Reading About Reading At A Book Festival... At A Book Festival

By Meredith Chen

When I stepped away from the podium after reading the last sentence of my short story, I thought my ordeal was just about over. The rest of my experience for the day would be cut-and-dry. A few people would read after me, and soon they would announce the contest winners. Maybe I would win something, maybe I wouldn't, but what mattered was that I had successfully read my story in public, and I planned to reward myself with ice cream.

But the day wasn't over yet. After all the contestants had finished reading, there was a short break before the winners were to be announced. I was on my way out of the pavilion, searching for my parents, when a lady stopped me by the now-empty tables. She told me that she had enjoyed my story very much. Taken aback, I thanked her. I realized that if I hadn't submitted a story for the book festival's contest, this conversation wouldn't have happened.

When I first heard of the Gaithersburg Book Festival Short Story Contest in an e-mail from my dad, I dismissed the idea almost out-of-hand. As I read the first-sentence prompts, empty of inspiration, I didn't think much would come of my participation in the contest. I had no ideas, and to be honest, I was little terrified at the prospect of getting up in front of any audience, no matter the size, to read my own work. It wasn't until my creative writing teacher cracked her metaphorical whip and forced the entire class to participate that I realized I would be submitting a story to the contest after all.

Eventually I hit upon the idea to write metafiction, and after that, the words flowed more easily. The resulting submission was a short story about a girl who entered a writing contest for a festival, and on the day of that festival, was unexpectedly named a finalist and required to read her story in public. It was an interesting, if roundabout, way to face my own fears of public speaking. I also thought it would be rather ironic if I became one of the finalists and was thus asked to read my story at the book festival about a girl reading her story at a book festival. In that light, when I finally did learn that I was one of the finalists for the Gaithersburg Book Festival, I would be able to view my reading not through the lens of a terrified beginning writer, but rather through the lens of a character going through the same ordeal, but with a slightly humorous slant.

The judges for the contest must've liked something about my metafiction, and the woman who was speaking to me now apparently did as well. Her son, she told me, was also an aspiring writer, and she wondered whether there was any way she could take a copy of the story to him. I knew the story was available online, but I had another idea. I retrieved the extra copy of the story that the Gaithersburg Book Festival had printed for me, the one I had taken up to read at the podium. She seemed surprised that her request had been granted, especially so quickly, but she tucked it in her purse, asking whether there was any way she could thank me.

Still on a high from her compliment, I joked that I would take payment in cash. To my surprise, she pulled out her wallet and unfolded a crisp one dollar bill. I immediately insisted that I had been joking and really, the story was free, but she placed the money on the table in front of us, smiling. I picked up the dollar bill and held it reverently as though it were a hundred dollars, not one.

This was the first time anyone had paid me for my writing. Sure, it was only a buck, but ... it was the very first. I thanked the woman again, tried (a little half-heartedly) to return the money, but she was already leaving. Very gingerly, I folded the dollar bill back into eighths and slid it into my wallet. My first dollar. It was going to be framed.

When my dad first sent me that innocuous e-mail informing me of the GBF contest, I never dreamed that I would participate in it, much less become a finalist and be able to read my story in public without too much fear. I ended up placing second, but to me, the GBF experience was not about winning a $50 gift card, or getting interviewed for the local paper. The GBF experience is that single one-dollar bill, sitting proudly framed on my bookshelf, the first dollar I ever made as a writer.


Meredith Chen won second prize in the 2011 Gaithersburg Book Festival short story contest for high school students.

Earlier this year, the Gaithersburg Book Festival announced the second annual short story contest for high school students. Stories must be 1,000 words or fewer and start with one of three opening lines written by published author Brad Parks. The author has to be a high school student in Maryland, Virginia, or Washington, D.C. Stories must be submitted via email by February 24, 2012. Visit the Gaithersburg Book Festival website for opening lines and to read the contest’s full rules and regulations.


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