When Play, Inspiration, and Writing Collide You Get NaNoWriMo

Play and inspiration while writing? NaNoWrimo participants post wildly caffeinated rants about plots gone astray and characters who have run amok.

My first novel, Recess Rules, went to press last week. It's the story of four friends who save recess at their school with the help of an angel-on-probation named Clarence—both in homage to It's a Wonderful Life and the parks and recreation coordinator from my Washington, D.C., childhood playground.

However, Recess Rules is not the book I set out to write. My initial intent had been to write a book for grown-ups about everything I had learned starting Playworks. I was hoping to write a book that was equal parts hands-on guide to making recess—and by extension, schools—great and inspiration for the idea that changing systems, like education, was possible.

But it turned out that writing that kind of book made me incredibly uncomfortable—there was way too much about me, and not nearly enough play and inspiration.

And then National Novel Writing Month happened. NaNoWriMo is without a doubt the most inspired collective online activity I have ever been a part of. The idea is simple though insane: write a novel in one month (the month of November, specifically, because, really, what else is going on?) by writing 1,667 words each day.

NaNoWriMo is whimsical and playful and irreverent and supportive. Adages such as "No word is a bad word," provided the playfulness and inspiration I had been hoping for and Recess Rules was born. Throughout the month, whenever I flagged, I found myself in this virtual community of nutty people who were posting wildly caffeinated rants about plots that had gone astray, characters who had run amok, and word counts that were falling behind. They were funny and self-effacing and consistently willing to offer empathic, positive words to a woman they had never met.

As we near the release of Recess Rules, I am struck by how much telling this story is akin to growing Playworks. In a lot of ways, being a social entrepreneur is just telling a story and convincing other people to act it out with you. While the initial idea may come quite easily, the devil is in the details and success is only possible with an unimaginable amount of hard work. And ultimately, it's not a sexy or glamorous endeavor—it's about discipline and hard work. Anne Lamott does a great job of explaining writing in her book Bird By Bird, but she could just as well be describing what it takes to grow a systems-changing nonprofit organization. She writes:

"E.L. Doctorow said once said that 'Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.' You don't have to see where you're going, you don't have to see your destination or everything you will pass along the way. You just have to see two or three feet ahead of you. This is right up there with the best advice on writing, or life, I have ever heard."


I get a lot of props for founding Playworks, but it's pretty clear to me that no matter how many kids we serve or how big we ever get, no one will ever benefit as much I have. The opportunity to share a dream, to create the chance for our coaches to have the transformative experience of making a difference in a child’s life, having a little girl in New Orleans come up to me to say thanks, because her teacher told her I was "the recess lady"—that's all as good as it gets.

And, if you have ever considered writing a novel and are looking for a little inspiration, NaNoWriMo is almost upon us. If not NaNo, stay open to whatever story it is that you need to tell, and be willing to set out on the journey, even if you're not quite certain of the destination.

Want to participate in NaNoWriMo? Click here to say you'll do it.

Once upon a time image via Shutterstock

Julian Meehan

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