Document Type


Publication Date

Fall 2023

Course Description

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. The human story becomes the hermit crab borrows a form or shell to express itself. In the last twenty years the form has exploded blurring the lines between fiction and nonfiction. Also called “borrowed form.” This class is a meditation on repurposing familiar forms through research, imagination and craft. We are surrounded by so many forms we take them for granted. Some examples include the Bible or any sacred text, song lyrics, phone books, newspaper articles, obituaries, resumes, class schedules, dating profiles, government documents such as the U.S. Constitution, famous speeches like Abraham Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address” or Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s, “I Have a Dream,” screenplays, scripts, letters, directions on board games and how-to-manuals are just a few. As we delve into the material you are going to hopefully see infinite possibilities at your fingertips. Once you start over laying your narratives onto borrowed forms you may strangely find a liberty in the forum. It feels counterintuitive. My goal is to open your imagination to nonfiction’s greater possibilities.

For years Dinty W. Moore’s essay “Son of Mr. Green Genes,” showcased in the textbook, became literary catnip for my students. It’s called an abecedarian or an alphabetically arranged essay. His unconventional memoir Between Panic and Desire is mostly experimental essays. He famously says “Don’t make shit up.” That doesn’t mean we can’t invent within the confines of truth. Invention is different from fabrication. While fiction and nonfiction have clear distinctions. In the end good writing is good writing. Our textbooks push boundaries but are clearly nonfiction. We will always push up against that line. Hopefully by end of the semester you will be exploding with new approaches and ideas you can pursue in nonfiction, and the worlds of form around you become a creative oyster

Student Outcomes

  • Attaining a deep appreciation for “hermit crab or borrowed form” as a foundation for nonfiction.
  • Engaging in artistic community with people who might have differing worldviews.
  • Developing a vocabulary for close reading and offering useful input.
  • Harnessing research, imagination and craft expansively in nonfiction.
  • Wrestling with the moral and ethical dilemma in nonfiction without doing harm.