All the latest news, ideas, and opinions from Denver's Independent Literary Center: lighthousewriters.org
by Corey Dahl
Much of writer and Lighthouse instructor Chip Livingston’s life seems fated. Both of his parents and step-parents were also teachers, and two taught English. He started thinking about studying creative writing after he read Edisto by Padgett Powell—who happened to teach at the University of Florida, where Chip was already a journalism student.
And an act of nature—the unusual flooding Colorado saw in late 2013—introduced him to Lighthouse, where he attended a flood relief benefit reading. “It was my first time at Lighthouse, the basement was packed with writers and readers, and I was super impressed,” he said.
The author of a collection of short stories (Naming Ceremony) and two collections of poetry (Museum of False Starts and Crow-Blue, Crow-Black), Chip started teaching at Lighthouse last fall. In advance of his next workshop—Hermit Crabbing Your Writing: Moving Your Poems and Prose into New Structures starts February 20—I recently talked to him about what it means to “hermit crab” something, his own writing process, and his preferred venue for crab cakes.
Q. Let’s talk about “hermit crabbing.” What does that mean? And how can it help writers improve their work?
A. The term “hermit crabbing” refers to moving the text into preformed structures. You take a given form—such as a letter requesting medical or academic records, with corresponding memories or warnings about what they may contain; dialogues in the form of text messages or email exchanges; imagined police interrogations; your or your characters’ answers to monthly magazines’ relationship questionnaires; card catalog entries for books or authors that have influenced you or your characters; drug label warnings applied to other aspects of life that need warnings, etc. Really the sky is the limit. And then you shift the writing, especially something that isn’t quite working in traditional narrative, to make it follow the general guidelines of the form. It’s a way of getting new perspectives on the same old material.
Q. Do you ever hermit crab your own pieces?
A. I was instructed to do this before the term “hermit crab” gained popular use. Many of my teachers had us exercise similar muscles through imitations of other writings. For example, in my very first poetry workshop with the poet Ai, she had us read and then imitate Edgar Lee Master’s classic, Spoon River Anthology. I wrote 50 short dramatic monologues in imitation of that text, but I placed my characters at an AIDS walk, all marching in memory of one character, who happened to be my former lover.
That piece became my first published poem, but I successfully argued to be paid for it as a short story ($200 versus $50 for that particular magazine). And I considered it a short story in segmented form, because the 50 voices combined told a single story of my lover’s life. Today, I’d consider it creative nonfiction, since it was all true.
I’ve always been interested in hybrids, forms that defy easy categorization, so when this idea of “hermit crab” writing was initially brought to my attention, I gravitated toward it quite naturally. Also with poetry, when I’m stuck with how to get something down, even in free verse, I often go to a pre-structured form, like a sonnet, pantoum or sestina, even just working with a strict accentual rhythm to mine different material and structures.
Most importantly, crab cakes: yea or nay?
Big yea, especially from Root Down.
[For more information or to register for Chip’s upcoming class, Hermit Crabbing Your Writing: Moving Your Poems and Prose into New Structures, click here.]