PEN America Prison Writing Program and NaNoWriMo logos side by side

Over the past two years, PEN America’s Prison Writing Program has partnered with NaNoWriMo, the organization that leads National Novel Writing Month, to share their ambitious writing challenge with the incarcerated writers our program supports. This November, in our third year of collaboration, our program is supporting 15 incarcerated writers across four different facilities taking on the daunting challenge: to write 50,000 words of a novel in just 30 days.

Writers worldwide are drawn to this challenge, in part because it holds them accountable to writing through the constricting conditions of daily life and its demands. The staggering word count pushes participants to confront their inner critics in order to get words on the page and finish on time. NaNoWriMo, however, is more than its ambitious word goal. It is also an opportunity that fosters a deep sense of community by creating, even if just for a month, a global network of artists united by a shared experience.

Within each facility, participants form writing pods led by fellow incarcerated facilitators, helping each other work through common obstacles that come up throughout the month. Writing is typically understood as a solitary activity, bringing to mind images of lone figures agonizing over pages in silence, refusing to share their work until it’s finished. However, through this writing challenge, participants have found the opposite of isolation, building creative spaces where they feel supported in the writing process amid the constant hardships of incarceration.

Derek Trumbo, a peer facilitator for the writing pod in Northpoint Training Center this year, describes his NaNoWriMo experience as a beautiful support system arising from what had started as a group of near strangers.

“Thirty days brought us together, broke us, exposed us and laid our innermost flaws bare, but our shared hopes, dreams, and ambitions of being acknowledged in even the slightest of ways proved a beacon in the darkness of our incarceration,” he said.

In keeping with our program’s central tenet of connection, participants have been paired with a volunteer mentor, a practice which we piloted in last year’s challenge. These unique partnerships, founded on the idea of mutual support and encouragement, allow for the participants and volunteers to serve as literary peers. In this third year of NaNoWriMo programming, we are thrilled to continue offering invaluable spaces for reciprocal learning and connection to our writers on the inside, continuing this program’s important work of bridging the literary community across prison walls.

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