Ambrose Bierce, the American editorialist and journalist, wrote in his 1909 craft book, Write It Right, that “good writing” is “clear thinking made visible,” an idea that has been repeated and adapted by countless writers over the past century. My own addition would be to add that the act of lyric essay writing not only makes thoughts visible but also institutes order and layers meaning when it is not always immediately apparent. And although ideas may begin free-form or as stream of consciousness, on the page or screen, we make the jump from internal to external. We craft them into a form, whether chronological or otherwise. One such approach to form is the “hermit crab” essay, so named by Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola in their craft book Tell It Slant. Miller later defined it in an article for Brevity as “adopt[ing] 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.” This approach creates meaning by juxtaposing the personal story with its imposed “container,” allowing the more traditional narrative to be in conversation with our personal, cultural, and/or scientific assumptions and understandings of the chosen form.
“Hermit crabs,” Miller explains, “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 they can be quite vicious, evicting the shell’s rightful inhabitant by force).” Ironically, however, most containers that writers find are of the nonorganic variety: a shopping list, a course syllabus—not unlike the hermit crab who makes its home inside a bottle cap. Here, we will look at a few examples that do employ natural forms as a container, encouraging a conversation between the human-made and the natural world.
Chelsea Biondolillo’s “On Shells” from Essay Daily is, at first glance, a fragmented essay that alternates between the narratives of the author learning to beachcomb as a child, the author becoming a writer and teacher, and the background on shell collectors. At first, it appears the essay resists form when our author implies she didn’t initially embrace the imposed form of a hermit crab essay because it felt contrived. But as we move through the essay, the fragments take on their own form: that of shell collecting and of nature itself. Biondolillo tells us at the end that she has learned that writing “practice is inefficient by design. Collect as many tools and forms and voices and structures as you can so that you are as well-equipped as possible when you sit down to work.” So is beachcombing a practice of collecting the best of random bits, your own practice of creating order. She says she has learned not to be as “worried about the prize at the end of the page” as she once was; every essay we read and write will have a literal end, but there will also never be an end. The essay is about the journey, the collection of random bits, and what the resulting collection means when the pieces are looked at as a whole. And so Biondolillo’s imposed form as an act of shell collecting, reinforced by the small pictures of shells on the page between each fragment, helps illustrate that while nature can be random, as we find meaning in nature, so we also find that this randomness can—and does—forge its own form.
Yet one may also rightfully argue that nature is not entirely random, but has developed clear and consistent taxonomies, cycles, and behaviors. In Jennifer Lunden’s “The Butterfly Effect” (first published in this magazine), we learn about the life cycle of butterflies in a series of encyclopedia-like entries that also serve as the form to tell the story of the author’s own connection to butterflies, beginning in adolescence. Yet, in the early sections, like “Metamorphosis,” “Migration,” and “Habitat,” we learn as much about how these terms apply to our author’s own life as to the butterflies she is traveling, in this essay, to see.
And then our narrative—and our encyclopedic structure—spins outward. We learn about “The Butterfly Lady,” who found healing amongst the butterflies in California. The threads of these three parallel stories—the author’s, the Butterfly Lady’s, and that of the butterflies themselves—woven together form a single whole, a container. Is the container the form of the scientific encyclopedia entry? If so, we can reflect on what this says about humans imposing form on nature; after all, it is we who insist on categorization, on creating a narrative out of the sometimes disparate layers of a natural phenomenon. Or is our container the cocoon that is spun outward, protecting the chrysalis as it transforms? I would argue it is both: our encyclopedia headers look outward to “Monsanto” and “Global Warming,” and how these affect the environment not only of the butterfly but also of the author, and, in fact, of all humans. This form—or, one might argue, this dual form—reflects human imposition on nature as well as the inverse: how we define nature, yes, but also how our decisions affect it. The repetition of the headers “Migration” and “Habitat” also creates a cyclical movement often at odds with human written narration, though it is frequently seen in nature: in seasons, metamorphosis, life and death. As these threads diverge and converge, we also see wildness and humanity doing the same, ending with our word for a natural occurrence—susurrus—which would exist whether humans witnessed and named it or not.
Finally, Julie Marie Wade’s “Bouquet,” originally published in Third Coast and reprinted in her book Wishbone: A Memoir in Fractures, is itself a bouquet that pairs the name, horticultural descriptions, growing tendencies, and cultural relevance of different kinds of flowers with scenes or reflections. The personal reflects the natural, both through the flowers’ innate tendencies and the symbolism culture imposes on them. For example, a brief explanation of why the long-lasting cornflower is known as “bachelor’s button” is paired with the story of a relationship as well as Wade’s struggle to accept her own sexual identity. What makes the bouquet an appropriate container is the interplay of the natural characteristics of each flower—those that humans cannot control—with the cultural import we have given many of these flowers, as well as the symbolism of the bouquet as an object. The bouquet is a human form made of nature—a collection of (in this case) disparate flowers, cut and contained and most often given as a gesture of love. A bouquet, too, is a sum of its parts. Each flower can and does exist on its own in the wild, but in relation to others in our human-made form, each plays a particular role. Here is the author’s literary bouquet: a collection of the personal blooms that make up the story she is telling—a bouquet the reader believes, by the end of reading, to be a gift to her beloved. As in both Biondolillo’s and Lunden’s essays, there is always the tension of seeing a natural form in its native habitat—a shell, a butterfly, a flower—and the human manipulation of it.
As I began my own investigation into nature-influenced hermit crab essays, I thought I would find numerous essays that used the infinite unblemished forms found in our natural world as a perfect metaphor and container for our very human and imperfect stories. But I found it challenging to unearth many examples of nature-as-form, and those I did find built upon the interplay of the natural world and human influence. Perhaps this only makes sense: can we ever not see nature through the lens of our humanness, especially as we strive to use it as a container to help make sense of our own stories and experiences?
Perhaps Biondolillo best expresses the essence of what a hermit crab essay is: “Acuity to see the unbroken curve of aperture against all of the chips and shards the sea has thrown up, to see the unblemished whorl, the striations in deep relief among the smooth nubs of wood, the distracting pebbles of glass, the wet strings and sheets of seaweed, already rotting in the first light of morning.” At first reading, I interpreted this to be an appreciation of nature and an effort to emulate its “unbroken curve” and “unblemished whorl” in one’s writing. But maybe that’s not the whole story. The hermit crab essay as inspired by nature can be formed from the broken “chips and shards” and the “distracting pebbles of glass.” Are these imperfect bits manmade or from nature? And does it matter? They are all part of the world in which we live: nature influenced by humans and humans inspired by nature—and all of us if not rotting, then certainly evolving in each new morning’s light.