With Marshmallows, Of Course

by Art Taylor

Eleanor Davis, aspiring actress, slightly modified her first name the moment she set foot on campus at Brown: “Eleonora,” she told people, in her Virginia Tidewater accent, “with an ‘o’ in the middle and an ‘a’ at the end—à la the late great Duse”—a slight look upward as she said the name, a barely perceptible flutter of the eyelids, a dismissive snort if anyone asked who the late great “Duse” was (a haughtiness her new friends admired at first, but eventually began to chat about in hushed, then vicious tones). Eleanor’s father ran a successful cineplex in Norfolk, and whenever she was asked about her parents, she said they were “in theater” (short “a” in the pronunciation). This lie, the whitest of them all, was the one that precipitated her sophomore-year fall from grace, when Mom and Dad showed up for Parents’ Weekend and one of Eleanor’s acquaintances, envious of the attention the young actress had received, pressed her father a little too hard about that avant-garde production of Euripides’ Bacchae he’d supposedly mounted at an alpine resort several years before. “Closest I’ve gotten to Switzerland is a packet of Swiss Miss,” he laughed, to Eleanor’s ultimate (and permanent) mortification.

Art Taylor’s short fiction has appeared frequently in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, among other publications including Barrelhouse, Needle: A Magazine of Noir, North American Review, PANK, Prick of the Spindle, and SmokeLong Quarterly. A professor of English at George Mason University, he also reviews mysteries and thrillers for the Washington Post and contributes frequently to Mystery Scene Magazine. For more information: www.arttaylorwriter.com.

Word on the street is that 6000 words is easier for you than 600. Please explain that to me. (I’m so jealous!) I think it was Pascal who said something like “I have made this letter longer than usual, only because I have not had the time to make it shorter”—and similar lines have also been attributed to Lincoln and Twain and a few others, I’m sure. Whoever said it, though, I think they were dead-on. To write with both concision and precision, it takes much more time and effort and attention and…well, a lot of things I too often have in short supply, it seems—much more of those things (I was saying) than to write at greater length, where it’s easy to take the approach that if you just write enough, then somehow what you’re trying to do will find its way into the mix. It’s the difference between the sharpshooter with the skill to pinpoint his or her target and nail it with precision versus the fella with the shotgun, aiming wildly but certain that he’s gotta hit something. I very much admire the former kind of writer, but mostly find myself struggling in the latter category in most of the stories I myself write.

I do very much feel (and I stress this to my students) that the craft of short story writing ultimately involves subtraction rather than addition—and I do have this quote right: It was William Trevor who said that the modern short story could be defined as “the distillation of an essence.” But whatever my skills (that point above), I also think that my own tendencies often lean toward accumulation. When I’m crafting a story, my brain tends to see all the different directions and possibilities it could go in, ideas expanding and connecting and interweaving…and so my stories usually end up around 8,000 words—a novelette, by some standards, instead of a short story, but whatever the designation, a size that I’m generally happy with and certainly comfortable with.

But when I do manage to write something tight and focused and yet containing a sense of the wider world of the characters…yowsa, that’s the tops!

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