Some Thoughts on Writing Hermit Crab Essays

May 9, 2022 § 9 Comments

By Laurie Easter

During a recent AWP conference panel on the lyric essay, Angie Chuang, Heidi Czerwiec, Sayantani Dasgupta, and I read excerpts of our essays appearing in Randon Billing Noble’s A Harp in the Stars anthology and talked about how we came to our forms. My essay, “Searching for Gwen” is a hermit crab essay in the form of a word search puzzle. What follows below are the thoughts I shared on the panel:

When I first tried to write about the subject matter in “Searching for Gwen,” I did not have its form of a word search puzzle. In an attempt to come to terms with my friend’s disappearance and the likelihood she would never be found, I wrote in fits, starting and stopping over and over, throwing out what I had written to begin again, only to grow frustrated at my lack of progress and flow. The more I tried, the worse it got. Finally, I let go, thinking that maybe I would never be able to write about this friend or I would need to wait—possibly years. That’s when I got lucky: in my release of attachment to an outcome, I had a sort of light bulb moment and the idea of a word search puzzle flashed in my head. I could see it visually in my mind’s eye. It all made sense. My friend was missing; everyone was searching for her. It was a mystery needing resolution, a puzzle waiting to be solved. Not only did this form make metaphoric sense, but it also allowed for me as a writer to apply order to the content of a human experience completely out of control, both emotionally and physically.

I’m not going to tell you that all you need to do is let go and a light bulb moment will magically settle upon you as if given from a fairy godmother. But I am going to say that there are things beyond our control in terms of craft. Nobody wants to talk about this because it isn’t necessarily something that can be taught easily. I have had this type of light bulb experience twice, and both led to hermit crab essays. The word search form for “Searching for Gwen” was the second time it happened. The first time was for an essay titled “Solving My Way to Grandma” which is in the form of a crossword puzzle (and appears in the anthology The Shell Game: Writers Play with Borrowed Forms as well as my essay collection All the Leavings).

At the inception of “Solving My Way to Grandma,” I did not have the content for the essay in mind but simply a drive to write an essay in a unique form. So I started playing around. I used the constraint of acronyms to write an essay that was total crap and never completed. But what that exercise did was it opened up my brain to possibilities. By using a very particular constraint and having absolutely no attachment to the outcome, knowing I was simply playing around and nothing might come of my time and effort, something in my brain opened up creatively and the idea of a crossword puzzle essay presented itself. I still didn’t know what I was going to write about, but I trusted my subconscious. It had come up with the idea; I figured it would also deliver the content.

I know, I know, it sounds woo-woo, right? But you know what? It worked! I sat down with absolutely no idea what I was going to write about, but I thought, okay, I’m just going to write and whatever comes—great! And I was pleasantly surprised by the content that arose. The topic—becoming a grandmother for the first time in my forties—was an issue I had been struggling with, so it was no surprise that that’s what came out. Later, when the idea for the word search puzzle came to me, my first thought actually was, “Duh! Why didn’t I think of that before?” Because after utilizing the crossword puzzle form in the previous essay, a word search puzzle form to write about my missing friend seemed downright obvious once I thought of it. Somewhere in my subconscious, the idea must have lingered, waiting to be released, triggered by the relational quality of puzzle solving, but I had to do the work of letting it out.

I’m making it sound easy, right? So what is the work involved? If you want to write a hermit crab essay, five things are essential:

  • Experimentation and play are key to the process. No idea is too weird. No form off the table. Let your creativity flow without preconceived notions or developing judgments.
  • Release all attachment to the outcome and have a willingness to fail. Not all forms work. Some may not merge seamlessly with its content. This is okay. Remember what Albert Einstein said: “Failure is success in progress.”  Keep at it. Try again.   
  • Trust your intuition/subconscious mind. It knows more than you do.
  • Hermit crab essays require a mix of control and lack of control. The form is a way to apply order to the chaos, but it is necessary to release control to find the form and then allow that constraint to do its work. 
  • Finally, above all else, have fun! One of the joys of writing hermit crab essays is that it’s fun to play with form. Even if the subject matter is intense—as in my essay “Searching for Gwen”—playing with form brings levity to the writing, both for you the writer and the reader.


Laurie Easter is the author of All the Leavings (Oregon State University Press). Her essays have appeared in Brevity, SweetLit, The Rumpus, Hippocampus Magazine, and Pithead Chapel, among others. She lives off the grid in Southern Oregon. Follow her on twitter @EasterLaurie and   


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