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.