Essay VIII On Being in Control

The Chinese critic Lu Chi had a memorable style. He knew his situation was no different from that of other reader-writers: the universal impermanence. Many voices cry out to be heard in the abyss. “While it is true emotions are / often capricious, / indulgence is self-destructive. // Recognizing order / is like opening / a dam in a river.”

His sentences turn like waves recoiling on themselves, modifying their movement to suit the energy unleashed by the words. The meanings of the phrases modify the sense in surprising ways. “Recognizing order / is like opening / a dam in a river.”

Critics often try to create a little order with the idea of universals: some ideas are always true and relevant. Honesty is always appropriate. Courage trumps timidity. The task of the writer is to celebrate universal values. The task is to find examples and present them to the public. “Ideas seek harmonious existence, / one among others, through language / that is both beautiful and true.”

This story —- ideas seek expression in fine language —- does not always end well. It can end with torrents of energy bursting the bounds of sense. Lu Chi’s way of writing kept him honest.

That neat formula —- universals and particulars —- cannot hide the struggle between them. We live in environments, in niches, that define the limits of what we can say. Call it reality.

To jump ahead: The connection between reading and writing is reflexive and moral clarity requires subtlety, finesse. Hamfisted repetition of home truths adds only to the darkness of the abyss.

Sheamus Heaney’s poem “Mint” opens with a scene presenting itself before the writing even gets going.

It looked like a clump of small dusty nettles
Growing wild at the gable of the house
Beyond where we dumped our refuse and old bottles:
Unverdant ever, almost beneath notice.

His first objective is to summon up the situation from the roiling sea of words lapping our hopes of communication in the universal impermanence that is our lot. To pick only those words that make sense, come together, make a picture: clump, wild, beyond where, unverdant, overlooked.

But not now, no longer overlooked.

This vital paradox of noticing the unnoticed jumpstarts many a fine tale.

And you are off. The dam has burst. The particulars shine and flow. You are on to something. And you are not in control. Something is coming at you and you just hope you are able to see it clearly. Otherwise, take out the garbage, clean the bathroom, flush your pens. Do something useful.

Author: Tom D'Evelyn

Tom D'Evelyn is a private editor and writing tutor in Cranston RI and, thanks to the web, across the US and in the UK. He can be reached at D'Evelyn has a PhD in Comparative Literature from UC Berkeley. Before retiring he held positions at The Christian Science Monitor, Harvard University Press, Boston University and Brown University. He ran a literary agency for ten years, publishing books by Leonard Nathan and Arthur Quinn, among others. Before moving to Portland OR he was managing editor at Single Island Press, Portsmouth NH. He blogs at and other sites.

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