Unpacking the Hermit Crab Essay: A Reading List

Cover of Unpacking the Hermit Crab Essay: A Reading List

Before I began writing personal essays, I was an academic. My training was in classics and history of medicine, two fields that allowed me to assert my intellectual invulnerability while talking about deeply personal topics—sexuality, mental illness, femininity—within the armor of conference papers, journal articles, book reviews, and a monograph. Close readings of ancient medical texts allowed me to explore in subterranean ways my family history of anorexia. Quotations from early Christian preachers functioned like found text through which I could begin to comprehend how ministers in my childhood churches had warped my passageway into adulthood as a queer person. Footnotes gave me room to skip-jump over sources and scholarship, sliding in comic asides and ironic juxtapositions, to spin the reader around and offer a glimpse of connections that went unexamined in the argument itself. 


Perhaps because of this history, I find hermit crab essays fascinating. First named as such by Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola in Tell It Slant, hermit crab essays steal conventionalized forms (such as math tests, prescriptions, rejection letters, syllabi) as “shells” to contain and protect the material within. The form refines the game I played as a scholar: taking a serious, perhaps even pompous, structure and then teasing it out to examine a question about oneself, one’s relationships and take on the world.


Margot Singer, “On Scaffolding, Hermit Crabs, and the Real False Document” (in Bending Genres: Essays on Creative Nonfiction

Singer situates hermit crabs in the tradition of using fake documentary evidence, such as newspaper reports in novels. Yet, as she argues, hermit crabs contribute something innovative to how we think about creative nonfiction in particuklar, transforming the essay from a linear string of sentences to a structure such as a house or a room (as in the “stanza”) that the writer and reader might inhabit.


What moved me: The hermit crab essay as a house. Any essay as a house. The way it takes time to settle after a move, to become familiar with which floorboards creak, where precisely the light falls in the morning. The way buildings construct sight-lines and passageways, signal or obscure their contents, change as they pass among inhabitants.


Chelsea Biondolillo, On Shells

At first sight, “On Shells” is a simple braided essay that intertwines memoir of Biondolillo’s grandmother, who had a passion for beach-combing, with reflections on using the hermit crab essay in creative writing classrooms. Yet, it emerges quickly as a hermit crab essay on the craft of hermit crab essays: through fragmentary paragraphs (broken shells), Biondolillo suggests that we can learn something about writing from the practice of beach-combing. Biondolillo communicates her insights through juxtaposition: what the conchologist says about the hermit crab we can, with the author’s encouragement, apply to our own writing practice. 


What moved me: Discovering unique, never-before-seen shells is not the point. Instead, stay alert and curious about what washes up on your own shores.


Suzanne Cope, The Essay as Bouquet

Various writers have offered accounts of what it is in particular that hermit crabs do. A good example is Suzanne Cope’s examination of hermit crab essays that take forms connected to the natural world: she finds that few imitate natural forms; instead, hermit crab essays that brush up against “nature” tend to explore the entanglement of wilderness and human interference. 


What moved me: Hermit crab essays as the exploration of breakages and imperfection.


Randon Billings Noble, Consider the Platypus: Four Forms—Maybe—of the Lyric Essay 

Each form of the lyric essay that Noble discusses—flash, fragmentary, braided, and hermit crab—uses structure to explore its central theme. Hermit crab essays, according to Noble, protect what is vulnerable and contain excess; further, they are social creatures, relying on (literary) networks for their construction of meaning.


What moved me: Hermit crab essays as an exercise in connection.


Susan Mack, The Hermit Crab Essay: Forming a Humorous Take on Dark Memoir

Hermit crab essays are associated with vulnerability, and many are about traumatic experiences. Is this a necessary feature? (Biondolillo, in On Shells, reports being asked this question by her students.) The answer is probably not, although they do lend themselves to difficult material. As Mack explores, hermit crabs not only provide protection but also can be enormously funny. Humor thrives in unexpected juxtapositions, which is the daily fare of the hermit crab form.


What moved me: Hermit crab essays as an opportunity to stop taking myself so damn seriously.


Rich Youman, Haibun & the Hermit Crab: “Borrowing” Prose Forms

Juxtaposition is at the heart of Youman’s exploration of the potential of hermit crab essays within the traditional Japanese form known as the haibun, where prose and haiku work together. As Youman shows, the hermit crab’s borrowed form, which is often documentary or official, can heighten the contrast with the haiku.


What moved me: The in-rush of breath as the haiku brings the glimpse of mundane reality to an abrupt and delicate pause.


Brenda Miller, The Shared Space Between Read and Writer: A Case Study

Hermit crab essays are a useful classroom tool for various reasons: constraints loosen creative inhibitions; the form serves as a disguise, which can support self-conscious writers in sharing vulnerable material; the exercise trains writers to pay attention to how texts are constructed. Telling the story of how she wrote her hermit crab essay We Regret to Inform You while teaching, Miller emphasizes how form dictates content, giving the writer room to experiment. 


What moved me: Don’t write the essay and then manipulate it into an unusual form for the sake of gimmick. Instead, find a form that intrigues you and let it shape what you are trying to say.


Kim Adrian (ed.), The Shell Game

Adrian’s introduction to this recent anthology of hermit crab essays mimics an entry in a natural history encyclopedia. Hermit crabs, Adrian writes, are part of a tradition of hybrid forms, but they also reflect current interest in challenging inherited categories and binaries. While they sometimes appear to be a kind of party trick, they are, in another light, the very epitome of the essay—the attempt to express the interior self through the clumsy vessel of writing that so often pretends to be about something else.


What moved me: Hermit crab essays as drag. Just as drag offers overt performances of the deconstruction of traditional gender, so too hermit crab essays perform the deconstruction of the essay, which is at its core (just like gender) a set of conventions that simultaneously enable and constrict self-expression. Hermit crabs as a site for playful experimentation concealing sharp literary critique.


Bonus: Ocean Vuong, Seventh Circle of the Earth

For those curious to see how footnotes might contain a narrative, Vuong’s account of the immolation of two gay men in Texas offers a grim and potent example. As Vuong describes in his introduction to this poem, the very space on the page—the absence of text to which footnotes might be appended—is key to its meaning.


What moved me: The space that the footnotes leave behind, the breathlessness in it, the suspension of thought.



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