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Elizabeth Benedict

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Last Throes of Xmas: The Winning Story, the Finalists, and a Few Lessons About this Brave New Medium

Posted: 01/05/10 01:33 PM ET

Oh, the complicated and delicious pleasures of the Internet.... I'm reminded all over again as I chose the winner from among the dazzling submissions to the Christmas Story Contest I announced two weeks on Huff Po and promoted on Facebook and even on plain old vanilla email.

As with so many Internet explorations, one never knows what'll turn up. Long ago, I found both my ancient Volvo and my vintage boyfriend on-line, and neither has ever seriously disappointed me.

My original post was about how we learn to write fiction and whether we need to get an MFA degree in order to become writers. I suggested to readers the exercise I've given my creative writing students, to produce a story set at Christmastime, even if it's about a family that doesn't celebrate the holiday. Why Christmas? There's so much for a writer to work with: a specific day that's charged with electricity of all kinds -- familial, commercial, religious, and, so often, depressive. Christmas -- as a day, a setting, an expectation -- is packed with material even for those who aren't Christian, have no family, and approach the day with dread.

One after another, the submissions affirmed this theory. As the stories unfolded, it was clear that the writers' deepest feelings -- positive and negative -- about family ties, tradition, belonging, not belonging, and their own identities seemed to crystallize around the events of the day, or just the idea of Christmas.

Alone among holidays, this one makes people feel especially together -- or especially alone. From Kendra Korte's story: "Easter may be more important from a Christian point of view, but Christmas is more important for us as people. Even when we're alone, like you are and I am now, we still need people at Christmastime. No matter what you believe, this is the time to be with people."

Writes Lai Lee Chau: "I loved the mystery of the wrapped present. Though I never believed in Santa, I believed in the spirit of Christmas...." As an adult, in Egypt, during Christmas, "There was loneliness, culture shock, and massive jet lag, but among strangers, there was nothing to expect and therefore nothing to disappoint."

From Ida Chavira: "Family get togethers at my mom's house are more stressful than any college final I ever took."

As touched as I was by the individual pieces, I was just as moved by some of the notes that accompanied them, this one in particular: "After a more or less planned-for involuntary separation from my law firm, I'm writing. Or trying to. I'm young for a lawyer but feel quite old as an aspiring writer; after graduating from college, I suppose I packed that dream away and didn't write a thing. I guess this was my own personal lost decade. Your post gave me hope... so I figured I should at least be game and submit something. I don't expect to win, but in keeping with my resolution to become a writer, I felt I had to at least give you a chance to say no."

As I know from finding a car and a true love on-line -- not to mention jobs, books, hotels, and obscure medical treatments -- this brave new medium allows us to make connections, share intimacies, and take risks that can be life-changing, life-saving, and in so many other ways, profound and wonderful.

But enough philosophizing. The envelope, please.

The winner is Kendra Korte. The finalists are: Zaina Sukkariaeh, M.J. Rose, Ida Chavira, Jennifer Heckscher, Lai Lee Chau, and Paul Genader.

Kendra Korte's piece is below. To read the finalists, please visit my book blog. Ms. Korte wins a copy of the book, Mentors, Muses & Monsters: 30 Writers on the People Who Changed Their Lives.

"Waiting at Westminster"

Bit chilly out here, isn't it? It's a little bit ridiculous that we have to be here so early but, I suppose, what else are you going to do on Christmas Eve? When do they open the doors, do you know? I am looking forward to getting inside and sitting down a bit. It wouldn't even be so bad out here if we'd just be moving a bit or something, but no, two hours standing in a line. I hear that the line started forming at the door about eight or so -- not that it's not an important service of course, but it doesn't start until 11:30! If I'm going to be waiting for so long, I hope I at least get a good seat.

You here by yourself, too, then? Where are you from? I'm from the US, too -- Minnesota. I always wanted to come to London, and my daughter's spending Christmas with her in-laws this year, so I decided that it would be a retirement present to myself. Yeah, I retired this fall. What do you do? Oh, that must be nice, living here like that. Do you get back home often? Didn't you want to go back for Christmas?

Oh, I'm sorry, I didn't mean to -- Do you miss your family a lot? Sorry, that's a silly question, of course you do. It must be hard to be so far away for so long. But I bet you've made lots of friends here, at work and at your school there. Do you live alone or do you share a place or what? Four of you? That's a nice number -- just enough so that you don't get lonely, not so many that you don't have some privacy. Are you good friends, then? Didn't they want to come along to this? Oh, dear, you must be so lonely without them. Is it far, where you live? I hear the Tube will be shut down for Christmas by the time this service is over. Will you have far to go to get home? I'm staying in Bloomsbury, so it'll be a ways to walk but I'll be fine, I'm sure. It's already so quiet. It's like the city itself is ready for Christmas. Even here. There must be hundreds of people waiting right now, but here we are chatting just as easily as if we were alone.

How much longer do you think it'll be before they start letting people in? Can you see Big Ben from where you are? I feel like we've been standing here for ages. It's only been forty-five minutes? Really? Well, I still hope they start letting people in soon. Services in Westminster Abbey, after all -- I want to be able to at least look around me before it all starts. I came in on a tour yesterday to see the tombs and things, but there's so many people, aren't there? You almost feel run through on a conveyor belt or something, at least I sure did. I'd like to find out more about some of those people, too -- some of the prime ministers or politicians or something. I know about the kings of course, but some of the others must have been pretty important to be buried in there. Where do you think they'll let us sit? It would be nice to be in Poet's Corner or something, look around at all those familiar names and all that.

So why'd you decide to come here, then? I mean, if you live here, there's probably lots of places you could go for services. Yeah, you're right, it is a special place. Something so old, with so much history, you can almost feel the presence of the past, can't you, while you're in there? At least that's what I'm hoping. It was so crowded yesterday, like I said, but I usually find that as part of a service even the most crowded place becomes holy. Something about the community, about everyone doing it together, about knowing that all over the world people are doing the same thing. People need connections, you know, and that's what this does for us. At least once a year, we come together. Easter may be more important from a Christian point of view, but Christmas is more important for us as people. Even when we're alone, like you are and like I am now, we still need people at Christmastime. No matter what you believe, this is the time to be with people.

Oh, don't be bitter, dear. You're not alone. You're here, aren't you? If you were really alone at Christmas, really alone and not just lonely, you'd be back at that shared house of yours, sitting in the dark by yourself, instead of shivering out here in a line of hundreds of people trying to get into a thousand-year-old church. You're just lonely, not alone. Not that you don't have reason to be, mind you, being away from your family for the first time, and all your housemates going off without you and all that that you said earlier. But there's a difference between being alone and being lonely and you, my dear, are not alone. At least for tonight, anyway.

Oh, don't cry, dear. It's too cold. Your face will freeze. That's better, isn't it? Now, I know that we only met half an hour ago, and we won't meet again after tonight, but for tonight, anyway, for this service, we'll have each other, right? Someone to chat to while the organ is playing and all those choirboys are coming in. The shepherds and kings and all gathered together to mark the birth, so we will too. It's a shared experience, you know? And you need someone to share it with, or you wouldn't be here.

Did I see movement up there? Oh, good we're finally getting to go in. Not before time, either. I can hardly feel my fingers. It'll be good to sit down for a bit, too. Don't your feet hurt with heels that high? Just like my daughter, she wears heels like that all the time. I can't do it, myself.

Yes, there's two of us. We're together. Merry Christmas.

Kendra Korte is an American ex-pat in the UK. She writes about books at mendramarie.wordpress.com.

Thanks to everyone who contributed and to all of our readers here and on the Mentors, Muses blog.

- Elizabeth Benedict is the author of five novels, including the bestseller Almost and The Joy of Writing Sex: A Guide for Fiction Writers. She is the editor of the recently published Mentors, Muses & Monsters: 30 Writers on the People Who Changed Their Lives, and is a on the writing faculty at Columbia University.