Content and Form are Soulmates in the Hermit Crab Essay

“In her essay ‘The Pain Scale,’ Eula Biss uses the form of the pain scale—which attempts to measure one’s pain on a scale of 0 to 10—as a way to structure a highly complex piece that explores not only the nature of pain, but the many different ways we try to measure the immeasurable. In this way, the form itself adds meaning to the piece.” ~ Suzanne Paola and Brenda Miller, in their textbook “Tell it Slant,” the origin of the term “hermit crab essay”

We’ve all encountered this type of essay: a writer takes some sort of unexpected, often visually appealing form and conjoins it with her own content. When it’s done right, the results are spectacular, and unlike anything you’ve ever seen. The content itself is freed from conventions that are expected to accompany a piece of creative nonfiction writing, and may explore uncharted areas of thought. The form can add irony, humor, profundity, enhance the meaning of or engage in dialogue with this content.

Over the past few weeks I’m sure we’ve all been observing how challenging it can be to limit what we have to say to two pages, double spaced, Times New Roman, twelve-point font. So just imagine if half of your argument or your story was told, not explicitly, but through some brave new form which allowed you to further organize your explicit content, chop it down to the bare essentials, move from point to point with bold strokes, and all-around get at what you want to say without all the tarrying that we tend to expect from ourselves and others? How much precious space could we save by writing every weekly exercise as a hermit crab essay?

Well here’s the thing, the thing that I’ve been picking up from reading about this structure. You can’t just do it. You can’t just do it just to say you did it, you can’t just do it arbitrarily. There needs to be a purpose, and the match between form and content needs to fit like a glass slipper to really nail this. An essay about the various pain that Eula Biss has felt in her life fits into the form of the pain scale like a glove—they enhance one another’s meaning. Biss can compare her pain to recognizable standards, and the pain scale is provided with examples to clarify each level. If I were to write about my broken dishwasher in the form of a travel brochure, well, I could try my damnedest to make it work but I really don’t see that panning out, do you? There has to be a reason why the form and the content are coming together.

So how does one go about this matchmaking business? “When I teach the hermit crab essay class,” writes Brenda Miller, “we begin by brainstorming the many different forms that exist for us to plunder for our own purposes.” The writer who coined and developed (to some extent) this form of essay would have us begin with the form and find the content to suit it. In doing so, she says, we may find ourselves “using our imaginations, filling in details, and playing with the content to see what kind of effects we can create.” What do you think? Is it easier to think of a form and work from this foundation, or would you rather start with content that you just know would go perfectly with some innovative new form?