We asked Spring issue contributor Amy Stuber to share what inspired her story “Picturebook,” and we hope her answer inspires you.
When I wrote “Picturebook,” I was thinking of two things: Sally Mann and motherhood. Sally Mann because I’d been obsessed with her photos, the way she often fused beauty and brutality to make us look long at commonplace things (kid with bloody nose, girls playing with makeup, etc.). And motherhood because I’d come back to writing fully in 2017, ten-plus years after having my first child and after a lot of years of not writing and still couldn’t quite conceive of myself as both a mother and a person who did creative things, or a mother and really anything I used to be.
I used this story to write through my own feelings about work, identity, and motherhood, so it was my after-having-kids identity crisis in six parts that I was thinking of like six separate photographs capturing key moments in this character’s life. Like the main character in the story, Marguerite, I struggled to figure out who the hell I was post-kids and then how to make a space for creative work, to decide it had value, even if it sometimes felt like it didn’t, and to find a way to weave what initially seemed mundane (these little snapshot moments of kid life and mom life) into my work.
Before writing “Picturebook,” I stared at a lot of Sally Mann’s photos, and I read her memoir Hold Still and watched the documentary What Remains about her life and work. Around this time, I remember a man on Twitter saying something about women’s writing like, “Oh, another mom story about mom things.” That reminded me of how Mann faced a lot of criticism for her photos of her kids. People thought they were exploitative, but really it seemed to me like people’s criticism of these images was less about her using her kids in her photos and more about people wanting a firm line between motherhood and work, as if “mom things” aren’t serious or weighty enough to be the focus of art, or if they are used, they should only be used in a certain way. But for those of us who work with our kids in the room or even just always in our headspace no matter what, creating some firm line between motherhood and work is just not realistic. Ditto for feeling just one way about identity and motherhood and how to bring kids and parenting into creative work.
Ultimately, Marguerite in “Picturebook” finds a way to knit these past selves together into one shakily constructed whole, and then center pieces of her domestic life (her life, really) in her own photos without letting them erase her as a person and artist.
The story ends with a kind of breath-holding moment when Marguerite is looking at her photo of her kids where they are just before movement, just before running out of her gaze. This is something that really strikes me about Mann’s photos of her kids: they look at her like, “You have me, but you don’t have me.” In a way, they own her, even if she’s capturing them for a moment. And that’s the stunning thing about parenting: its absolute mutability and transience. Just when you’ve mastered something, it changes. Just when you’ve gotten them to a kind of functional stage, they leave. Writing feels a lot like this, too.
AMY STUBER has published short fiction in New England Review, Copper Nickel, West Branch, Joyland, Ploughshares, The Southampton Review, Wigleaf, and elsewhere. She is Assistant Flash Editor at Split Lip. Find her on Twitter at amy_stuber_ or online at www.amystuber.com.