How is a Crab Like a Manuscript?

I couldn’t decide what to post today, which made little sense until I realized it’s National Waffle Week. Which, of course, reminded me of the Mad Hatter’s famous unanswered riddle, “How is a raven like a writing-desk?”

And from there it’s only a tiny jump to “How is a Crab like a novel manuscript?” (This is the world I inhabit. Sometimes it scares me too.)

Carroll’s riddle never had an answer, but a crab has quite a lot in common with the average manuscript – at least if you use the right crab. This one’s name is Banzai:

Banzai is a staghorn hermit, a crab which inhabits sand beds along a reef and makes its home in a living coral instead of a normal shell.

When I first brought Banzai home he had a lightweight staghorn coral “shell” with only a few short prongs. Like an early manuscript draft, his shell was small and maneuverable, interesting but not overly intriguing. It had a few complexities but on the whole it was fairly simple. Banzai liked it. All was well.

As Banzai grew comfortable in the reef, he began to climb the rocks. He branched out from the expected sand-sifting behavior. He stretched himself. The shell was unwieldy and not designed for climbing but he hauled it up the rock face anyway, like an author pushing that little manuscript to function more effectively than before.

And, as expected, disaster struck.

Banzai fell. He bounced down the rock like a plinko ball and ended up under a ledge at the very bottom of the tank. He twisted and turned and pushed and pulled, but the horns of his coral shell would not come loose. He spent two days struggling to free it, but in the end he abandoned it in favor of an empty snail shell. Authors reach this point with manuscripts too – we push and pull and revise and edit, and sometimes find ourselves stuck beyond our ability to repair.

The smart ones pick another shell and move on.

About a week later I brought home a bigger staghorn, a gift from the fish store owner. The original “owner” had abandoned the coral in favor of a larger one and the store owner (who is also a friend) thought poor Banzai might appreciate another proper home.

Banzai spent a day circling the shell. He picked it up. He turned it over and examined every side. It scared him a little at first, as if he thought another crab might suddenly spring from its depths. In many ways, he looked like an author whose “big idea” seems far too big for her burgeoning skills – Can I write this? Can I make it work? What if the project is more than I can take?

In the end, Banzai took on the challenge. In the beginning, the coral was heavy and unwieldy, like a manuscript in the middle phases of editing. He could barely move it, but he didn’t give up and eventually he was climbing in that one too. He focused. He practiced. He made it work.

In the end he stuffed the second shell down the back of the live rock, too, and has ended up in another shell. This one, however, fits him perfectly. He can walk and climb without trouble. He can hunt for food and hide when he must. He has found the shell that works for him, as an author must keep looking until (s)he finds the proper tale.

Some staghorn hermits refuse to leave a coral, even when wedged in rock. The consequence? They die. A writing career can share a similar fate. Perhaps you’ll find the right shell the first time out of the box. Perhaps it will take a dozen to find one that lets you reach your personal peak. The key is not letting fear or complexity paralyze you, and not giving up until you get there.

If a little crab can do it, so can you.