The Shell Game: Writers Play With Borrowed Forms

Edited by Kim Adrian. Forward by Brenda Miller. Postscript by Cheyenne Nimes.

University of Nebraska Press, 2018. $24.95

ReviewED by Rebecca FisH EWAN

Despite the name implying an isolationist lifestyle, hermit crabs gather on the beach from time to time to mate, mingle and to swap shells. Reading this anthology reminds me of the difference between the daily, more solitary, life of the hermit crab and this occasional orgy of social engagement. Until I read The Shell Game: Writers Play with Borrowed Forms, my experience with hermit crabs, the essays and the animals, was on a one-at-a-time basis.

When my daughter was five, she returned home from a play date with a tiny cardboard crabitat. We named the occupant Crabicus and he lived for ten years. As his primary caregiver, I sprinkled his food with calcium, spritzed his aquarium air with distilled water, and watched him grow. I hunted for bigger and bigger shells. In my desert city home, I tried to fabricate the tropical habitat Crabicus hailed from. I could fake everything but the beachy swap-meet where he could hang with homies.

As I read through The Shell Game, I sensed the frenetic energy of having so many normally solitary critters collected on the moist sand waiting for a new shell to wash ashore. It was almost too much hermit crab. But I have this reaction to any anthology, museum collection or AWP conference. I begin to drown in the intensity of sameness, even if it’s a sameness I adore. Instead of gazing out across the beach and recognizing individual qualities of each distinct crab, how one’s shell has a sprig of seaweed clinging to it, while another harbors limpets, I see the crowd and sensory overload puts me in a kind of autistic trance.

The cure is to focus on singularities. It’s how I survive museums. I walk through quickly until a painting captivates me. I stand in front of it, study it, try to memorize what moves me, sometimes I make a quick sketch. If one painting in the massive Louvre touches my soul, it’s worth the handful of euros I shelled out to get inside. I feel this way about collections and anthologies as well. I have no expectation that all of the pieces will blow the top of my head off. Not even a tome of Emily Dickinson’s poetry could pull that off. So, I see this gathering of hermit crab essays as a book to scan through cover to cover, and then return to the essays that moved me most. What I mention below are just three essays, among the thirty (including the one hermit-crabbed as Michael Martone’s contributor note), to give a sense of the offerings. The other 90% aren’t flawed. Another reader will have a different trio of loves. That’s the pleasure of anthologies.

My favorite essay, “Math 1619,” by Gwendolyn Wallace, uses a math test to challenge racist stereotypes. As a math major and ex-calculus teacher, I loved the graphs and word problems, how they confronted her experience as a black girl, how white women think it’s okay to touch her hair, how she carries into her classes not just her books, but the added burden to represent “her whole race” at her boarding school, how she sits in the front row when history class reaches slavery to avoid stares. It’s brief and brilliant.

Despite being weary of architects after teaching with them for 25 years, “Falling in Love with a Glass House,” by Jennifer Metsker, resonated with me. It uses archive notes for images (not shown) to weave together views of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House and Metsker’s personal narrative. The essay mirrors Mies’s “dalliance” with the homeowner, Dr. Edith Farnsworth, their relationship with the house, and the love found and lost between Metsker and her ex-husband. The language is clean, spare and clear as a modernist glass house.

I laughed long and hard throughout “Self-Portrait as a 1970s Cineplex Movie Theatre (an Abecedarian)” by Steve Fellner. It offers brief personal stories woven together with discussion of blockbuster classic 1970s movies such as Coma, The Jerk, RollerballBen, and more niche films like I Spit on Your Grave and Zardoz. Fellner’s voice is so funny, yet, in perfect hermit crab form, he faces deep and painful experiences—his manic episodes, his parent’s divorce, going to dinner to meet his husband Phil’s mother for the first time, after they’d been dating for a year. 

Hermit crabs will try on a number of shells before landing on the one they wear for the season. They change them up as they grow, sometimes for reasons only a hermit crab knows. This collection can be returned to again and again, as the reading mind grows. It can also be a wonderful resource for teaching the hermit crab essay. Students can find the particular form and filling that touches their soul. A great assignment generator is the postscript by Cheyenne Nimes that offers 408 ways to hermit crab an essay, including: Tornado chaser live report, Diorama of a crime scene, Faculty meeting minutes, Test results, and Poison antidote.

Hermit crab essays, without proper care, are at risk of devolving into cute pets (most of whom won’t last for a decade like my dear departed Crabicus), but The Shell Game makes a unique and significant contribution to helping avoid this fate. Despite its subtitle, “writers play with borrowed form,” the essays included do so with, for the most part, serious intent. Any hermit crab’s life depends on finding the right shell to protect its soft and fragile body. Failure to find this shell results in a swift death. The shell is a life saver. Not unlike the greatest contribution of the hermit crab essay, to provide a structure that enables writers to address what they can’t otherwise write about without crushing it or themselves in the process.


Rebecca Fish Ewan is a poet/cartoonist/founder of Plankton Press. Her work appears in After the Art, Brevity, Crab Fat, Hip Mama, Mutha, Not Very Quiet, TNB, Punctuate, and Under the Gum Tree. She holds an MFA in creative writing from Arizona State University, where she teaches landscape design with a focus on urban walking, landscape history and place-based hybrid storytelling. She is the Books with Pictures columnist for DIY MFA and the author of A Land BetweenBy the Forces of Gravity, and Water Marks.