The Significant Objects project was a literary and anthropological experiment devised by Rob Walker and Joshua Glenn to test the hypothesis, “narrative transforms the insignificant into the significant.”
Over 200 writers crafted origin stories for a collection of cheap thrift-store objects to sell on eBay. Contributing writers included Meg Cabot, Colson Whitehead, and Bruce Sterling.
“The objects, purchased for $1.25 a piece on average, sold for nearly $8,000.00 in total.”
We were inspired to try this out ourselves.
Each month, our content team does a writing challenge. The purpose is to explore new ways of writing, to play around with language, and to spark creativity by writing for writing’s sake. This month we used the Significant Objects’ model to explore the power of storytelling, a topic we’re passionate about. We wrote short stories for the following seemingly insignificant objects: a bottle opener, a lace mask, a deck of cards, a silk scarf, a tiny bowl & spoon, and a wooden figurine.
We didn’t try to sell them, but I think we’d do pretty well if we did.
March 14, 1968 — Khe Sanh, Quan Tri Province, Vietnam
Six months in, six months to go.
I was as far from the man I was when I got here as I was from the man I’d become before this was over.
They brought us over to save 1,500 marines from being devoured by 45,000 of them in the hills around us.
We knew the dogfights would get worse before they got better.
Ken and I had been fast friends since we arrived here. We traded jokes, and shots of whiskey, and secrets. Secrets men like us only share in times of horrible atrocity.
In times of war.
So, as I packed up my flight gear, I wasn’t a surprised to see him come through my doorway.
“If my boots never touch this base again, I want you to hang on to this,” he said as he pressed it into my palm.
I felt the cold steel against my hand and looked down.
“A bottle opener?” I said, not trying to hide my confusion.
“It was my grandfather’s. He died two weeks ago. I won’t see his funeral. Stacy is pregnant. She’s due in three months. He’ll never meet his grandson. It’s all I have left of him.”
I nodded and slid it into a zippered pocket in my flight jacket.
I banked hard up and to the right. I didn’t have any time for feelings as I watched Ken’s plane next to me explode into a ball of fire, consuming the cockpit.
As I leveled out, my brain recalled a strange fact:
The frangible bullets flying six inches from the glass of my cockpit consist of a copper cladding packed with ground metals or plastics. This helps them punch through instead of ricocheting away.
Right now, they were trying to punch through me.
As I banked again, a bit predictably up and to the left, pulling the yoke with all my might, desperately trying to shake them, my world spun upside down.
In an instant, I felt it come free in my hands.
I desperately tried to reattach it, my knowing I had seconds to correct course before my F-100 was ripped apart.
In this moment, my forearm brushed against the zipper of my flight suit pocket and removed the only tool I had on me: Ken’s bottle opener. Now, my bottle opener.
I heard the rear of my craft start to be ripped apart with a horrific plink, plink plink as my shadow’s aim adjusted for my maneuver.
I wrenched the black iron bottle-opener onto the stem of the yoke, giving me just enough leverage to pull away before my my wingman pulled the enemy MIG off my tail.
Minutes masqueraded as days as I managed to limp my butchered plane back to the base.
My friend never knowing his grandfather’s tool had saved my life.
In fact, nobody knew this secret until now.
Men share secrets in times of war and in this moment, we share this secret.
I’d later learn that in the next few months, over 100,000 tons of bombs were dropped by US aircraft and over 158,000 artillery rounds were fired defending our base.
– Brendan Hufford
It’s Halloween 2016, and I don’t have a costume. Well I did have one (Amelia Earhart with goggles, an aviator jacket, and combat boots) but Halloween in college isn’t a day, it’s a week, and it’s not just a costume, but, like, 4.
Deeming myself too cool for the black dress with cat ears trope, I rummage through my closet for something I could force to be a fictional character.
My phone lights up. It’s Steven.
“Come pregame in my room before you go out”
My stomach flips. For the past year, we’ve been the Ross and Rachel of the dorm—the “will they or won’t they” duo. Maybe tonight is the night we’ll finally get together.
Then I think of Rebecca. There are rumors floating that Steven and Rebecca are “hanging out.” But, if that were true, he wouldn’t have invited me…
“Right.” My best friend Miranda says.
“What about this? It’s from that masquerade party.”
Miranda holds up a gold lace mask. It twinkles, even under fluorescent bulbs. Yes. I’d be Juliet. Classic and cute, with a romantic undertone: the perfect costume. I throw on a white dress and curl my hair. I am dressed to meet my Romeo.
When I open the door to his room, Steven’s face lights up with an easy smile. He’s dressed as a greaser. Our friends—an octopus, a basketball player, and a witch—sit on the couch. Rebecca stands in the corner wearing a dress and a crown. She’s sparkling. Cinderella.
“I’m going to go. See you later.” Rebecca says. And then, Steven and Rebecca kiss. It’s a blur of motion, a blink, and it’s over.
Everyone continues, but I stand frozen. Feigning indifference as the moment replays in my mind.
Steven. Rebecca. Kiss.
Steven. Rebecca. Kiss.
I meet Miranda’s eyes across the room and shake my head. Tears form, hiding behind the mask. Mumbling an excuse, Miranda grabs my hand, and we leave. Steven’s door shuts.
I cried a lot of tears behind that mask. I realized there was no love story for Steven and I. No more “will they or won’t they.” It was over. He might be a Prince Charming, but he was no Romeo.
– Natalie Gotko
This would be the last game. I promised myself that. There was nothing quite like the high of winning, but no depth as dark as a loss. This was it. The end. I promised myself. I’d used my winnings to pull myself up from rock bottom. I had the family, the house, the job. I just wanted to pay off my debts and get out.
Beads of sweat formed across my forehead as the dealer flipped the final card. Full house. The pot was over 2 million now.
Nick had been cleaning up all night, but I think I finally learned his tell. He leaned his chin onto his hand, his pointer finger framing his face. He was bluffing, I could feel it.
If I called, I’d be risking the restaurant. All the time and money and effort I just put into building my dream. If I won, I could pay back the loans, hire a Michelin-star chef, get my daughter the bike she’s been wanting.
I think I have him.
“Call.” Self doubt floods my mind. What did I just do?
“Alright gentlemen, show your hand.”
Nick confidently flips first. Trip Aces. He smiles at me, daring me to try to beat him.
Inside, I’m screaming. But I don’t blink. Slowly, I turn over my cards.
Come by 1723 N. Halsted Street to check out my Michelin-star restaurant sometime. Bring this deck of cards and ask for Alex. If you stay past close, we can play a hand.
– Mel DeStefano
Fall. 2007. Senior year. It’s about 9:30 am, and I can barely remember what class I was dozing off in. It had to be at least 95 degrees. Even worse in the old Lincoln building. Professor What’s-his-face had these crazy theories he would share with us. At some point in every class, he broke into a tangent to try to convince us the whole U.S. economy was going to crash and that we could get ahead of it. Blah blah blah. He was really amped up about it that day. We all thought he was a crackpot.
Just as Professor What’s-his-name was getting into his groove, the door swings open and a cool breeze fills the room.
That’s the first time I saw Jane. Everything was in slow motion. She strolled in the room like Marilyn Monroe. She wore a bright yellow sundress and a multi-colored silk scarf. As she breezed by, it slipped onto the floor. I sat up to pick it up for her. I figured I’d hold onto it so I could strike up a conversation with her later. But she sat right next to me anyway. Fuck yes.
She asked if I had a pen. Classic. We didn’t take notes. We chatted the whole time. Class ended and we exchanged numbers. We dated that semester and the next. But as these things go, there weren’t really any sparks. We agreed to part ways near graduation.
Fall 2008. Smack in the middle of a full-blown financial crisis. It’s 11 p.m. I’m taking a break from job hunting to unpack things in my studio apartment when I come across Jane’s scarf.
I immediately think back to crazy Professor Whats-his-face and his theories. All true.
I’m selling this scarf because the memory of what happens when you stop paying attention and lose sight of what’s important will scar me forever. I don’t need the reminder. But maybe you do.
Maybe listen to the crazy guy telling you to give seeming absurdity a second look.
– Brent G. Trotter
The art fair was located in San Francisco. It was one of the largest art festivals in the country. The artists there were from all over the United States and Europe. At that time, I was just a little kid. My grandma and grandpa both held my hands while we walked around so I could be safe between them.
I admired the different types of art – especially the watercolor paintings and the professional photos of animals. As we walked, we came up to a booth full of wooden pots. The artist who made the pots traveled the world full time. Each pot she created represented a part of the world she had been to.
She showed me this mini pot that she made in Morocco. She gave it to me and said, “Let this remind you to travel the world and open your mind to new cultures and ideas.”
– Megan Wenzl
I hate things, they tie me down, make it hard to move, hard to think, hard to breathe.
I didn’t always hate things. I grew up with a lot of them and spent a lot of time with them. They taught me a lot, computer parts strewn about, cables, routers with their random lights and sounds — a strange flow state for a teen. I was really only into electric things, though grandparents don’t seem to abide by those rules and my grandma insisted on making me things. Not many of them survived or were used but I did find use for one: a cylindrical figurine, braided hair and smirking expression. I found it useful, for propping open the CD-ROM drive on my computer as my janky rig would shut it off closed.
I went to Norway that summer and found my grandmas creation to be much more common than I thought. Bergen, the small fishing village we visited, was full of figurines, dolls, idols with painted faces. My grandma died that summer while I was away. I had already bought some figurines for her, but I left them. What would I do with them?
I sold or left most of my stuff after college and went to work in Chicago. It was a good time, money was spent mostly on things that went into or onto my body and not much else. I couldn’t get rid of the figurine though. She’d taken up whirling as a hobby—I set her on my record player to keep records weighted as my table was tilted and would occasionally eject records.
I’m not sure what my grandma wanted me to do with this thing, but I’ve gotten a shocking amount of use from it. Most recently she’s sat atop a stick and serves as a magic fairy wand for my niece to grant wishes. The same niece is in an entrepreneurship class now and she has a new purpose.
– Brent Williams