Works of Justice is an online series that features content connected to the PEN America Prison and Justice Writing Program, reflecting on the relationship between writing and incarceration, and presenting challenging conversations about criminal justice in the United States.

This November, we partnering with National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) to pilot a new aspect of our mentor program that takes the concept of mentorship out of its one directional engagement (outside mentors, inside mentees) and moves in multiple directions. Four currently incarcerated fiction writers are working as peer facilitators with groups in the prisons where they live. We have updates from week three of the NaNoWriMo challenge. We are so grateful for the feedback and notes we’ve received to share with our participating writers so far, and invite you to send encouragement or share your own updates in the box below.

Updates from our NaNoWriMo facilitators:

Derek Trumbo

So far, everyone has been slogging away at the challenge, and two have reached their 50,000 word goal: William Daniels, and John Mudd! The rest of us mere mortals are hard at work. Thanks again, I can’t wait to share the support with the others!

The most challenging part of writing as a group is allowing ourselves to deconstruct the barriers we’ve all built around ourselves and peek out at the world around us, our fellow people, and come together for the sole purpose of expressing ourselves on the page. Writing, we’ve all discovered is a solitary task, and as artists we isolate ourselves, wear masks, construct barriers to protect our fragile emotions. The group I have is comprised of writers who needed the encouragement this challenge offered. The most challenging part of writing has been realizing that we aren’t just writing for NaNoWriMo/PEN America, we are writing for all of our incarcerated brothers and sisters who don’t have this chance, or don’t believe that they have the words. The challenge is to succeed in allowing ourselves to potentially fall short of our goals, and be all right with carrying on in the event that we do. To shed our egos. To breathe life and nurture our creations.

The most rewarding part is the constant interruptions I receive from my group as they soundboard, ask for advice, or just need to be spoken away from the wall that looms in the distance—a wall that reads: this far, no further. Though I’m only at a little shy of 40,000 words, my grand novel, my magnum opus, now seems a paltry novella, and draft zero will need a lot of detail, and fine tip brush strokes to become what I envision it to be. And my group is rewarded with the truth. I am behind while they are leaving me in their dust. That they have bested their mentor, and somehow I still find time to hear them out. My reward is my group’s encouragement and belief in me now!

Our rhythm is: I grab a table at 4 a.m., begin writing, and they gather around as the day progresses. As we all have different schedules and can only write at certain times, the group has had to learn to speak fast, write faster, and only allow ourselves to talk shop when stuck. This period is about the story, and though we began as all individual, private writers, we now confide in one another and my group has learned to work through what they can and seek help in one another for what they can’t. The process is to overcome the doubt that would normally keep us all reclusive and separate.

What have I learned? That we should all make time to listen to the dreams of others, as we might find we collectively share the same dreams. But, most of all, I’ve realized I’m a “spill the characters and story” kind of guy, first, and a descriptive guy second. My group laughs at my wordiness conversationally, and conservatism literary-wise.

Here’s the newest batch, I hope that all is well with the team there. We really appreciate the words of encouragement, and so far I and Billy Daniels have completed our novels—Daniels’s at 100,358 words, and mine at around 54,672 words. I intend to add around 30,000 words more in detail and character description. Thanks for the opportunity!

Project Description: Matthew Tipton’s project is a story about the journey of a girl finding her way in life on her own, learning about the dangers and gifts that life can bring day to day as she finds herself and her path.


“The rain seemed to follow her, coursing down over her body like the sorrow she felt.”

“Anger started to rumble inside of her, anger at the world around her, at the mystery of who she was and simply, why.”

“Helping other people isn’t a matter of whether or not they would do the same for you.”

Project Description: Andrew Phillips’s contribution is We Belong Together, a story about a family’s struggle to reconnect after being torn apart by Child Protective Services.


“Drew cringed as the sounds of shackles around his ankles echoed throughout the funeral home like stones being thrown into an empty bucket.”

“He knew one thing for certain, if you didn’t tell people what you wanted, how bad you wanted it, and gave them some indication as to the depths you were willing to go to obtain that which you wanted, they would be perfectly content to make the decision for you.”

Project Description: John Mudd’s story is Battle for Life: The Oracle Awakens. It’s a story about a young girl descended from an ancient celestial race who promises to be the long awaited Oracle that will bring an end to an ancient conflict between the forces of good and evil.


“The young monk ran through the stone corridors of the ancient monastery, his robes flying out from his frame like sheets pinned to a clothes line on a spring day.”

“Tamara meditated on the ancient word that was the emanation of Knowledge. ‘Keter,’ she intoned. Her brain seemed to tingle as if it were a hand or foot that had fallen to sleep.”

“Not everything has to be stopped by violence, Laura. Sometimes it’s the violence that has to be stopped.”


David Pickett

Updates! First, the questions:

Q: What has been the most challenging part of writing as a group? The most rewarding?
A: The biggest challenge is the lack of time, space, and opportunity to get together as a group. (Before the start of NaNoWriMo, several of us were in the same unit, with ample opportunity to collaborate; since then, though, there’s been a lot of movement, and so our time together has been radically curtailed.)

It’s ironic, but it can be easier to communicate and interact with people on the outside than with fellow prisoners, except in the rare case where our orbits intersect because of fortuitous living unit or work assignments. Barring that, we are limited to letters and the occasional class or writing workshop, whereas with those outside the fences there are phone calls, email, face-to-face (albeit restrictive and limited) visits, and even video visits for some.

Q: What rhythm have you found for sharing your work together? Can you describe the process?
A: None to speak of at the moment (see above). We’ll have another chance to share with each other at the end of the month, though.

Q: What have you learned during this month?
A: I have been amazed at how much time I can free up to write when I don’t turn on the TV. Not even to check the weather! A single press of the power button seems to magically remove an hour from my day.

Also, I’ve become more aware of the times and circumstances that work best for me to write. Good time and place, I can write three pages in an hour. Bad time and place, I’m lucky to get one page in three hours.

Update time! Thanks for all the support. Time to buckle down for the home stretch!

Project Description:
The consequence of mankind’s many personality defects (greed, jealousy, etc.) comes in a way most would never expect.

Project Description: My name is Detective Harold Danson and my career has landed me in a rather cushy position for a local tribe in Minnesota. Unfortunately for me, I’m about to fall into a line of events that will destroy my world as I know it, and reshape my beliefs about some of the oldest held beliefs of mankind.


“Steven’s enthusiasm was so nonexistent it was palpable.

‘I haven’t seen the sheriff, Hal. For that matter, I’m not sure why you or he would be here.’

Steven folded his hands together slowly, then slowly took them apart in an ‘I don’t know’ motion.

‘Besides, aren’t you typically only supposed to liaison if the Feds come on grounds?’ Then he smiled.”

Project Description: I am journaling my writing and prison experience. I have written about different personal experiences, i.e. Navy: Harrier crashes onboard LHA-2 Saipan, prison riots, and different criminal activities I have witnessed in prison. I have almost four decades of experience to draw on.

Project Description: A kid is telling how he became the way he is and realizes he is an adult from the kid inside.

Excerpt: “I looked into the sun and seen its purples and reds, blues, whites, yellows and oranges. The sun crackled and splintered and popped, broke and shattered… The sun produced a gray matter that became dark and black. Maybe this is how space was created. Space is all around me as I watched the sun burn and the sirens came and poured water on the sun.”

Project Description: My attempt at a bildungsroman seems to be morphing into some sort of Knausgaardian autofiction, at least for now. Who knows what its eventual form will be? The important thing is, words are happening :-).

Excerpt: “He got a ride home from Philip’s mom. He didn’t think he could make that last half mile home; he imagined expiring at the edge of the ball diamond, sinking to the ground in a swoon out near center field, to be found by a groundskeeper the next morning, stiff and pale and covered in morning dew, maybe gnawed by jackals, eyes pecked away by gulls, the vultures of the seaside.”


William Smitherman

Please excuse my absence, our institution has been on lockdown. Haven’t been able to meet with my group, but I’ve been badgering a guy in my pod about this and I’m including a statement from him. The lockdown was perfect for work. I finished my novella (32k words) on the 6th. For the rest of the month, I’m going to go over it and work on a graphic memoir I’ve been dithering over. This challenge really motivated me to find my limits. Thank you.

1. The challenge of writing as a group, for me, has been finding a group to write with. I’ve settled on one guy in my pod that I’m around enough to actually work with. It’s been rewarding to see him make progress in a story we’ve talked about for a while but he could never get started.

2. Thomas Hix shares his progress with me every few thousand words. I ask questions about his setting and his characters, and encourage him to keep going. I’ve been a solitary writer for a long time, sometimes literally in solitary, and I need to remind myself to share. We swap JP5 players [tablets] and read each other’s stories simultaneously.

3. One thing I’ve learned is how much the writing medium affects how I write. I’ve done things by hand since I was first arrested and napkins were my paper. I used my player for Dreaming in the Dark, and it really opened me up to free writing. Doing things by hand is effortful enough that’s it’s hard to enter an extended state of flow. Usually, my daily writing goal is four pages, about a thousand words. Using my player, I can get comfortable and forget about my body outside of my thumbs. The goal became five emails, about 5,000 words a day, for my NaWriNoMo project. Obviously, that’s not going to become my new normal, but I’m reconsidering my drafting process because of how smoothly this went.

Excerpt: “Stories are never frozen, never dead, as long as they exist inside a host. They are like viruses that way, except they say that viruses are dead. So maybe stories do die when they are written down, because they can’t live outside of our imaginations. They need to be passed from mouth to mouth, like breath being forced into waterlogged lungs. Stories save us.”

Project Description: I’m working on a sci-fi horror story set in space. The story revolves around the remnants of humanity looking for ways to survive in space without our precious Earth and finding something terrifying.


“‘We are gathered here to drive our race forward through the universe,’ Flight Captain Bowman started.

‘Humanity’s drive is what has kept us going. Always we survive flood or famine, fear or flame. Today, we began what we started the day the first Isle was completed and set in orbit. We march forward through our galaxy, and set to live among more distant stars. Today, we head further not into the unknown, but out amongst our homeland. Our milky way, our galaxy. Expansion is the birthright of humanity. This galaxy is ours to claim. Fear not for us. Cheer us onward through inevitable victory. For all humanity. ‘

‘Who thinks this shit up?’ Bowman muttered to his second amid the applause.”


Matthew Mendoza

Still hitting the word counts! (Barely.) We’ve lost a member: Mike went home. (There were three of us on Team Smith Unit originally. Matthew Mendoza, Shickey Mane, and Mike Mulder.)

Thanks for all the support. We appreciate (need) it. Oh. We both added a rain scene. Thanks Amanda.

Project Description: A Coward’s Tale is the story of blood, revenge and magical beasts.

Excerpt: “Gabriel Frailheart stepped through the warm ash of his village. Tears dripped from his face. The small circles of tears spilling into the bigger circles of charred desolation.”

Project Description: In the preface of Breakfast of Champions, Kurt Vonnegut talks about clearing his head of all the junk. I thought NaNoWriMo would be perfect for that, especially for a writer who had no idea what to write about. Moze at Elevation is the title for now.

Excerpt: “From the time he was little, Moze had trouble telling the difference between real and imaginary people. The only way Moze knew for sure was when they were gone. If Moze missed them then they were real.”



Pep talk from SERGIO DE LA PAVA:

Unspoken is why you would need a pep talk. Because writing is difficult, right? It’s difficult and taxing and maybe, just maybe, there are words I can write, words you can then hear, that will reduce that difficulty. Sad to say, I don’t think so.  

I don’t give writing advice. I don’t because I think you should understand a subject well before you start placing yourself in the position of expert—and who wants inexpert advice? And it’s even worse than that. Because I’m not even sure I know what writing is. But also, if I understood it perfectly, I probably wouldn’t want to do it.

So when it comes to writing, what do I know? I know that writing has a particular element to it and that the best single word I can use to describe that element is “magical.”  I know that magic exists because I’ve felt it and I think I write mainly to feel it again.

I know things about life, too. That life can feel firmly opposed to the magical. That the more dire your circumstances the less magical it all feels. And how if you’re waiting for life to gift you magic so you can just transcribe it and be a writer, forget it.  

The part of life that is magical is like a dream, but literally. Think of the magic of a dream. How bendable the few rules that even exist are. How simultaneously vivid and porous they can be and the special logic that attaches. Then realize that when you write you create a dream. That writing is a way of dreaming while lucid.

So if writing is just intentional dreaming, what makes it so hard? The answer, I fear, is you, the writer. Dreaming is easy and flowing and suggestive and you are blocking all that. Your self-censorship and doubt and insecurity and inertia are like speed bumps that grow from inattention and make it so you can only dream with your eyes closed.

Say you’re going to dream with your eyes open. Decide that. Look at everything in the awake world, its objects, its people, definitely its language, and just plain decide to make it all dreamy. Internalize the world but only for the purpose of transmutation. That what goes in should then come out as translation. Translate the ugly and the inert and the hurtful into what those things would dream to be.  Do what dreams to do the world but do it with a pen and paper.  

Sorry, excuse the advice. 

Sergio De La Pava is the author of three novels: A Naked Singularity, Personae, and Lost Empress. He is also a lifelong public defender and Legal Director at New York County Defender Services in Manhattan where he represents indigent people accused of crimes and advocates for large-scale criminal justice reform.


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We’ll be sharing excerpts of works in progress and status updates from our inside writing groups on this blog over the course of November. To be updated when a new blog is posted, please sign up here: