* Writers Play With Borrowed Forms

Discussion Guide

Some questions to help facilitate conversation in book clubs and classrooms wherever the essays in The Shell Game are under discussion.

1. How do the essays in The Shell Game exploit their chosen forms in order to amplify emotional or intellectual themes? For example, why does Ingrid Jendrzejewski's essay, "#exe.miscarriage" use the form of computer code to tell the story of the emotions swirling around the experience of a miscarriage? This same type of question can be asked of every essay in the collection.

2. How do the titles of the essays function? Do they seem to do more work in terms of orienting the reader toward what's in store than the titles of more conventional essays usually do? For example, how does the title "What Signifies (Three Parables)" set up a reader's expectations for David Shield's essay? What about the title of Mary Peelen's "Stagecraft"?

3. What was one of your favorite essays in the book? Why did you like it? Did the form it borrowed especially appeal to you? Or was it more the content that drew you in? Is it possible to make a clear distinction between the two?

4. In your opinion, which essay in the anthology has the most subtle form? Which has the most exaggerated form? How does the form/content dynamic differ between these two essays?

5. In the book Tell It Slant, co-authors Suzanne Paola and Brenda Miller note that "hermit crab essays" (or essays that borrow their forms) often deal with unusually vulnerable content, and suggest this may be why the especially rigid structure of a borrowed form is necessary. Do you recognize this vulnerable quality in any of the essays in The Shell Game? Which ones? Do other essays seem less vulnerable? What quality (or qualities) in these other essays might necessitate the rigidity of a borrowed structure?

6. The borrowed form essay is a relatively new sub-genre of nonfiction, although it has clear antecedents in fiction (e.g. the epistolary novel). Do you find any special alchemy between the fact-based nature of nonfiction and the playfulness of borrowed forms? Do borrowed forms feel or read very differently in fiction than they do nonfiction? Why?