[A] hermit crab essay is one that “appropriates other forms” the way a hermit crab appropriates another’s shell. … [T]he “outer covering” of a hermit crab essay works to “protect its soft, vulnerable underbelly.
Leslie Jamison, in her essay collection’s titular work, ‘The Empathy Exams,’ in part uses the form of a medical actor’s script to talk about her own pain. I didn’t know that medical acting was a thing, and had certainly never seen an actor’s script for it, and so the inclusion of this unusual form was fitting because the essay involves her experience as an actor pretending to have a medical condition. Later in the piece, she includes a script for herself: Leslie Jamison acting the part of Leslie Jamison. It’s not a gimmick—it’s a literary feat. What makes that Jamison essay so compelling is how the medical actor’s script becomes a form that doesn’t just give shape to difficult emotional content, but complicates a metaphor about how we inhabit our emotions. One name for such an approach is the ‘hermit crab essay.’ In this short piece by Randon Billings Noble, we are treated to a delightful explication of what a hermit crab essay is and why it’s such a powerful stylistic device. Part of its power is in “the contrast of form and content,” as in the juxtaposition of emotional versus medical, or the forced pretense of acting versus the forced pretense of not acting. Others have discussed how the hermit crab essay provides “a hard shell” to protect vulnerability. For Noble, it’s more that “the shell provides containment”—parameters that can help give shape to the ineffable.