Nearly thirty years ago I wrote a novel called Johnny Angel. It was about a car salesman and the dealership where he worked. As you might imagine, it was a comedy, but it was more than that. Being consumed with what theologians in graduate school later on called “the Jesus event,” I made it about redemption. Johnny Angel, the protagonist, could redeem himself only through other people. He wasn’t sacrificed, not physically, but he was transformed via a dying-death-resurrection plot worthy of a Clint Eastwood movie.
Johnny Angel was not published, although an agent at the Sherry Robb Agency in Los Angeles wanted to represent it. I’m not sure why I didn’t pursue it, but I can tell you that it is being resurrected today. It will be the basis of a new musical with the same name about life and love on the car lot. Yes, love. It can get pretty steamy in the backseat, you know.
Rereading something you wrote in your twenties is a strange experience. Johnny Angel is filled with wit, energy, and sarcasm. I was nothing if not sarcastic (some things never change). The writing comes at you high and tight like a 100 mile-per-hour Noah Syndergaard fastball. That’s not to say I didn’t ramble. The novel is a shaggy-dog story that lasts for four-hundred pages. I am also nothing if not wordy.
Today, high and tight has settled into low and slow. I am intentional now and more methodical. I have even gotten to the point where I think before I speak. Well, it’s been known to happen. You can hear it in my voice, which is deeper than it used to be. I am now a bass-baritone in the church choir. It happens to all kinds of singers, which reminds me that I will not spend two thousand dollars to attend Tony Bennett’s 90th birthday party here in New York. I was on the platform with him when he received an honorary doctorate from Fordham University. That’s good enough for me. I hope he’s all right with that. If not, I’m sure there’ll be someone to help him pick up the pieces.
Low and slow is not as emotional or energetic as high and tight. Low and slow writing is reasoned, thoughtful, reflective. Part of this comes from maturing. You can’t play a leading man forever. Part of it, in my case, is learning to write for academic journals. They’re not interested in a turn of phrase, although the best academic writing cuts through the postmodern jargon and muddled thinking. Low and slow is wise, strategic, and patient. Think of the old master in Yasunari Kawabata’s The Master of Go or Phil Niekro, the knuckleballer with more than 3,000 lifetime strikeouts. After all, you can throw heat only so long.
And the writer? Picture a graph. The x axis represents time; the y axis, energy. The writer has to find that point on the graph with the desired mix of energy (high and tight) and age (low and slow). I say desired, because there is also a natural process at work. Desire does not trump the natural ebb of energy over time. So, a writer has to be aware of individual desire and this natural process. That’s a lot. I haven’t spent too much time surfing, but I imagine it’s like waiting for a wave. There’s a joke there about free will and Free Willy, but I’ll leave it for the reader to figure out.
In the meantime, we’re having all kinds of fun writing numbers for the musical about car paint and financing. I feel a tingle.
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