When my dad was in eighth grade, there was an art contest at his school. The winning picture would be displayed in the state Capitol in Atlanta. It was only 137 miles from Chester, Georgia to Atlanta, but it was a lot further than that. I don’t imagine very many of the students at Chester School had ever been to Atlanta; my father hadn’t.
Knowing what was at stake, the students worked hard to make their pictures as spectacular as possible. They drew tornados carrying people off. Car crashes. Earthquakes. Pretty dramatic stuff. My dad, on the other hand, drew something he saw every day: an old sow nursing her piglets.
My father’s picture carried the day. The sow and her pigs may not have had the panache of a hurricane scene, but what it lacked in glamor it gained, I suppose, in realism. The picture was hung on the walls of the Georgia Capitol, and the eighth grade of Chester School piled in a bus and drove to Atlanta to see it. They rode a streetcar too—not to anyplace in particular, from what I understand, but just for the sake of experiencing city life. Mr. Ivey, the local bus driver, was passed over for a driver who had more experience on paved roads. “Also, Mr. Ivey was inclined to put boys off the bus if they got to fighting,” my father said. “I think there was concern that somebody might get put off in the middle of Atlanta if Mr. Ivey drove.”
I’ve known that story all my life. I knew it long before I ever heard the advice, “Write what you know.” Every time I hear that adage, I think about the old sow hanging in the high-domed Capitol, smiling her satisfied, piggy smile.
In an essay called “The Fiction Writer and His Country,” Flannery O’Connor put it this way: “The writer can choose what he writes about, but he cannot choose what he can make live.” A tornado would seem a more lively subject than a nursing sow, but only if you can make it live. If you’re an artist, you do well to ask yourself: what can you make live?