Essays in Strange Forms and Peculiar Places: ‘The Shell Game’

June 8, 2018 | 2 books mentioned 5 min read

The term “hermit crab essay,” coined in 2003 by Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola in their book Tell It Slant: Writing and Shaping Creative Nonfiction, refers to essays that take the form of something un-essay-like—such as a recipe, how-to manual, or marriage license—and use this form to tell a story or explore a topic.

These essays, like the creatures they’re named after, borrow the structures and forms they inhabit. And these borrowed homes, in turn, protect the soft, vulnerable bodies of the crabs within. As Miller and Paola write in their original description of the genre:

This kind of essay appropriates other forms as an outer covering to protect its soft, vulnerable underbelly. It’s an essay that deals with material that seems to have been born without its own carapace—material that’s soft, exposed, and tender and must look elsewhere to find the form that will best contain it.

coverThe Shell Game: Writers Play with Borrowed Forms, edited by Kim Adrian and published in 2018 by the University of Nebraska Press, is the first collection devoted entirely to this still rather new form. And if this lively and energetic anthology is any indication, it’s a form that will be around for a long time to come.

Hermit crab essays are a fascinating genre, one that I’m drawn to as both a reader and a writer. There’s something about them that represents the spirit of our era—with our infinite distractibility and our distrust of meta-narratives. They capture, perhaps, the inability of traditional storytelling to tell our most traumatic, fragmented, and complex stories—and our longing for structures that can.

Hermit crab essays de-normalize our sense of genre, helping us to see the way that forms and screens, questionnaires and interviews all shape knowledge as much as they convey it. For essays like these, message is always, at least in part, the medium.

Miller says in her foreword to The Shell Game that “with every iteration, both the hermit crab creature and the hermit crab essay become more deeply understood, and the possibilities for the form grow by the day.” And it is indeed a form that’s constantly growing and expanding. As long as there are new forms and structures created in the world, there are new possibilities for hermit crab essays.

Kim Adrian’s introduction to the volume is itself a hermit crab essay. Subtitled “A Natural History of the North American Hermit Crab Essay,” the introduction takes the form of a field guide about hermit crab essays, as if they were living creatures. In a section called “Number of Species,” for instance, she says that the family is “theoretically infinite, realistically somewhere in the thousands. Maybe tens of. Some of the more conspicuous include: grocery lists; how-to instructions; job applications; syllabi and other academic outlines; recipes; obituaries; liner notes; contributors’ notes; chronologies of all orders; abecedarians of all types; hierarchies of every description; want ads; game instructions,” along with dozens of other examples. In other words, the forms that hermit crab essays can take are as endless and ever-changing as human culture itself.

Adrian raises in her introduction the possibility that hermit crab essays could “be a self-limiting phenomenon: a somewhat charming blip of literary trendiness.” Time will tell, she says, but it’s also possible:

…that instead of disappearing like a spent trend, the hermit crab essay may yet spawn an entire new breed of essays—essays we can’t even imagine from here, essays that refuse to draw a line between fact and fiction, that refuse even to acknowledge such a line, and that throw on disguises of every description…in order to more fully inhabit some internal truth and in this way do what the best specimens of the noble order Exagium have always done: get to something real.

It’s interesting to note, as she says, that one of the things these essays do is to “refuse to draw a line between fact and fiction.” Many hermit crab essays are a strange hybrid between fact and fiction, calling attention to their constructedness and their made-up qualities even as they presumably tell “true” stories and are rooted in actual experiences. It’s difficult to consider them strictly nonfiction, since they are themselves inventions. When an essay in this volume takes the form of a legal document or a marriage license, after all, it’s pretending to be those things in order to tell a deeper story, or, as Adrian says, to “get to something real.”

It’s no accident, I think, that this form is gaining popularity precisely at a moment in American culture when the distinctions between fact and fiction are becoming increasingly blurry. That’s not to say that hermit crab essays don’t teach us to think critically about that blurriness. Rather, they do just the opposite: They call attention to the ways that cultural forms and expectations create reality. They make us see something about the forms and the stories they embody, helping us to understand how the forms of our culture both shape and limit our understanding of the world.

The essays in this volume cross a lot of territory and, as would be expected, take many forms. One of my favorites is “Solving My Way to Grandma” by Laurie Easter. It takes the form of a crossword puzzle in order to tell the story of the narrator’s coming to terms with becoming a grandmother. Since I love word puzzles, I worked on the puzzle as I read the essay, which was composed of small snippets of story turned into clues. Here, for instance, is 1 Across: “‘Mom, I have something to tell you. You might want to sit down.’ When my daughter said this, my first thought was Uh-oh, who died? Not Oh my god, she’s pregnant. (Expect the _______).”

Solving the puzzle while reading the essay lets the reader experience the narrator’s own process of puzzle-solving about her life. It’s a moving essay that works especially well because the form and the content are so well-matched. Reading this essay is a visceral experience in puzzle-solving.

The collection is full of similarly surprising and delightful essays. Sarah McColl’s “Ok, Cupid,” for instance, uses the form of a dating profile for self-revelation, with the narrator answering questions like “What I’m doing with my life” with elaborate and seemingly tangential answers that actually become more truthful than a real dating profile ever could.

Brenda Miller’s “We Regret to Inform You” is a brilliant collection of imagined rejection letters from art teachers, dance teams, and would-be boyfriends and husbands. The essay ends, finally, with an acceptance letter from a pet rescue, congratulating her on the adoption of her new dog—a letter that comes in stark and moving contrast to the years of rejection.

The essays in this collection bring with them a sense of hope about literature and its capacity for evolution and change. In Tell It Slant, Miller and Paola tell those interested in writing hermit crab essays to look around and see what’s out there: “The world is brimming with forms that await transformation. See how the world constantly orders itself in structures that can be shrewdly turned to your own purposes.”

In a postscript to The Shell Game, there’s an eight-page list by Cheyenne Nimes of many possible forms for hermit crab essays, from game show transcripts to eBay ads. I couldn’t help reading this as a list of writing prompts, circling some that I’d like to try. It’s a fitting way to end a volume that is as much an inspiration for other writers as it is a definitive collection of a constantly evolving genre.

Ultimately, maybe it’s this promise of transformation and adaptation that makes hermit crab essays so appealing. They encourage us to move forward, and they show us how many different paths we might take.

lives in New Concord, Ohio, where she teaches English at Muskingum University. Her work has appeared in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Creative Nonfiction, Slice, and many other publications, and she’s the author of Fiddle: One Woman, Four Strings, and 8,000 Miles of Music (Citadel-Kensington), The Village (Kelsay Books), and Making (Origami Poems Project). Visit her website at www.vivianwagner.net.

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