Breaking Out of Our Literary Shells

It feels impossible to coalesce the Creative Writing major thus far – at least from my perspective as the instructor – in a few paragraphs. Already, I could write a novel grasping, articulating, and highlighting the profound genius I have witnessed in my students’ poetry and prose. Each day feels like a mic drop, another moment when a student writes or shares a thought, idea, or well-crafted piece of writing that has the whole class awed, laughing, or deeply, deeply moved. Each day I look out into an ocean of not only my students, but also one-day colleagues and peers.

An exercise that most stunned myself and our indefatigable, incomparable, and irreplaceable TA Michelle Kats, was this past Wednesday when we learned about and wrote “Hermit Crab” essays. I had no idea what a Hermit Crab essay was until I got to BIMA; one of the students, who was here last year, told me about them, as did Michelle. So I researched and learned: a Hermit Crab essay is a personal essay disguised within the shell of something else – a menu, or an instruction manual, or a letter, a playlist, an obituary, a multiple choice test, etc.

So, on Wednesday, we brainstormed “shells” and types of formats one would not usually consider creative writing. The list was massive and covered the entire chalkboard. Then, we looked at examples, including what the aforementioned student wrote last year in the Creative Writing major. Then, we made a list of five to 10 significant moments or experiences in our lives. Next, we looked up at the chalkboard and began to pair the aforementioned “shells” with three of our life experiences. And then, we wrote. Forty minutes per life experience – we wrote.

I had them eventually pick one that they would be required to share with the class. Thus far, I hadn’t yet required that everyone must share their writing, so a few students had yet to share their brilliant craft. So Wednesday was a special moment and shift. After breaking off into pairs to peer-edit their work (this is one of their favorite things to do – breaking into small groups for peer editing!), they made changes, and read their work aloud.

I was, as I said before, stunned. From the menu of types of boys a student knows at their high school, to a multiple choice test for how to be healthy, to a list of how to take a hike in Israel amidst a siren blast, each and every student – all 13 of them – changed the literary game.


Caroline Rothstein

BIMA Creative Writing Faculty

2 thoughts on “Breaking Out of Our Literary Shells

  1. Gerri Klein

    Hi Caroline! I am Sabrina’s Mom. Looking forward to meeting you on Sunday. So thrilled that we were able to send Sabrina back for another summer. The program has been an amazing experience for her!

    Gerri Klein


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