Significant Objects

Can a great story give a worthless item monetary value? A Slate contest.

Everyone has one stashed away somewhere: an object that has little or no intrinsic value but is nonetheless irreplaceable. Maybe it’s the ball you caught at a Phillies game when you were 11. Maybe it’s the mangled tennis shoe your first golden retriever was forever burying then digging up again in the backyard. Maybe it’s the hideous lamp that has graced every apartment you’ve ever lived in—because your grandmother loved it, brought it all the way from Bucharest, and saw fit to leave it to you.

The stories that lend such items their meaning are the subject of Significant Objects, a project launched earlier this year by Joshua Glenn and Rob Walker. Both authors have written about the possessions we prize, Glenn in Taking Things Seriously: 75 Objects With Unexpected Significance, Walker in Buying In: The Secret Dialogue Between What We Buy and Who We Are and in his “Consumed” column for the New York Times Magazine. With Significant Objects, Glenn and Walker pose this question: Can a writer invest a random, worthless item with value by inventing a story about its significance?

To find out, they purchased a series of knickknacks at flea markets and thrift stores. They matched the objects with writers—Nicholson Baker, Curtis Sittenfeld, and Colson Whitehead, among others—and asked them to write short, fictional stories about them. Glenn and Walker then put the objects up for sale on eBay along with the stories explaining their significance.

Can a writer imbue a worthless object with meaning and value? The answer would seem to be yes. A Santa Claus nutcracker, which Glenn and Walker purchased for $2, sold on eBay for $15.50 when accompanied by the story author and NPR host Kurt Andersen wrote about it. A change tray Significant Objects paid $3 for sold for $71 after novelist Stewart O’Nan gave it a fictional history.

Glenn and Walker plan to commission 100 stories about 100 objects before their project is complete, and here’s where you come in: They’d like one of those stories to be written by a Slate reader. Specifically, they’d like you to write a story about this object:

Here’s how the contest will work:

You’ll write a short story (500 words or fewer) in which this object plays an important role. (Please do not make reference to the fact that the object is being sold on eBay, and do not mention the penny that appears in the photo for scale—the story’s plot should be independent of the project’s context.) The stories must be e-mailed to by Oct. 16 at 5 p.m. Please also tell us your full name and the city and state you’re writing from. All submissions may be quoted—and attributed to their author—in a follow-up article on Slate announcing the winning entry.

A panel of judges consisting of Glenn, Walker, and Slate editors will select the submission that does the best job of conferring meaning and value on this item. Significant Objects will then put the object up for sale on eBay, using the winning submission as its description. (We will be careful to note that the description is fictional—the idea isn’t to hoax anyone but to measure what effect the winning story has on the object’s value.) The proceeds from the sale of the object on eBay will go to the author of the winning submission.

Click here to read the full terms and conditions of the contest.

The best way to get a feel for the kinds of stories that can transform a forgotten gewgaw into a meaningful item is to read some stories that have already done so, which you can do by visiting the Significant Objects Web site or their eBay shop, to see the stories and objects for sale right now. When you sit down to write, please be very careful not to exceed the 500-word limit for the story—only submissions that observe the limit will be considered. Good luck!