There ain’t no Don – without a John!

January 18, 2009

You can learn a lot of things from an Inauguration. Things like the unique wonder of the Constitution. The colourful weave of centuries of history. The truth that you can usually reach your destination in the end – if you try hard enough, and wait long enough. And that life is big and amazing, and that something (or someone) extraordinary can grow from the smallest and most unlikely of beginnings. You can learn that there is power in believing and striving and longing. And that there is always, always hope.
You can also learn that it’s no use going to the Washington Mall on a frigid January day, in the company of two million other people, unless you can locate a bathroom. Because without a bathroom, and with a steaming hot, double-shot cappuccino inside you, you may be doomed. DOOMED, I tell you. DOOMED.

You see, without the small necessities, the big wonders can rapidly lose their gloss. Without Mr Don and his 7000 Johns you may as well cancel your travel plans and stay home with the TV set, because for you the Inauguration will metamorphose from a glorious celebration of this nation’s finest moment to an alarming rush through the crowds to the nearest museum that will let you in to its amenities. And that, presidential supporters, will not be fun!

Yes, we DC residents have become very knowledgeable about these matters; the Post has been full of little else. Will 7000 be enough? Is there the statistical evidence to support that figure? What fate may befall this great city if there’s been an underestimate? We are bombarded with interviews with Mr Don’s employees and are well versed in their various skills (none of which you need to hear about, since they include ‘suctioning’). We’ve read the career resumes that have brought them to this high point in their professional lives.

Today I ventured into the city to preview the Inauguration – and the Johns themselves (if you’re unlucky enough to have opened this post before a photo is attached, then please return shortly as all will be explained). Striding at speed through the frozen city, clad in furry Uggs, giant Puffa jacket and copious layers, I took in the majesty and thrill of this great forthcoming event. Barriers were broken down as strangers laughed and chatted, photographing each other against backdrops of flags and banners, monuments and memorials, while enterprising entrepreneurs attempted to seduce them to spend two dollars for a photo alongside a cardboard cutout of the president-to-be.

But I am a literary agent from top to toe, even in the freezing wind of a winter’s day. And as I pondered (from the depths of my fur-fringed hood) the strange juxtaposition of the grand and the prosaic, the epic and the basic, the Inauguration and the lines and lines of Don’s glorious Johns, I had some strange but, I believe, highly significant thoughts. And believe it or not, they are related to writing!

Yes, you need the great storyline, the thrilling plot, the fabulous action, the big ideas. But you also need the small things – the details and finesse that don’t attract much attention unless they’re just not there. Because the small things are very, very important – and without them the big things just don’t quite seem to matter as much. Yes, it’s like an Inauguration minus the Johns!

What kinds of small things do I mean? Well, taking care not to repeat words in a way that stops the flow of your sentence. Really thinking through grammar and punctuation so that you create a seamless line the reader can absorb without having to read it twice. Knowing your characters so well that you don’t inadvertently change their names halfway through (I see this a lot; even ‘professional’ writers slip up). Making sure you provide the reader with enough explanation when needed. Being consistent with details and information and checking all the ends tie in together to create the whole. Writing is about the macro – but it’s also very much about the micro. Dream big dreams, think big thoughts, and become a writer of power, panache and vision – but also a nit-picker with a passion for detail.

So we prepare to inaugurate a president, and have the audacity to believe – in ourselves, in the future, in justice, in a better world . . . But don’t forget Don’s humble Johns. Because without them you won’t be contemplating the reinvigoration of the banking system, or life in a post-racial world – or how we might collectively end global poverty. No, you will be scurrying through the crowd, intent and very, very nervous. And in what may be a unique piece of agenting insight, I can assure you that there are literary parallels. For no writer can succeed unless they master the details as well as the big picture. The most important things can be small, not terribly glamorous, and even a little bit aggravating. But just see what disasters can happen when they’re not done right!

Wishing you all a wonderful, inspiring, and supremely comfortable Inauguration Day, wherever you may be.

(PS: Is this the very first agent’s blog to be written on the subject of bathrooms? I think it possible. 😉 )