This post by Brenda Miller originally appeared on Brevity on 1/17/15.
I often teach classes on the form of the “hermit crab” essay, a term Suzanne Paola and I used in our textbook Tell It Slant. Hermit crab essays adopt already existing forms as the container for the writing at hand, such as the essay in the form of a “to-do” list, or a field guide, or a recipe. Hermit crabs are creatures born without their own shells to protect them; they need to find empty shells to inhabit (or sometimes not so empty; in the years since I’ve begun using the hermit crab as my metaphor, I’ve learned that they can be quite vicious, evicting the shell’s rightful inhabitant by force).
When I teach the hermit crab essay class, we begin by brainstorming the many different forms that exist for us to plunder for our own purposes. Once we have such a list scribbled on the board, I ask the students to choose one form at random and see what kind of content that form suggests. This is the essential move: allowing form to dictate content. By doing so, we get out of our own way; we bypass what our intellectual minds have already determined as “our story” and instead become open and available to unexpected images, themes and memories. Also, following the dictates of form gives us creative nonfiction writers a chance to practice using our imaginations, filling in details, and playing with the content to see what kind of effects we can create.
I’ve taught the hermit crab class many, many times over the years, in many different venues. So, often it’s tempting for me to sit out the exercise; after all, what else could I possibly learn? But after just a minute, it becomes too boring to watch other people write, so I dive in myself, with no expectation that I’ll write anything “good.” In one class, I glanced at the board we had filled with dozens of forms. And my eye landed on “rejection notes.” So that is where I began: