by Mark Alvarez
A hermit crab essay is one that imitates a non-literary text—recipe, obituary, rejection letter—using the found form in novel ways, but retaining the semantic resonance of the original. Brenda Miller, who with Suzanne Paola coined the term in 2003, said that one of the benefits of working with these restrictions is creative expansion.
“It lets us get out of our own way,” Miller said at the 2018 Nonfiction Now conference in Phoenix, Arizona. “Following form dictates content, allowing writers to engage their imagination.”
The essay began as a parody of rejection letters, using their form to write about her own personal experiences. One rejection letter is from to an elementary school artist from her art class; another for “the position of girlfriend of the star of the high-school football team.”
Even in the short space of the panel, Miller trained the audience how to react to her piece. The first two letters were funny, filled with solid jokes. We were laughing—emotion was sounded. When the third letter turned out to be about her miscarriage, there were audible sighs and moans. That reaction would not have occurred if Miller hadn’t first set us up with comic material and invited us to engage physically with her piece through laughter.
The form of the rejection letter allowed Miller to write about such a difficult subject.
“This voice is so detached, I can say whatever I want,” Miller said. “Humor naturally arises when coupling detached voice with intimate experience.”
The tonal shift from the essay’s early light moments to the pathos of the later was unexpected, even for Miller.
“The form of the rejection letter created an entirely new universe where personal narrative doesn’t belong to you,” Miller said. “It creates better meanings than you could yourself.”
“Who am I to question the ferocity of an essay in progress?” Miller said. “Eventually story goes beyond the form. This is exactly what hermit crabs do—outgrow their shell and get another.”
Miller teaches the hermit crab essay so often that her classes at Western Washington University have mastered it. Now she teaches how not to do the traditional hermit crab essay.
“Hermit crab essays have become so normal,” Miller said. To fight this ossification, she offers several tips:
- Inhabit the form with the voice of the form
- Ask yourself why you are using the form
- Think about how to make it not about you, but something bigger
- How do you end the thing? A lot of hermit crab essays just end, stop, without ever reaching something grander or crescendo.
In honor of the last point, I offer you a crappy ending.