Consider the Lowly Hermit Crab

I first read about the hermit crab in Barbara Kingsolver’s essay collection, High Tide in TucsonIn this true story about a stowaway crustacean, Kingsolver creates a lively lyrical first person narrative, in which the crab becomes a metaphor for how creatures habituate to their environments.

Indeed, the hermit crab makes good metaphor. When you feel cramped, find a new shell to call home. Keep your plump red underbelly undercoverAdapt. 

Turns out the hermit crab is also a trendy form for writing personal narrative. With that knowledge, I recently assigned a hermit crab essay as a writing prompt—Find a shell to inspire an essay. Choose a mundane form such as a recipe, medication insert, table of contents, book review, application, to-do list. The writers received the instructions, awkwardly. Two performed the exercise. Four participants opted out—a benefit of being an adult paying your own way. I cannot blame them. In fact, I had been a hypocrite. How can an instructor rightly assign something she’s never tried? I have happily composed segmented, epistolary (letter) and acrostic (A-B-C) essays, but never the hermit crab. So, I immersed myself in this form.

The first thing I read was an essay, a multiple-choice list framed by 11 questions, titled, “Can This Troubled Marriage be Saved?” by writer Nancy McCabe (a faculty member at of Louisville’s Spalding MFA program) published in the Bellingham Review (2011). The form enabled the writer to condense the life of a marriage into a relatively short narrative. And it was a fun read!

The hermit crab essay is a term coined by writer Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola, authors of the creative nonfiction craft book, Tell it Slant . Miller writes about the hermit crab essay in, “The Shared Space Between Reader and Writer: A Case Study,”  in the Brevity on-line journal. It’s one of the many forms she advocates. Her rationale? By writing in different forms you discover a new voice and content. Miller’s own experience is this: “I feel a kind of transformation happening, a new perspective, a moment of forgiveness. It’s odd to feel this in one’s writing, to feel so concretely that the essay is, indeed, in charge: speaking to you, telling you things you didn’t already know.”

I am fond of one familiar form—the To Do list. I often create to-do lists in the middle-of-the night, so I can go back to sleep. I record each item with my purple Pentel. Only then can I know the task will be completed. I appreciate the concise commanding second-person active voice of each item, as in “Pay parking ticket.”

Let me illustrate.  I have composed a short hermit crab essay based on one of my compulsions—The to-do list:

Water plants
(especially the gift cactus from your daughter, the one she described as “easy care,” the one whose draped succulent braids she discovered crumbling at her touch, like an ancient manuscript poorly handled.)
Write in your journal
(admit it, you do not journal. This is your secret. You are a fraud, posing as a writer. You really should try. Journaling is good for you, like kale, liver, kombacha and prayer.)
Adjust your attitude
(Find patience with your retired husband when he says he’s out of socks or wants to know what is for dinner. Avoid grumbling,”I’m not the laundress, cook and bottle washer around here.” Kindly inform him where he can find the laundry soap and hot dogs. Ask him to meet you for lunch.)
Start your next essay
(but wait . . . you haven’t started anything new for months. You’re stuck on revisions. When will  you finish that Ancestry essay? You have thought of writing a piece titled, “On Prayer,” as in “Please forgive me, but I refuse to pray for Facebook requests.” You send “prayerful thoughts” instead. Admit it. You have a complicated feelings about prayer, as with journaling, which is—actually—a form of prayer. Come to think of it, you have wondered about structuring something on the Act of Contrition, including your favorite line, “Forgive me . ..  for what I have done and what I have failed to do.”)

In my brief attempt at the hermit crab essay, I experienced what author Brenda Miller described. I had no idea what I was going to say. until I said it. Content followed form. The process was liberating. And I did stowaway a few nuggets for a future essay.

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