Hermit Crab Essay

On Monday some of us attended a presentation by Randon Billings Noble, a candidate for teaching Creative Non Fiction at Rowan.

She read an example of what she referred to as a Hermit Crab essay.

In nature a Hermit Crab uses shells discarded by the sea creatures, for example you might find a hermit crab living in an old oyster shell.

I liked this approach to writing a personal essay and I think you will too.

The approach is quite simple.

Like a hermit crab you borrow the format of another piece writing––probably a non-creative form––and build your essay using that type wof structure.

This seems to work best when the essay is deeply personal––almost to the point of being confessional––and the format is highly prosaic (‘prosaic’ is the opposite to poetic, and means dry, dull, and boring), thus giving the maximum tension between to the two forms.

Our first task is to brainstorm some of the possible formats we could use.


Reseach Paper

Project Proposal

Text Book

Instruction Manual



Lesson Plan (Hah!)

Business Letter


Real Estate Flyer

For Sale Notice

Event Poster


Greeting Card (or a series of greeting cards)

Description of a work of art (painting, piece of music, sculpture)

Museum, Brochure.

There are many other formats, but the next step is to look at the potential of some of them, and the greatest potential probably lies with the ones you’re most familiar with. For example, I trained as an artist, so the idea of viewing a scene from my life as a classical painting in a museum appeals to me––just because I spend a lot of time in museums.

Sylvia Plath did this too.

If you’ve recently been trying to buy or sell something on ebay or craigslist you might do the sales blurb.

At this point it’s good to ask ourselves why we’re doing this.

Yes, it could be fun, and fun makes good writing and reading, but in creative non-fiction we’re trying to go deeper.

What we are achieving here has been referred to as getting ‘out of our own way.’

In other words, we know what we want to write about, but this exercise is going to force us to reconsider how we’re going to write about it, and open ourselves up to the unexpected.

Do we really want to write about lost love as maudlin first person account? Would that really get the point across? Could it be more effective if the account was written as a set of instructions.

Here are some examples from essayist Brenda Miller:

Rejection Letter 

April 12, 1970

Dear Young Artist:

Thank you for your attempt to draw a tree. We appreciate your efforts, especially the way you sat patiently on the sidewalk, gazing at that tree for an hour before setting pen to paper, the many quick strokes of charcoal executed with enthusiasm. But your drawing looks nothing like a tree. In fact, the smudges look like nothing at all, and your own pleasure and pride in said drawing are not enough to redeem it. We are pleased to offer you remedial training in the arts, but we cannot accept your “drawing” for display.

With regret and best wishes,

The Art Class

Andasol Avenue Elementary School

October 13, 1975

Dear 10th Grader:

Thank you for your application to be a girlfriend to one of the star players on the championship basketball team. As you can imagine, we have received hundreds of similar requests and so cannot possibly respond personally to every one. We regret to inform you that you have not been chosen for one of the coveted positions, but we do invite you to continue hanging around the lockers, acting as if you belong there. This selfless act serves the team members as they practice the art of ignoring lovesick girls.


The Granada Hills Highlanders

P.S: Though your brother is one of the star players, we could not take this familial relationship into account. Sorry to say no! Please do try out for one of the rebound girlfriend positions in the future.

This is one of my own:

How to Make Your Home Feel Really Empty in Twelve Steps.

First, place everything you can lift into boxes you retrieved from a dumpster behind a liquor store

Second, carry it all as far away as you can.

Third, If you still have a friend, or an almost-friend––even a sort-of-friend––and perhaps a friend-of-a-friend,

Have them help you take out the things too heavy for you to manage alone.

Fourth, Use a wineglass to trap all the spiders, bees, flies, moths, and roaches, then take them outside and release them.

Fifth, Vacuum every cranny if you have crannies.

Sixth, Vacuum every nook if you have nooks.

Seventh, Vacuum every niche if you have niches.

Eighth, Peel off the sheetrock, roll up the carpets, and wrap the wiring,

Ninth, Gather up all the joists, the boards, the studs,

Tenth, stack the doors, windows, and frames,

But leave one sill.

Eleventh, using a scientifically-proven device,

Suck out all the air, first the nitrogen, then the oxygen, then

The CO-two, the neon, the freon, and the argon.

Finally, for a finishing flourish, find a shallow basket,

Preferably at Goodwill, place it on the one remaining sill,

And arrange in it a dozen sachets of hot-sauce from a Seven-Eleven. 

Then I can live there, and never be reminded of you.