NFN18: “Writing the Hermit Crab Essay”

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Panel Participants: Kim Adrian, Joey Franklin, Brenda Miller, Dinty Moore

All of the panelists are involved with the new anthology The Shell Game: Writers Play with Borrowed Forms

Miller discussed the process by which she teaches the hermit crab essay, as well as some of the obstacles of the form. She begins by having students brainstorm non-literary forms to plunder. Then they have to choose one form at random and write what kind of content they think pairs with it, allowing themselves to engage with the unexpected, letting the form dictate the content. The reader should be able to pick up on the familiar form, but also realize how the content is engaging with it, how it does and doesn’t fit. They should create a personal on the page that fulfills expectations of the borrowed form. She says this process often shows how content wants to expand the story beyond the form, just as a hermit crab outgrows its shell, nudging the boundaries. The friction between form and content can be part of the experience of it. Because the form doesn’t belong to you, it can create meanings you didn’t entirely intend going in, what she calls “inadvertent revelations.” Humor often also accompanies a detached voice paired with unexpectedly intimate content, and therefore the turn in the essay can have an even greater impact. The obstacles to the hermit crab essay include the difficulty of setting up the form and content immediately so the reader understands what they’re reading, how to make it be about something bigger than just the self, how to end it gracefully, and how to make the essay not merely clever or gimmicky.

Franklin presented a gallery of hermit crab shells: Eric Carle’s A House for Hermit Crab, how his crab is restless and tired of old forms, and says yes to risk and trying new things, valuing invention and reinvention. Hardison, who says in “Binding Proteus” that there is no genre that takes on more forms than CNF. Annie Dillard, our genre’s own hermit, who said the best memoirs determine their own form. The artist Inamoto, who constructed acrylic shells shaped like cities and offered them to hermit crabs, but did not force them on the crabs (with the metaphor of colonialism and refugees). Epstein, who says the essay is a pair of baggy pants into which nearly anything or anyone can fit. Alongside photos of crabs adopting unusual objects as shells, Franklin asks of their impulse to find a new home, does creativity serve imperative, or does imperative serve creativity? He shows a photo of crab cakes, to illustrate how the idea may expand beyond the form in unexpected ways. Eliot in “Tradition and the Individual Talent” wrote of how the history of literature is altered by the introduction of new writing, and how the relationship and values of each work of art to the whole of literature are readjusted by it.

Moore read from “Son of Mr. Green Jeans,” an essay in abecedarian form. He says it has been claimed that we write the same story over and over. His essay started as an examination of fathers’ roles in the animal kingdom, but he thought it was horribly dull. He hit on alphabetizing, and rearranged the animals, but it was still dull. It took more than 3 years to expand fathers beyond the animal world, and then it seemed to write itself. The moral of his story he says relates to what Elizabeth Gilbert says about bringing “trickster energy” or playfulness to your art – this essay led to a whole book, Between Panic and Desire, that played with forms. His advice is that when an essay seems stuck, blow it up and be open to playing with it and experimenting with changing its form.

Adrian read from her essay “Knitting 101,” and talked about the incredible sense of exhilaration when you get content and form working together. She noted that you need to be sensitive to how the form can take over, and that you may need to readjust. She likes best the essays where there’s a conversation between the content and its chosen structure. She says that the formality of using a form may actually allow you to be vulnerable, and is also useful for content that seems very diffuse.


Handouts from the Session:

Hermit Crab Reading List (NonfictioNow)

Hermit Crab Assignment for NonfictioNow2018


Heidi Czerwiec is a contributing editor at Assay.

Visit Assay’s Fall 2018 issue for more!

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