of the participants engaging in National Novel Writing Month while incarcerated, the reality each writer faces might actually put my expansive description to shame. Not only have the writers taking part in this challenge decided to meet the goal of writing a novel in one month, but they’re creating their own writing groups in order to get there together. This includes figuring out where and how to meet, circumventing or working through systems expressly designed to inhibit communal activity, myriad rules, and arbitrary whim of the designated overseer. It includes gathering the resources, harvesting time, encouraging each other, and hoping against all evidence that the effort will be worth the stretch.

William Smitherman is one of over 40 participants who have achieved this amazing feat since PEN America partnered with National Novel Writing Month in 2019 to provide writing guides, pep talks, and other resources to incarcerated writers to encourage them to complete a novel in the month of November. Since being released, Smitherman has published a LitRPG novel, Character Creation, on Shadow Alley Press, with a sequel, Character Development, being released in November 2022. Here are Smitherman’s words of advice to this year’s writers!

Robert Pollock
Manager, Prison Writing Program
PEN America

I used to complain about typing novels with my thumbs, but I still do it. The real keyboard is faster, but I like laying down while I write, it feels like less effort. So I don’t use a JP5 anymore, but here I am, typing this pep talk with my thumbs during a slow period at the Subway where I work. Somewhere along the line, thumb typing became a convenience instead of a hindrance.

That being said, having an actual word processor is a game changer. I used to have to rely on other people to format my emails, to do everything, really. Being a writer in prison has its disadvantages, and if you don’t have help on the outside, it can feel impossible, but that depends on what your goals are.

I used to say the first thousand pages were for practice. Now I think it may be closer to the first million words. If you’re just getting into the hobby, and you’ve got a few years to live through, then appreciate the time you’ve been given to develop and grow as a writer, because you won’t get a dopamine detox like this anywhere else in the modern world. If you think it’s hard to focus on writing in a noisy pod or a cramped cell, it doesn’t get much easier when you have a job and a family, and the internet.

My strategy has always been to try everything and see what sticks. I would submit to each PEN category every year, and the only category that I never placed in was poetry. I’m still pretty salty about that. The first novel that I didn’t self-publish was a LitRPG, and I barely knew what that genre was before I wrote one.

Honestly, I’m not a good example of what you’re supposed to do as a writer. I can’t focus. I rarely write for more than forty-five minutes at a time, and I barely read. I mean, I read voraciously when the right thing comes along, but recreational reading is not generally a part of my daily life. I go months without reading anything other than emails. I never talked to other people about my writing, or looked for feedback, except maybe once every couple of years from the PEN mentorship program, and I’m pretty disdainful of the standard advice you get from people who have read a book about writing and feel the need to parrot whatever they got out of it. These pep talks, I read the first batch the first year and then pretty much ignored them. I’m not even sure I like writing. Sometimes I love it, but looking back, most of my work seems more like a compulsive behavior driven by delusion than something I was doing for the joy of it.

My advice to anyone who wants to be a writer is to ignore me, ignore everyone, and just do whatever you think is potentially beautiful. You will probably fail, but failure is the standard ending of every venture of this kind. We are all a part of the great and visceral churn, the countless violent expirations of natural selection, and as with much of nature, I’m not sure we have much of a choice in the matter.

William Myrl Smitherman’s work has appeared in Reed Magazine (2016), CURA Magazine, and PEN America’s prison writing anthologies. His first LitRPG novel, Character Creation, has been released on Shadow Alley Press with a forthcoming volume in November 2022. Smitherman’s play, Sentenced to Life Without Music, won third prize in the 2021 Prison Writing Awards and was featured in the 2022 Voices Inside Play Festival. His blog, Letters to No One, addresses his time in prison as well as mental health issues and other topics. More of his work can be found at williammyrl.com.