The nonfiction editors, Rappahannock Review: You play with form throughout the course of “Only Water, and the Stars,” and that seems to be common in a number of your essays.  What is it about that sort of experimentation that appeals to you?

Sean Prentiss: It’s funny because many, many readers consider me very experimental. Joe Wilkins, whom you ask about below, recently said to a mutual friend, that I’m one of the more experimental writers that he knows. And yet I consider myself as a person so very non-experimental and rather removed from reading experimental writers or living an experimental life. I have a little tiny hand-built cabin that’s completely off the grid. No water. No power. No plumbing. My year round home, in northern Vermont, has no mail service, no garbage service, our driveway is covered for four months a year in two feet of snow. So I don’t like an experimental life. It’s rather reclusive and removed.

So I often don’t think of my writing as experimental, yet when I look at it with an outsider’s eyes, it obviously is. In one essay, the entire thing is speculation concerning what happens if I buy a suburban house (spoiler alert: it makes me very sad), another has a quarry as a main character, another tells my origin story and in it I descend not from mother and father but rather from river water, from a turtle island, another reworks a night (correcting how it should have gone, all in a beautiful drunken haze), a new essay at High Desert Journal has Evel Knievel and Frederick Jackson Turner as main characters as I reflect on settling down, another is (okay, Sean, I think this list is long enough) a paragraph long with a page of footnotes.

So I’m obviously experimental. So the question I asked myself was why. And why don’t I realize it. And I guess it’s because form follows function, because this is the only way I can see to tell the story. When I try to get at my truths, the essays come out in these experimental ways not because I love bells and whistles (though sometimes I do) and fireworks late at night (which I always love) but because the truth of my birth feels as if I was born on a turtle island and of river water (though we all know I didn’t). Because how do I tell a story about settling down without the voice (that desperate voice) of Evel Knievel? Because my truths and my personal myths unravel in unique ways from unique perspectives and though they feel completely normal to me and I rarely search long or hard for form, they feel (and are) experimental to others. So experimentation appeals to me on no level. But neither does water. And I drink water (need to drink water) every day.

RR: You worked with Joe Wilkins on The Far Edges of the Fourth Genre: An Anthology of Explorations in Creative Nonfiction. How has that changed your approach to nonfiction?

SP: I’d maybe reverse this question. The anthology is a response to how my view of creative nonfiction is growing. I’m, as I mentioned above, a pretty simple person. An example: my taste is music is terribly limited. Give me anything by Brian Fallon, early The Hold Steady, old Lucero, old AniAugustines, and I would be pretty happy for life.

I don’t listen to many genres of music. I don’t experiment with many new singers. And yet the more I teach and read creative nonfiction, the more beautiful I find the variety. It’s so wonderful to see how my peers are pressing into the borderlands between creative nonfiction and fiction or between poetry and creative nonfiction, the new research that is coming out on creative nonfiction. So I loved seeing this explosion of craft and creativity. And Joe and I wanted to contribute to that explosion, to consolidate these disparate conversations. To bring them together. To join into those conversations. To teach those conversations in our classes. But the book (and all the other growing creative nonfiction conversations) reminds me of what I love about creative nonfiction and that is our truths are great and big and all-encompassing and they lead to so many dark alleys and many beautiful vistas. And I want my conversations and my writing about creative nonfiction to be that way. To be big. To be willing to see the world in new and unique ways. To challenge myself and my mythologies.

RR: In what ways has your work as an editor have influenced your writing?

SP: The anthology was incredibly easy to work with. Very, very rarely did Joe or I need to edit a piece deeply at all. A few times we asked for more here or less there, but I felt more like a collector than an editor. At least with The Far Edges of the Fourth GenreWe were working with powerful writers who, in our opinions, needed little editing.

That said I do feel that editing is very helpful. It helps to see other people’s successes and failures and then attempt to hold those ideas. So being a teacher helps. Being an editor of a lit journal helps. Being in a writers group helps.

RR: Your piece “What We Learn About Love, We Learn From Quarries” bears a number of parallels to “Only the Water, and the Stars,” though both are uniquely distinct in style and form. What relationship exists between these two pieces?

SP: Sometimes an event or a scene has a small moment in one essay but (in my heart and memory) it burns loudly and asks to be on stage alone, to have its own version, to get the lead role because I’m not done telling its story. Or it’s not done telling its story.

So I create a one-act play for that scene (like here). Or I tell that scene again from another angle.

Or I somehow re-write as fiction or poetry, re-create or re-format it until I’ve written it out, until I’ve told it the way it needs to be told. Until I no longer have the need to write it again.

“Only the Water, and the Stars” comes from being eighteen, nineteen years old. From not fitting in really anywhere in life. Not in the clothes I wore. Not in the girls I wanted to love (but who wouldn’t love me). Not in the lifestyle I was trying to lead. So some nights I found beer and I drank it all and I failed at flirting and we sometimes all ended up in the river of my birth at night. Drunk. Together. Alone. Naked. But it never felt like home. So little back then did. It felt alive.

But not home.

But then, drunk, I’d let the water envelope me. I’d let the water pull me down deeper toward the bottom. And the entire world (not just the noise of friends and clanking beers and cannonballs, but the entire world) paused, fell silent, hushed. My brain quiet. At peace.

But it’s not sustainable, living underwater. We have to come up for air. The essay is about being a kid, searching for peace for a broken heart, for being without home. And that’s exactly what “What We Learn About Love” is about. The same exact thing. Searching for a home in the heart.

But it’s told in a different way, from a different angle. So if you delve into my essays, stories, and poems enough, you’ll find re-tellings of stories, new angles, new forms because I’m not through telling these myths yet. Because I haven’t gotten them just right. Because they still haunt me in many forms. It’s like a painter who paints the same scene over and over and over because the light is never just right. It’s never chased from the heart.

RR: You’ve also dabbled in poetry and other forms of creative writing. What it is about nonfiction that attracts you to the genre?

SP: The truth. The true human experience.

Sean Prentiss’ work in Issue 1.4: 

“Only the Water, and the Stars”

Sean Prentiss is the co-editor of The Far Edges of the Fourth Genrea craft anthology that examines creative nonfiction. He lives on a small lake in northern Vermont and serve as an assistant professor at Norwich University. You can read more of his work here.