Friday, March 27, 2020

Hermit Crab Essay: One Story in the Shell of Another

By Bacopa Literary Review Senior Editor Mary Bast
"A hermit crab is a strange animal, born without the armor to protect its soft, exposed abdomen. And so it spends its life occupying the empty, often beautiful, shells left behind by snails or other mollusks. It reanimates these shells, making of them a strange, new hybrid creature . . . we've dubbed a particular form . . . the hermit crab essay, [which] appropriates other forms as an outer covering, to protect its soft, vulnerable underbelly." (Tell It Slant: Writing and Shaping Creative Nonfiction, Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola, p. 111)
Miller and Paola demonstrate this hybrid form with Lorrie Moore's "How to Become a Writer" (from her collection Self Help), a personal account told in the style of a "how-to" column. 

Similarly, 2019 Creative Nonfiction contributor Perry P. Perkins' "No,You Don't Understand" begins as an opinion piece: 
It seems like every day I see some new politician or news personality or celebrity talk-show host discussing a recent eye-opening, life-changing experience of living for a month on a 'Food Stamp Challenge,' the simulated grocery budget of a family on food stamps.
     Invariably, when the receipts are tallied at the end of the month and the last journal entry or blog post is made, the summation of the experience begins with a heartfelt "I never understood before . . ."
Perkins then bridges to his personal story by assuring the reader "I appreciate the desire to help and the compassion or empathy or social awareness . . . that comes along with this experiment." Very quickly, though, the frustration and anger of his own experience begins to illuminate the shell of an opinion piece about understanding poverty:
     Don't think that you can load up a couple of bags of cheap groceries in the back of your Outback, cruise on home to your nice house in the 'burbs, fix dinner in your modern kitchen . . . and know what it's like to be poor . . .
      Until then, all you've done is shopped like us.
     Until you have carried those groceries home a hundred times through two bus transfers and walked eight blocks through a rainstorm past the drug deal in the parking lot and up two flight of stairs to an apartment that may have had the electricity turned off . . .
      Until then, you don't understand. . .
The author continues sharing his personal experience within the shell of an opinion piece, repetitively drumming the refrain, "Until then, you don't understand," and ending with advice that will strike at the heart of every one of us now living with the uncertainties of the Covid-19 pandemic, many of whom will be suffering the fate of Perkins' childhood:
    Volunteer at a food bank, contact a local ministry or non-profit, and be part of an outreach program. Give to local charities, become a constant, burning, unyielding, pain-in-the-ass advocate to your local politicians and decision makers. And God bless those of you who do these things.
     If, however, you really want to know what it's like to be poor, so you've "been there, done that," do me a favor . .. do it for a year, or five, or ten . . .in my old neighborhood, on foot, in the cold and dark, with your children.
     Until then, no . . . you don't understand.
*     *     *

Perry T. Perkins is a writer, columnist, and professional blogger who's been published in magazines from Guideposts and Writer's Digest to Bass Master and Bible Advocate. His work has been included in 16 Chicken Soup anthologies, and he writes a monthly column, "Renaissance Dad," for Vancouver Family Magazine.

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