Doing a Lick of It
There are these people we call workaholics.
You’ve met them, I’ve met them.
We’re not always kind about them. Generally, the options are pity and derision. Sometimes envy disguised as disdain.
- “Yes, she does 15 pages a day, but she’s just a workaholic, you know. I’d rather have a life.”
- “Yes, he had 12 newspaper op-eds about the book ready for submission before he’d turned in his last draft. What a ridiculous workaholic.”
- “Sure that guy’s already on his third novel, but he’s not even on Twitter. The man’s a workaholic.”
And yet look at the plethora of phrases we have for progress based in work.
We work our way through it, we work something out, we work wonders. We get down to work on works in progress with working theories as to what’s needed to work it out.
And those who have come best through the weird ways of this year frequently seemed to be working.
Some, of course, were the heroes of mercy who work the overcrowded hospitals of the coronavirus’ most damaged victims. And our honor of these workers is absolute, unstinting, profound.
Many more, however, were those who made leaps of faith and daily ritual to work from home without a word, to keep things going without complaint. You could sometimes catch a sense that they’d found something interesting, even engaging and curiously intriguing in seeing just how gracefully they could appear to make adjustments while all around them were struggling to … make it work.
Those are the people, in my experience, who are are still at it, nine months into the best documented pandemic in history: They’re not just watching, they’re working.
Works a Cappella
I’m listening to work of Thomas Tallis as I write this. An English 16th-century liturgical composer of the Chapel Royal, Tallis’ life and work bridged Henry VIII’s break with the Vatican in 1534 and to listen carefully is to hear a body of work that all but floated a deeply shaken and conflicted nation safely to a new shore of rising power. He worked not only for Henry but also for Edward VI, Mary I, and Elizabeth I.
What you hear when you listen to Tallis’ work is an endless conversation–with himself, with his singers, with his royal patrons, with his congregations, perhaps with a deity.
This is the kind of music that works like a winding path through a forest of incidents. Sung without accompaniment–a cappella (of the chapel)–his music sounds as if it never stops. This is intentional. World without end. The celestial conversation surges forward, singers cueing and answering each other in long, legato lines of gorgeously timed intersections and diversions. So good were he and his contemporary William Byrd at this that Elizabeth granted them a monopoly on polyphony (there’s a phrase, huh?) for 21 years.
And what did that royal grant include? A patent to print and publish music. So it is that we have that polyphony, in which more than one melody is being pursued at once, each singer prosecuting a line of inquiry, sometimes aligning in generous harmonic agreement and at other times branching out into new directions. It’s an enormous canon. One of Tallis’ works features eight choirs, each with five voices.
All this transporting sound, sheer sonics spun on Latin, took work. Talent lives in work. Skill lives in work.
Working Through It
Like Tallis, today’s writers of books have a certain advantage. While you may not yet have been handed a royal grant by the crown and brought to court to work your magic, the best writers are something Tallis had to be to meet the endless demands of the monarchs he wrote for: a self-starter.
We who write are blessed with safe work in an unsafe time. And we don’t have to have “By Order of Her Majesty” stamped on our efforts in order to do what we do.
Our work is attached to an industry that has thrived despite the nightmare.
As Kristen McLean at NPD BookScan told us earlier this week, as of the week ending December 5, the US book industry was “on the holiday rocket ship” with weekly print-sales volume topping 25 million units. In manufacturer’s suggested retail price, the value of the first week of this month in books was $190 million more than in the previous week. Barack Obama’s A Promised Land alone has sold more than 3,320,000 copies in all formats in the States and Canada. That’s just two of its territories. It was released on November 17 into 23 additional world markets.
(McLean notes that this puts the former president about 77,000 units up on the first lady’s memoir, Becoming. at the December 5 mark. Ladies and gentlemen, place your bets.)
The book publishing industry is on track for a very strong year, which is not what might have been expected in March or April. This gives us much to be thankful for and it reflects, of course, that reading, especially with the adoption of ebooks and audiobooks accelerating during the contagion, has its essential importance in times of struggle and fear and doubt and danger.
And as Tallis must have known while working through the upheaval of the Tudor storm, the blessing of work is a stabilizer, a constant ebb and flow of words and their secret melodies that you can focus on at any time. Or, if you don’t mind being called a workaholic, at all times.
We’re anticipating a 2021 of recovery, of new health and certainty, of much needed civic sanity and much longed-for delivery from pestilence. Please be careful this season. Many are dependent on each of us being scrupulously careful as we await the vaccines. Hunker now.
And my wish for you is that you have the luck to work your way into 2021, as you see fit. May the work help you feel grounded and in touch with progress. May it be something you remember to return to when you’re scared. And may you demand your best work of yourself precisely when things are darkest.
Workaholics, after all, may not be the unthinking, driven souls they seem. They may be onto the fact that their work is a gift they can deploy for themselves and others in good times and bad. There’s peace and light there, even in exhaustion.
Does your work help you get through tough times? Is it something you can return to as a haven? Do you sometimes think you’re becoming a workaholic? If so, any problem with that?