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:
Well, once one gets on the subject of rejection, you can imagine how the material simply flows through one’s fingertips. And I’m not really thinking about the content at all; I’m engaged in honing the voice of the rejection note, creating a persona on the page that can “speak back” to me, in a humorous way, all that had gone unspoken in real life. I’m having an immensely good time.
Here’s one that comes early on in the essay:
So I’m going along chronologically, calling up (and enhancing, exaggerating, manipulating) all the slights and hurts of an ordinary life. I’m having a marvelous time, because this voice is so detached it can say whatever it wants. I’m submitting to the voice of the essay, allowing the form to lead me where it will go.
And as I follow that voice, the notes begin to demand more room, wanting to break free of the concise form and allow for more in-depth story. Now that I’ve established the voice of the form, I can expand on that voice to create more variety and narrative. I can also broaden the concept of the rejection note in order to create sections that work for the subject matter. For example:
And then, as the years from my past go by, I find that the essay is leading me somewhere I didn’t expect. I actually pause and say to the essay, “we’re really going there?” and the essay says, of course we are! So, I find myself here:
So, as you can tell, the essay takes a turn there, or maybe “turn” is not the right word; it slows down and peers below the surface. It tells me this is where we were going all along. I’ve written about this material so many times in the past, that I didn’t feel I would ever return to it. But the essay demanded it, and who am I to question the ferocity of an essay in progress?
And this time I feel a kind of transformation happening, a new perspective, a moment of forgiveness. It’s odd to feel this in one’s writing, to feel so concretely that the essay is, indeed, in charge: speaking to you, telling you things you didn’t already know. And this happened solely because of the form. The form of the rejection note—though it began as a technical exercise—created an entirely new universe in which one’s personal narrative does not really belong to you. And because it doesn’t belong to you, it can create meanings—perhaps better meanings—than any you might have thought up on your own.
The essay, now titled “We Regret to Inform You” (what else could it be?), moves, as it must, as life does, quickly through this time period. It has created its own momentum and can’t stop now! The essay has also now provided me with a theme that can echo through the rest of the sections. For example:
Through several revisions of the draft—which included nearly twice as many letters as represented in the final version (as I said, once you get on the subject of rejection, you can really go on and on and on)—I honed the themes I saw rising in the essay through, or perhaps in spite of, the harsh voice of the rejection note. There was the ostensible theme of children or lack thereof, but more insistently there was the theme of how we find the roles one is suited to play in one’s life. So I kept the letters that had echoes of that theme and deleted the rest. I highlighted the theme through key words and phrases to create a fragmented piece that felt coherent and satisfying.
Throughout the process—both drafting and revising—I did not feel the emotional weight of any of the material. In fact, I was laughing most of the time, inordinately pleased with my cleverness. Humor naturally arises when we couple a detached voice with intimate stories, and since audiences are also usually laughing throughout the essay, the weight of that turn in the middle almost has more impact than if I had started with this material as the destination. And we get through it quickly. It’s one moment in a series of moments that accumulate to a greater end.
So, the essay gets published in The Sun, and I receive lots of responses, more than I’ve ever received for any essay in my life. I’ve written about a lot of personal material over the years, but this essay seems to have struck a deeper chord. And I think people are touched by “We Regret to Inform You” not because of the revelation of my personal “rejections,” but because I’ve used a form that invites readers into both my experience and their own. By being ensconced in a more objective form, the essay provides what I’ll call a “shared space” between reader and writer. We often wonder how to make our personal stories universal; well, perhaps it’s not a question of making our stories do anything. Maybe, instead, we simply need to provide common ground in the form of an object we use together. We sit down at the same table and the stories pass between us.
Brenda Miller directs the MFA in Creative Writing and the MA in English Studies at Western Washington University. She is the author of four essay collections, including Listening Against the Stone, Blessing of the Animals, and Season of the Body. She also co-authored Tell It Slant: Creating, Refining and Publishing Creative Nonfiction and The Pen and The Bell: Mindful Writing in a Busy World. Her work has received six Pushcart Prizes.
Miller’s Brevity craft essay is adapted from an August 2014 craft talk she presented at the Rainier Writing Workshop.