The Millions

Essays in Strange Forms and Peculiar Places: ‘The Shell Game’

The term “hermit crab essay,” coined in 2003 by Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola in their book Tell It Slant: Writing and Shaping Creative Nonfiction, refers to essays that take the form of something un-essay-like—such as a recipe, how-to manual, or marriage license—and use this form to tell a story or explore a topic.

These essays, like the creatures they’re named after, borrow the structures and forms they inhabit. And these borrowed homes, in turn, protect the soft, vulnerable bodies of the crabs within. As Miller and Paola write in their original description of the genre:

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

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