Why I’m Obsessed with Hermit Crab Essays (And You Will Be, Too)

Hermit crab essays allow you to use ANYTHING as the "shell" of your writing
Photo by Thomas Lipke on Unsplash

Do you sometimes find yourself struggling to figure out HOW to say something? The problem isn’t the words – it’s the framework of those sentences. The usual paragraph system just won’t work. (And, no, I’m not going to get into podcasting or Youtubing – is that a word? – here) You want to write in a different way, get your thoughts across in another form. Enter hermit crab essays.

(No, not the paper you wrote about hermit crabs in the third grade)

The beautiful version of creative non-fiction that opens the format of your words to ANYTHING.


Creative Non-Fiction

Let’s start with a quick intro to CNF (if you aren’t familiar with the term). Because hermit crab essays rely on creative non-fiction. (And that “creative” in the title tends to trip people up a bit)

CNF is nothing more than:

A form of storytelling that employs creative techniques such as poetry and fiction to retell a story.


Rather than a reported essay that relies on research to fill in the space between personal anecdotes, CNF fleshes out characters the way a short story or novel might. Or they build up the narrative into a complete story arc, creating an engaging narrative. The story remains true (remember, we’re talking “non-fiction”), but it reads more like a fiction piece than something you find in your local paper.

And no pieces of CNF look alike.

The best thing about creative non-fiction is that it’s experimental. Writers come up with newer, wilder ways to tell their stories.

Such as hermit crab essays.

Hermit Crab Essays

Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola developed the term “hermit crab essay” in 2003. It showed up in their book, Tell It Slant. They carried the definition further in a related book in 2018, The Shell Game. Both are collections of CNF that take on extremely unconventional forms:

  • Recipes
  • How-to instructions
  • Marriage licenses
  • Rubik’s cubes
  • Crossword puzzles
  • Police reports

You do (and don’t) read the pieces like you would an ordinary essay. The different “shells” presented add extra insight to the topic presented. The form appropriated provides the characterization, environment, or even background exposition.

And you see that in the official definition of the hermit crab essay:

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.”

~Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola

Strip away the unusual formatting, and the piece loses its meaning. It turns into a poor, defenseless crab – vulnerable to attack by predators. (Okay, I promise not to dive into a scientific lecture here)

The Beauty of Hermit Crab Essays

ANYTHING has the potential to become a hermit crab essay.

If you can see it – and attach meaning – you can write it.

Once you begin reading through some of these pieces, your mind starts churning, and you can’t contain the impulse to write them. Not to mix species, but the world becomes your oyster.

  • Forms you fill out repetitively?
  • Playlists you craft?
  • Tests you take?
  • Directions you follow?

Everything holds the possibility to become a piece of CNF when you eliminate the strictures of form. And you don’t lose a word of the meaning you want to express. You may even find yourself STRENGTHENING your message – all by your choice of “shell.”

Remember that unique voice of yours? This is another chance to stand out from the crowd. Because NO ONE else will look at a poster and take away the same thoughts as you. Or glimpse an encyclopedia entry and reflect on a moment in your life. Hermit crab essays are as unique as the tiny crustaceans they’re named for.

Invisible Inks

As soon as I read my first hermit crab, I was hooked.

I couldn’t see anything around me without my writing brain itching to turn it into an essay. So many elements in my life attached themselves to everyday objects. I found myself creating anecdotes for the most mundane things – like grocery lists and flyers.

Which is how Invisible Inks came to be.

I wanted a chance to explore and play with my love for hermit crab essays. And attaching my support for invisible illnesses – a natural inclination – made sense. (Mostly because so many of my anecdotes lean in that direction)

THIS is what happens when you start thinking outside of the box, though. You find your creativity blooming. Everything begins looking different. Before you know it, you have to work to write a NORMAL essay.

Pick a Shell

Look up hermit crab essays. (I have NO idea where you might be able to read some. **cough** Invisible Inks **cough**)

Read through them.

And then look around you. See what pulls at your imagination. Give writing one of these pieces of CNF a try.

You might like it!

Then post what “shell” you decided to give a try. Inspire someone else to look at that format in a new light!

Happy hunting, Crabbies!

Author: Andria Kennedy

I speak the thoughts rattling around in my brain, sharing topics I think other people want and should hear (or are afraid to talk about themselves). I bring my personality and quirky state of mind to everything I write; serious topics shouldn't be devoid of humor. That includes my blog and freelance work (part of my charm). I've been writing for as long as I can remember. It's a source of solace and enjoyment for me. I'm lucky enough to call what I love my career - so it's NOT work! I live in Virginia with the Minions (four cats and a Greyhound) and my wonderful husband, who ensures I stay fed - no cereal for dinner - and as close to sane as I can get.

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