Sometimes Our Story Has to Find Shelter to Be Told

Friday, September 09, 2022
By Sheila Bender

Author Brenda Miller coined the term “hermit crab essay” when teaching her students a personal essay structure that delivers surprising results. Not only has the term become widely used, it has also educated many about hermit crabs: anomuran decapod crustaceans that have adapted to occupy empty scavenged mollusk shells to protect their soft abdominal exoskeleton.

Important to note: they must find shelter produced by other organisms or risk being defenseless.

How often do we sit down to write something so important to us that is difficult to start? Or perhaps we have only a hazy idea or feeling that something is there to be written, but we don’t know how we will find out what it is. Either way, we may feel stymied from defenseless in the face of the enormous task.

That’s when borrowing the protective shell of another kind of writing helps. That writing might be a grocery list, a calendar, a bus schedule, an address book, a map, a form letter, a manual or even a prayer, among so many more possibilities. Each of these are a story themselves moving over time and containing specifics from which scenes can spring by association. The shell of the common form we’ve encountered helps us find our writing occasion.

One of my students presented me with a piece of writing that she didn’t know what to do with. She had written about people in her address book. So much had changed—friends had died, moved, or grown ill. What could her address book tell her about what she was to know?

Here is an excerpt of the work by Suzan Huney after we talked about where a next draft could take her. The excerpt starts after she writes from the letter K, where her sister’s address appears, and reminisces about their times together:

I close my address book, but instead of working on my Christmas cards as planned I get out my inheritance from Grandma Cooper: her address book. It is a 5 1/2 inch by 4-inch pink notebook and inscribed inside the cover is “Given me by Suzie, Christmas 1960.”

The pages are aged a subtle yellow. The majority of addresses are crossed out with large, bold X’s. That’s what happens when you live to be 94, lots of X’s.

Grandma didn’t bother with alphabetizing and names appear randomly O, W, C, L, and B. Some names, like Harold and Flossie and Oscar and Elvira, are nearly obscured by heavy X’s. There are addresses with no zip codes, and phone numbers like GR2-5228. Recorded in the back of Grandma’s address book, in script so small I almost need a magnifying glass to read, are poems, Bible scripture, and Grandma’s Choice Bits.

I heard her voice as I read out loud. I worry I putter I push and shove Hunting little molehills to make mountains of.

Grandma kept track of old friends from North Dakota where she and Grandpa lived until their retirement from farming, and then their move out West She stayed in contact with grandsons with military FBO addresses, and her many relatives scattered like Johnny’s apple seeds. Her letters often included a Choice Bit like this one that Grandma sent to me when I was away at college:

Promise yourself to be so strong that nothing can disturb your peace of mind. Promise yourself to think only of the best, to work only for the best and expect only the best. Promise yourself to forget the mistakes of the past and press on to greater achievements of the future.


When Suzy begins writing her Christmas cards, she returns to her own address book at the letter L and writes to Lenny, a childhood friend of the girls. She writes, “Judy is not fat,” referring to the way Lenny always teased Judy. We soon learn that Judy has been diagnosed with mast cytosis:

…a rare life-compromising, life-threatening disease. Her body produces huge levels of histamines that cause an abnormal accumulation of mast cells to form in her skin. The freckles on her insides are what worry me. These mast cells could accumulate in her liver, spleen and lymph nodes.

We know the reader fears that all the Xs in both the address books may someday soon include her sister, who she resolves to support, promising herself (despite her fear of loss), as her grandmother instructed, to expect only the best.

I have long treasured Suzay Huney’s essay and the way it demonstrates the beautiful way adopting a shell allows us to write into being what we have had inside.

It is a good idea as writers to practice the Hermit Crab method of creating an essay. Who knows what we might say between the lines of a recipe, say, or instructions on how to use Google Maps or even a bus schedule for a place we have never visited?


Sheila Bender, founder of, is the author of many books on writing, including the popular Writing Personal Essays: Shaping and Sharing Your Life Experience and Creative Writing DeMystified. Her memoir is entitled A New Theology: Turning to Poetry in a Time of Grief. Her newest book, Since Then: Poems and Short Prose will be available in spring 2022. She has been updating previously published books. Two of them are now available in print and digitally on Amazon and through bookstores: Writing in a Convertible with the Top Down, co-authored with Christi Killien Glover, and Sorrow’s Words: Writing Exercises to Heal Grief. As a writer, teacher and editor, she believes that writing so others understand our hearts and minds helps us understand ourselves, heal grief and sadness and grow. She has presented at conferences and writers' centers including Centrum Foundation's summer Port Townsend Writer's Conference, the Whidbey Island's writer's conference workshops, the Writer's Workshoppe in Port Townsend, WA, and the Kahini writing program's writer's workshops and served as a Distinguished Lecturer in Poetry at Seattle University.

--Sheila is also a WOW! Women on Writing instructor. Her class, Writing the Hermit Crab Essay and Other Related Creative Nonfiction Forms, starts on September 19th, and her class, Writing the Five-Minute Memoir starts October 10th.



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