PEN America Prison Writing Program and NaNoWriMo logos side by side

Writing a novel is hard work. Writing a novel in prison is even tougher. And amid a pandemic, when people on the inside are limited in their day-to-day activities, the sheer act of writing can be monumental. That’s why we were floored to have 10 incarcerated writers in four facilities this year participate in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), an ambitious writing challenge in which participants write the first 50,000 words of a novel in just 30 days.

This November, the Prison Writing team facilitated our second annual collaboration with the NaNoWriMo team. Through daily writing sessions and by building community with others also taking on the challenge, writers develop their storytelling skills, sharpen their craft, and connect with other writers.

Unlike last year when we successfully piloted the project with 14 writers, many of our participants in 2020 were unable to meet in-person with other members of their writing pods who live in the same facility, left to write alone in their cells, and unable to confer with fellow writers. Others were moved around to crowded, unfamiliar units in their facility as part of the prison officials’ plans to contain and combat COVID-19.

Derek Trumbo, a returning participant and NaNoWriMo peer facilitator, said although the experience was different this year, the members of his writing pod were deeply committed to their work, and to each other.

“When my fellow writers would sacrifice sleep to join me at the table to write at 4am in order to do our writing before the crowds and noise started, I knew that everyone was serious about staying healthy and focused during COVID,” Trumbo said.

To help ease the difficulty of this isolation, and to create inroads for our writers inside to be a part of the larger NaNoWriMo movement beyond the walls, we connected each one of this year’s participants to a volunteer on the outside with whom they could correspond throughout the month. Though we use the language of volunteer/mentor interchangeably in this project, our approach was to introduce each pair as literary peers, rather than frame the experience as  all-knowing, esteemed writers mentoring inexperienced students. Participants overwhelmingly told us that these connections facilitated an enriching and meaningful NaNoWriMo amidst a difficult prison environment. It was equally impactful for those isolating on the outside.

“I began the month wanting to participate in some of the community-making that keeps me accountable as a writer, as well as connected as a human being, and I found that I did not just take part in making that; I was given it. Or rather, we made that together. That feels really good and true,” said Julia Hannafin, one of this year’s volunteers.

Though the partnerships were initially created just for the month, almost every writer will be working with their volunteers past November, gearing up to edit and polish their novels in the coming months. In that way, our second NaNoWriMo helps expand our program’s central tenet of creating a literary community in which incarcerated writers are viewed as writers in their own right.

Below, we have highlighted some reflections from this year’s participants and volunteers, discussing the partnerships they built over the past month, and how they approached NaNoWriMo in such a particularly daunting year.