Young wordsmiths participate in NaNoWriMo

Benny Westcott

For the last five years, students in Lana Holden’s seventh-grade language arts classes at Sweet Home Junior High School have participated in a different warm-up activity than usual when November rolls around. They’d sit down at computers and write.

The topic? Whatever they wanted.

One student told the story of a make-believe rabbit her grandpa had invented for tales she heard as a youth. Others wrote of flesh-eating zombies or alien invasions. Whatever the subject, visitors to Holden’s classroom could be sure to hear keyboards clattering away during the first 10 minutes.

The students, of course, weren’t alone, joining hundreds of thousands of people around the world for National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). Launched in 1999, the movement sees participants set out on November 1 determined to end the month with 50,000 words.

None of Holden’s students have been published (yet) or reached the ambitious 50,000-word threshold. But the exercise still holds a lot of value, she said.

“They get more confident in their writing,” Holden said. “This week we are writing argumentative essays, which aren’t easy. But if you just let them write, they realize they can really do it.”

When asked about the art’s importance, she said, “I think it’s everything. I tell them, even though it’s hard for them to see this far ahead sometimes, that when they are adults and have jobs, having the ability to write well will help them.”

“It’s a neat way for them to express themselves,” she continued. “I’ve had former students from the past four or five years contact me during the pandemic, telling me that they’ve been stuck home all day, so they’ve been working on their story some more. They’re never going to lose it. It’s something that the students are really proud of. When you let them do creative writing, they just won’t stop. Once they’ve been doing it for about a week, they’ll hardly talk to each other at the beginning of class. They’ll just start writing.”

This particular November was a groundbreaking one for Holden’s language arts students. Her 36 seventh-graders wrote a combined 101,939 words, the most in the five years she’s been organizing NaNoWriMo at the school. (The previous record was 30,841.) “When you tell them that they are blown away,” Holden said. “They get a little more confident.”

One particularly fleet-fingered scribe, Miu Simmons, produced 20,048 words on her school-issued Chromebook, surpassing the school’s previous record of just over 15,000 words, set last year, by a healthy margin.

“She’s a really good student, and a good all-around person,” Holden said of Miu. “She’s very kind and attentive.”

Throughout the month, Holden entered the names of students with the highest word counts on the class’s white board. “Each week they would look forward to seeing if their name was going to go up on the list,” she said. Ultimately, the top five won Amazon gift certificates.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Holden, whose idea it was to start the school program five years ago, is an avid writer herself. She’s currently working on a 100,000-word-plus historical novel about Catalyntje Jeronimus Trico, a 17th-century woman who lived in the Dutch colony of New Netherland, located on what is now the east coast of the United States. Holden developed a fascination for the figure while writing about New Netherland for her master’s degree from American Public University in West Virginia (Holden took the courses online while living in Oregon). The material she read in her research for the assignment kept mentioning Trico, and Holden thought “Who is this woman?”

“I was obsessed with her for a year,” she said, adding that the Trico era is “her favorite place and time in history.”

Indeed, Holden has read about 40 books about the colony, she estimates.

Trico lived to be 84, dying in 1689. She and her husband, Joris Jansen Rapalje, had 11 children and owned a tap house in what is today known as Manhattan. After Rapalje died in 1663, Trico lived as a widow for her remaining 28 years. “She was fiercely independent and kept her 300 acres of land even after her husband died,” according to Holden.

Holden also indulges her historical interest by writing for the New Netherland Institute and on her history blog at While she hasn’t yet settled on a title for her first book, she said she hopes to have the text, which she’s been working on for six years, finalized within a year. The New Netherland Institute usually works with Cornell Publishing, but Holden as of yet does not know what organization will publish her book.