Nature writer visits Endeavour Middle School in Shelburne

By Hannah Sebby, Oliver Halberg, and Andrew Everett
On Tuesday, Oct. 14 Sean Prentiss, a nature writer and Assistant Professor of English at Norwich University, visited the Endeavour Middle School Nature Writing Elective Class. He read numerous pieces of his writing and teacher Andrew Everett shared two chapters of Prentiss’s upcoming book “Finding Abbey” (spring 2015), about his search for the grave of Edward Abbey, one of America’s foremost writers about the American West. Abbey was illegally buried in a secret spot on public lands in the Southwestern desert. The class had read some of Edward Abbey’s writing from “Desert Solitaire,” so the chapters of the book were a tie-in to those pieces.
Prentiss discussed his book with the class, after which he offered some professional advice. He said that the most important thing for a writer to do is to stop and listen to and experience the world. Prentiss was openly jealous of the Endeavour students. He did not start writing until he was in his late 20s. He wished he could have had a nature writing class as a teen. Prentiss explained that he starts with small things, and tries to capture them in a poem. Poems can then become essays and maybe a story or book. As a younger writer, he spent a lot of time mapping things out, creating outlines, etc. As his writing has matured, he now jumps right into the piece he is working on.
Prentiss shared that nothing he writes for the first time is ready to be shared, let alone published. He described all his first drafts as “garbage,” much to the chagrin of the students. He admitted he is was on the 50th or 60th draft of the pieces he is currently working on. As eyes widened, Everett laughed and noted that his requirement of a second and sometimes third draft shouldn’t seem so bad. The students then explained their workshop process of sharing first drafts with one to three fellow student readers for feedback and then using those comments and edits for a subsequent draft.
Prentiss said he does the same exact thing with his Norwich students, and then talked about the process he went through with a publisher to get his book published. He was forced to cut almost 20 percent of his initial version in order to satisfy his editors. This was after spending two years doing interviews and research on Edward Abbey. At the time, he wasn’t sure what he wanted to do with his life, so a friend suggested he needed a quest. As a Westerner and fan of Abbey’s writing that quest became the search for Abbey’s resting place. He met with all the people that were part of Abbey’s inner circle. Some were very reluctant to talk. Douglas Peacock, Abbey’s friend and accomplice, placed a gun on the table as a subtle threat. He tried to ask them not about where specifically the grave is, but rather what it feels like at the grave. He collected a long list of clues, many of which are presented in one of the chapters of the book he shared with us.
Despite repeated grilling by the class, he refused to tell whether his quest was successful, telling the class instead to read his book when it comes out in April or May 2015. “Mystery is more beautiful than answers,” he concluded with a smile.

From left: Remy Schulz and Charlie Harder, both sixth-graders, interact with writer Sean Prentiss Tuesday, Oct. 14.
From left: Remy Schulz and Charlie Harder, both sixth-graders, interact with writer Sean Prentiss Tuesday, Oct. 14.