How I Learned to Break the Rules: Introducing the Hermit Crab Essay

How I Learned to Break the Rules: Introducing the Hermit Crab Essay

Life is complicated when you have a six-year-old son who skips around the house singing “Never kill living things!” and a toddler who stomps down fiercely on anything small that crawls.

So, when the garden in our new house became overpopulated with snails and the boys developed a shared fascination for the slimy beings, I was ecstatic. Finally, something they could agree on! 

Before long, the terrace was covered with snail houses: boxes decorated with leaves, rocks, flowers, and tons of snails. “Mami, this is gross!” my daughter screamed, retreating inside. In an earlier life, I may have agreed with her, but as a mom of three, you learn to embrace anything gooey if it means drinking coffee peacefully at seven in the morning.

Overseeing snail play has other benefits. Observing the shelled creatures got me thinking about one of my favorite break-the-rules memoir-writing techniques: the hermit crab essay.

But first: how did a disciplined, responsible, do-gooder like me end up in rule-breaking territory in the first place?


1. At some point in your life, you have to break the rules.

The first thing you should know about me is that I’ve always been a rule-following over-achiever. High school Valedictorian, Magna cum Laude at an Ivy League School, Goldman Sachs Scholarship for Excellence recipient. You get the point.

So, when I started an MFA program eleven years ago, I expected things to be no different.

The first course I took during the program was Memoir with Les Standiford, Program Director and Master of Craft. Having had no formal writing background, I signed up for the class eager to soak in any and all instruction on how to write my story. I was armed and ready to achieve.

Despite the fact that Les kept wanting me to write the funny, light-hearted stories I’d submitted in my application, my intuition told me I needed to do something different. I wanted to write about the eating disorder I’d experienced while living in Geneva a few years earlier. And there was nothing funny or light-hearted about this story.

My infamous first try was an essay about my childhood in Panama. During workshop, Les suggested I scrap the piece altogether and begin my essay twenty years later. He explained that when you’re writing a story, the best place to start is at the peak of the conflict.

Good student that I am, I dutifully listened. My second essay took place in Geneva, in the midst of the eating disorder. Needless to say, writing this draft was insanely difficult. And yet, as difficult as it was to write, that didn’t come close to the grueling experience of having it workshopped a few weeks later.

To be honest, I’ve purposely forgotten most of what went down in that second workshop. From what I can remember, the main problem was that my story didn’t explain the root cause of my conflict.

As you can imagine, this feedback was difficult for me to swallow (no pun intended). It wasn’t just that it hurt to talk openly about my struggle with a room-full of strangers (which it did). Most of all, I was resistant to the idea that my complex experience could be analyzed by a room-full of strangers and then organized into a neat chronological narrative. How could I explain to Les that a psychological disorder has a myriad of causes? And why did my intuition keep telling me to go back to my childhood?

By the time the semester ended, I had more questions than answers about how to write my story.

For someone who’d always achieved top results by following the rules, this was a paralyzing experience.


2. When one door closes, another opens.

The following semester, I took memoir with Julie Wade. During our first one-on-one meeting, she read my first draft and smiled. I wasn’t sure what she was so smiley about, but her optimism gave me enough courage to return to my story.

In Julie’s class, we read and wrote hybrid essays. Instead of learning traditional narrative techniques, we played with form. As I began experimenting, the writing began to flow.


3. A quick note about hermit crabs.

One of my favorite experimental techniques from Julie’s class is the hermit crab essay.

Hermit crabs are fascinating animals. Born without a shell, they survive on land by borrowing sea shells. As a hermit crab outgrows its shell, it has to find a larger one for survival. This is a challenging process. And yet, hermit crabs are astute. Even when they don’t find the right-size shell, they’ll use cans and other human debris as temporary protection.

In the hermit crab essay, a term coined by Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola, the experimental writer stops trying to fit their story into a chronological narrative. Instead, they seek unconventional forms. Almost any form can be a shell: a food recipe, an instruction manual, a letter, a resume, a playlist. These unlikely shells give the writer the structure and protection they need to tell a story that resists traditional narrative.


4. Breaking the rules helped me unleash my inner trickster.

As soon as I started reading and writing hermit crab essays, I forgot all about causes and triggers and conflict and time. In fact, I tossed most conventional writing rules out the window.

I studied hermit crab essays and brainstormed shells I could try. When I discovered a shell I liked, I wrote. And then, an incredible thing happened: as I wrote, I became completely liberated from the weight of my story. As soon as I stopped thinking about how to fit my story into a box, my creative energy was freed.  

In her incredible book, Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert encourages people to connect to their inner trickster:

“I believe that the original human impulse for creativity was born out of pure trickster energy. Of course it was! Creativity wants to flip the mundane world upside down and turn it inside out, and that’s exactly what a trickster does best….the trickster…understands the one great cosmic truth that…“It’s all just a game.”” (223-5).  

It took 30 years of straight-laced activity on this Earth for me to gain the insight and courage I needed to break rules. 

And the moment I approached writing like a game instead of a finish line, everything became much, much easier.

5. Even when you’re playing, there’s learning to be done.

Like most anything you do, the starting point to writing experimental essays is to study what’s already out there. To get you started, I’ve included a list of hermit crab essays at the end of this post.

The trick is to read as many hermit crab essays as you can. As you read, ask yourself: why does this essay work? How tightly or loosely does the author adhere to the form? How is the vulnerable material approached and protected? How does the tone of the essay relate to the form?

When you’ve read enough essays, start trying shells on for size. If a particular form doesn’t work, be like the hermit crab and move on to another.

Once you’re fluent in hermit crab essays, you can come up with your own forms. For me, this is really when the fun began. I was finally free from the confines of narrative and able to make up my own rules.


6. Write like a hermit crab, watch like a snail.

As a writer, I often aim to be like the hermit crab: strong and audacious enough to lift the carapace of story, but trickster enough to break the rules. Writing like a hermit crab has helped me transform pain into play.

And yet, lately, I’ve also grown quite fond of the snails in my garden. As I watch them scooch methodically across the terrace floor in the early morning, I can’t help thinking about how content they seem with moving only a few hundred meters in their entire lifetime.

I’m also continually fascinated by my childrens’ interest in the natural world. My toddler is as mesmerized by snails today as he was a month ago. Meanwhile, my six-year-old eventually lost interest and went on to study the fluorescent green grasshopper that lived in our dining room for a few weeks. Currently, all three kids are obsessed with rollie pollies, small beetles that curl up into a ball whenever our toddler terrorizes them. 

As I watch them watch, I remind myself to be more like the snail, slowing down enough to notice.

Hermit Crab essays

We Regret to Inform You by Brenda Miller

The Pain Scale by Eula Biss

How to Become a Writer by Lorrie Moore

Intro to BRCA1+ Quiz by Anne Panning

Knitting 101 by Kim Adrian

The Shared Space Between Reader and Writer: A Case Study by Brenda Miller (craft essay)