Writers, Tired of Rejections? Try Penning a Hermit Crab Essay

A few months ago I started writing a series of rejection letters to myself. Just for fun, to take the edge off my depression over the extensive number of rejection letters from literary publications that arrive in my inbox, most around the beginning of the month. The common wisdom is that you have to submit to be accepted and I’ve found this to be true.

I’ve been fortunate to have my work published in more than a dozen literary magazines. They haven’t asked to read my work, and yet a reader, an editor, a committee, someone or several someone’s decided I’ve written something worth publishing.

But the rejection letters still hurt.  I got one rejection that thanked me for sending in my work because “It provoked a very lively discussion.” One rejection that really angered me was the time an editor specifically asked for revisions and I personally responded to them with the requested revisions, only to then receive a form rejection letter from an entirely different editor.

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My response was my little group of funny or not-so-funny rejection letters to myself. Example:

Dear Nadja,

We are sorry to inform you we will not be publishing “The Winner” in our upcoming issue.  Our apologies for our fifteen month delay in responding to you, but we are severely underpaid, understaffed, and unappreciated. Although we initially liked your story and had set it aside for possible inclusion in our upcoming issue, the new editor has a different vision. These things, unfortunately, happen. We hope you are able to find happiness through something other than writing, and wish you better luck finding a home for your story elsewhere.  

Cheers and Sympathy,

Barley Timid

I was writing (although I didn’t know it at the time) a Hermit Crab Essay. While a series of pseudo true letters may not  be what you think of when you hear the word “essay,” essays can take a variety of shapes and forms. Lyric, braided and triptych are three examples.

The Hermit Crab Essay is  a creative nonfiction form that has generated an explosion of unique  configurations.  It uses a borrowed device such as letters, lists, test forms, calendars, dry cleaning tickets, advertising pamphlets, etc.  to communicate stories and ideas. The possibilities are endless.

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The Hermit Crab essay takes its name from the idea of a borrowed house. The Hermit Crab lives inside the shell of another shellfish, often a snail. When their home is too small, they exchange it for another larger shell.  The heart of the narrative is housed within something else. The house choice, however, imparts its own message.  

One way to start writing a Hermit Crab essay is to arbitrarily choose a form, your house so to speak, start writing and see where it takes you. For example, if I start compiling lists and those lists are grocery lists my essay may have something to do with food, consumerism or eating. As the content evolves I might decide that a recipe book might be better suited to house the heart of my story or I can stick with the grocery list form.

The second way to start a Hermit Crab Essay is to think about what it is you are trying to communicate and then choose a form that would serve best for your project. If I was a competitive athlete and I wanted to convey my physical training journey, I might choose transcripts of physician and PT  charts and reports as my “house.”

Fiction writers, if some of this sounds all too familiar, that’s because fiction writers use these devices frequently. Letters, telegrams, newspaper articles, diary entries, invitation lists and more can present different vantage points in a fiction story. One of my favorite children’s books was Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes. Remember the journal entries. More recently I enjoyed, “The Starlight on Ohio” ( The Largesse of the Sea Maiden 2018), a short story by Denis Johnson, told through a series of letter exchanges and journal entries.

I would be remiss if I didn’t give credit to the two writers, Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola who coined the term, Hermit Crab Essay. They did so in their 2003 book Tell It Slant: Writing and Shaping Creative Nonfiction. Helpful in understanding the form are examples. One fine example is Brenda Miller’s essay “We Regret to Inform You” published in The Sun.  Her essay “Shared Space Between Reader and Writer: A Case Study” published in Brevity explains her process in writing that particular essay. It’s a great read.

Here are two other good examples of Hermit Crab essays published in literary online journals.  “Lunar Chart, Lost Year” by Ann Winn in Tupelo Quarterly takes on the configuration of a lunar chart.  Published in the poetry section, the lines between poetry and CNF  have become blurred as more hybrid forms emerge, so beware of labels.  In Pinch Journal, “A Wrong Turning in American ____” An Essay in Parts by Maya Jewell Zeller  takes the form of a state of mind test with multiple choice selections.

Readers, please let writers know with your comments, when you are moved by their work. Writers write to communicate.

Thank you as always for reading. Follow me on twitter at SN Maril and visit my website at www.Nadjamaril.com to read a few of my creative published pieces.

Published by Nadja Maril

Nadja Maril is a communications professional who has over 10 years experience as a magazine editor. A writer and journalist, Maril is the author of several books including: "American Lighting 1840-1940", "Antique Lamp Buyer's Guide", "Me, Molly Midnight; the Artist's Cat", and "Runaway, Molly Midnight; the Artist's Cat". Her short stories and essays have been published in several small online journals including Lunch Ticket, Change Seven, Scarlet Leaf Review and Defunkt Magazine. She has an MFA in creative writing from Stonecoast at the University of Southern Maine. Former Editor-in-Chief of What's Up ? Publishing, former Editor of Chesapeake Taste Magazine a regional lifestyle magazine based in Annapolis, and former Lighting Editor of Victorian Homes Magazine, Maril has written hundreds of newspaper and magazines articles on a variety of subjects..

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