Lesson No. 3: The Hermit Crab Essay

hermit crab teapot






We have a story to tell and must find the right form in which to tell it. Or, we have a form we want to use and must find the right story with which to tell it. Chicken, meet egg. Egg, meet chicken. In the end, though, it doesn’t really matter which came first, just that something came, something appeared on the page. 

Now let’s look at that page. 

There are many ways to format an essay

One big block of text

 text examples












 Some fragments

 text examples












 And the delightfully weird

 text examples












Which leads us to the hermit crab essay. Hermit crab essays push you to find a form that will do the best justice to the story you want to tell. It will make you think about writing in a different way, and will ultimately make readers read differently, engage with your work in innovative ways. These elements will induce a deeper layer of meaning. What the hermit crab essay does is bring structure into the picture, to use the look of a text in such a way that the meaning of the text becomes even stronger. Sure, you can write an essay about the different ways in which the Department of Homeland Security is racist, but why not take its own official document and turn it into an officially kickass way to make this point?

 Form becomes a part of the essay, of the narrative, of that thing that reaches out to the reader and pulls her in. 

 Time for some examples.  

Reject the reject-er

 rejection letter














The crossword interview

 crossword interview














And you can always index that shit

moson example













And so we have this great story to tell, and now we have all of these great structures with which we could tell it, and so now our job is to do some kneading, some molding, some shaping and some imagining. I mean, really, how can you understand the wide array of sexuality through a fake index for a fake book? It may sound absurd, but it works. It works because sexuality is all about defining who we are—which definition fits us—and an index is, in essence, a tool that helps to define and point to the important issues in a text. 

And then there’s also the why the hell not? factor. Why not write a lesbian manifesto out of offensive rap music? Why not use word problems similar to the ones found on math tests to tell the story of your dating history? Why not make warning labels that say something about your college experience? Why not use an academic calendar to talk about heartache?


Because why not?

We can create and tinker with various forms in order to say something more. Because this is not just about what story you are telling, but how you are showing that telling. Feeling a bit disjointed and non-emotional? Make a shopping list of your relationship with you mother. Feeling a bit slurred with a recent event? Make an outline of your problem. Feeling like your writing is stupid? Copy other authors’ quotes about writing and mix them together in order to get at what you’re feeling, what it is you really want to say. Let the words speak volumes of experiences and let the look of the text tether down that ultimate purpose—write differently so we can read differently. But really, we can do this just because.



  1. Previous to this workshop, if someone had tried to talk to you about how a reader moves spatially through an essay, what would have you thought? And now that you know about the importance of space in regards to writing, how would you describe this to a non-writer friend?
  2. What are two examples of how Ander Monson, in “Outline Toward a Theory of the Mine Versus the Mind and the Harvard Outline,” shifts through different topics and themes by making main points and then sub-points and then main points, again, and then etc? How does the structure help to elucidate Monson’s ideas?
  3. What do you think about the presence of metaphors in a hermit crab essay? How is this type of lyric essay dependent on metaphors to make its point? How is it not? And what about all of those digressions? Are they inherently a part of hermit crab essays?
  4. What are the ways in which Jill Talbot, in her essay “The Professor of Longing,” invite the reader to interact with her essay? 


Writing Exercises

  1. Use the Harvard Outline structure, write an essay about your family.
  2. Get driving directions from you home to your ex’s home, and use these directions as a way to discuss what happened to this relationship.
  3. Write an essay about depression in the form of a grocery list.
  4. Take this blank nutrition facts label, and fill in the information with the contents of your job duties and what your job means to you.
  5. Label each drawing on this sheet to tell the story of how you grew up, or that speaks to your relationship with your parents/guardians.



Weekly Deadlines

  • Saturday at 6pm:
    • All readings are to be completed
    • At least one discussion response posted in the forum below.
  • Sunday at 6pm:
    • Weekly draft of essay(s) (no more than 1000 words total) posted in the forum below.
  • Tuesday at 6pm
    • Chelsey will respond with feedback


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