What’s up with the hermit crab?

by Suzy Vitello

A vessel of water pours itself into a shell, then out pops a hermit crab, which scuttles along to the edge of the page. Is this a nod to Eliot’s “...pair of ragged claws. Scuttling across the floors of silent seas...”? Well, sort of. I mean, what better metaphoric image for a writer’s Web site, right? But, my intention with (and my Web designer Julia’s brilliant execution of) the crab animation goes beyond appreciation for the Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.

In grad school, I was intrigued with a seminar on the “hermit crab essay” taught by Brenda Miller. The hermit crab essay is a subgenre of lyric essay whereby the author appropriates a form in which to tell her story while incorporating some of the elements of poetry. Changing liquid to solid, mineral to animal, essay to poem, nonfiction to fiction: it’s all part of this notion of form-bending, which, if you subscribe to the idea that, as writers, we get to think outside the shell, well, there you have it.

In a recent issue, the Seneca Review defined the lyric essay as a form that “partakes of the poem in its density and shapeliness, its distillation of ideas and musicality of language. It partakes of the essay in its weight, in its overt desire to engage with facts, melding its allegiance to the actual with its passion for imaginative forms.”

I’ve been playing around with the hermit crab for a while. My piece, “26 Poses,” appropriates the form of Bikram Yoga to tell the story of a ten-year relationship. My new novel-in-progress, “Unkiss Me and Return Me to the Dwarfs” steals the form of a blog/blogger relationship to tell a fairly simple, straightforward story, bent to explore POV, unreliable narrator, Greek Chorus, and narrative arc via the psychology of a cyber-epistolary.

I find that genre-bending invites a sort of playfulness that opens the writing to the unexpected, and in so doing bends my intention, leading me to something that seems brought to me, rather than dictated by me, which is, I suppose, why I’m moved to write in the first place.


Close Window