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Reflections on My Commonplace Book: Jeff Koons

When I am working on something, I’m going to give the bottom of the piece as much attention as the top. A lot of the time artists will work on the visible parts of something and then you go around the back and see they didn’t spend any time there. I think that makes you lose spiritual trust. All of a sudden you feel let down. I want to create work that maintain the viewer’s trust. I am looking for friendship through interaction.”

Jeff Koons to Ingrid Sishy in Nothing is Missed

When I first encountered this quote my immediate question was, “how does this apply to me as a writer?” Jeff Koons may be an artist in visual media such as painting and sculpture, but how does that differ at the bones from the creativity of a writer or a musician. We all have creations with different parts. We all fall into the trap of emphasizing some parts over other. The question is not “what things a writer neglects cam lose the trust of the reader?” The question is not “does this apply to me as a writer”.

The question is “what is the bottom of a piece of writing?”

As someone whose first focus is on storytelling, especially given my disdain for the Cult of the Sentence, my immediate instinct is word craft. Is the bottom of the piece I neglect found in wooden dialect and mundane imagery. Does my willingness to use less than the full range of a thesaurus show the bottom I do not care about?

I do not think that is my principle bottom. Yes, there are superb storytellers whose prose is mundane. I know no writer who, given the ability, does not have prose that sparkles as much as his story enchants. Koons was not discussing those things we do less well than others, but still pour our heart’s blood into creating the best we can. He was speaking of things author neglect or take for granted.

Or things authors add without caring for them.

I think that gets closer to what this quote means for a writer. The invisible parts of sculpture might be visible, but aren’t in the normal view. It could be plain stone base made with no thought for what it supports. Even worse, it could refer to a base made a particular way because “that is how it is done” regardless of its appropriateness.

Replace “that is how it is done” with “that is how the critic in The New York Review of Books like it” or “that promotes some cause I find noble”.

The bottom is your story. The bottom is your characters. The bottom is your world, be it your interpretation of the street you grew up on, a planet across the galaxy, the Oval Office, or a grand sub-creation like Middle Earth. The bottom are those foundations which sunk into your soul on which you build your writing. If you sink the foundation of your story into something else your readers will know.

Even the most prolific pulp writers created memorable stories and characters when they sunk their foundations into themselves. It is the hack who sinks his story’s foundations into the market or The Party or the movement who cannot work on the bottom.

In his first novel, Pawn of Prophecy, David Eddings included a bit of a paean to the idealized English Yeoman and the Protestant work ethic in a short exchange between Durnik the smith and Garion, the hero of the series.

“Always do the very best job you can,” [Durnik] said on another occasion as he put a last few finishing touches with a file on the metal parts of a wagon tongue he was repairing.

“But that piece goes underneath,” Garion said. “No one will ever see it.”

“But I know it’s there,” Durnik said, still smoothing the metal. “If it isn’t done as well as I can do it, I’ll be ashamed every time I see this wagon go by-and I’ll see the wagon every day.”

This exchange came to mind a couple of days after the Koons quote went into my commonplace book.

Jeff Koons had what, for lack of a better term, I would call a stock post-war American middle class upbringing. That way of life is less revered today, the quote and Edding’s passage drawn roots from that way of life. Eddings was born a decade before Koons, but I think they had similar experiences.

I asked above what the bottom of a writer’s art was. Perhaps this passage from Eddings, echoing the lessons of a way of life in the mouths of his characters the same way Koons did in telling Sischy about his process, is the answer.

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  1. TRX TRX

    “In the elder days of Art
    craftsmen wrought with greatest care
    each minute and unseen part
    for the Gods see everywhere.”

    I got it from a Gordon R. Dickson novel, but I suspect it’s a quote. Why, this is the 21st century! [clickety] Longfellow. Probably something he expected every reader would be familiar with from school.

    I run into that sort of thing every now and then; lately with some 1940s-1950s British military histories, which throw in random lines of French. I assume the authors expected their readers would all have had French in school, probably along with Greek and Latin…

    • I like that one. It’ll have to go into the book as well.

      And yes, the expectations of what the average read knows certainly was different even in my parents’ and grandparents’ generations.

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