Thankless Children by John Costello

The following blog post is by The Quotable contributor, John Costello. John’s story, Giants, will appear in our upcoming Issue, Place.

Some years ago, I made a critical comment to my mother. I thought I was justified in whatever I said about her, now lost to my memory. My mother made clear her displeasure at my rebellion.

“How sharper than a serpent’s tooth is a child’s tongue,” my mother said, borrowing from Shakespeare’s Lear. At her rural high school, my mother had learned Latin and memorized quotes from many authors; her words are more dangerous than her throwing knives. I experienced a strong urge not to visit home, until the matter blew over.

Nine months ago, I lost all patience with one of my stories. What was this ungrateful thing, which venomously resisted my attempts to bring it into the world? Why wouldn’t the story work? Why did it have to be so difficult? I was tired of revising the story, tired of taking it to my writing group, tired of caring for it. I threatened to send it to my recycle bins, virtual and literal. Instead, I put the story away. In a way, I was punishing it.

“Put a story in a drawer” is common advice, up there with “kill your darlings,” but some stories resist being put into a drawer. An idle moment turns into scribbled notes and plans to make “just one more change,” which turns into ten more changes and a frustrating weekend. I was determined not to let that happen. I ignored my story. I didn’t speak of it or think about it. I pursued other ideas.

I like to think that Shakespeare did not originate Lear’s phrase, which speaks not of “a child’s tongue” but instead bemoans having “a thankless child.” I imagine the words came from his own mother. Writers are difficult people, as children or adults. Just as our words unsettle others (not always by design), so are our stories difficult and unwieldy while we attempt to give them form.

My mother no longer calls me, instead waiting for me to call. There have been imposed silences from both of us. When I do call, we carefully pick our words. We want to be heard, because we are speaking to someone who is important to us.

When I returned to the story, it fell into place like a dutiful child. I sent it on its way. The story that I put in the drawer is the one published in The Quotable Issue Five. I am thrilled that my story has been published, but when I see it in print, I know I will approach my creation carefully, fearful of being bitten.

Photo by: mdanys