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Wisecracks that played Carnegie Hall

Cover from a book of epigramsMy granddaughter found this old book of epigrams that I bought in junior high school. I got it at a time when I started seeing myself as smart. Being able to pull quotes from smart people made me feel smarter. I loved epigrams because they are, as Oscar Levant put it, wisecracks that played at Carnegie Hall.

But I learned more from epigrams than how to sound smart. They taught me how to make my points succinctly and with a dash of humor. I also learned the hard way that a quote from a famous person doesn’t prove a point. Just because Oscar Wilde said something witty, it doesn’t make your position valid. You have to build your argument, but the right epigram can help drive the point home.

Here are some of my favorite epigrams from the book and what I learned from them.

How good bad music and bad reasons sound when one marches against an enemy. — Nietzsche

Good writing uses more than words. It builds a clear image. You can imagine that out-of-tune and tinny military band playing some cymbal-crashing martial dirge to the beat of hobnail boots. With that image clearly in your mind, you can make the comparison with the chest-pounding rhetoric used to justify war. A good epigram builds a clear image and uses it to make a strong statement in a few words.

it takes three to make a child — e. e. cummings

Good writing also raises questions, especially from expert word-benders like e. e. cummings. Who is the third? Is it the child? Or someone (or something) else? What does it tell us about bringing children into the world? Questions like these produce writing that stays with the reader for a long time.

I can resist everything except temptation. — Oscar Wilde

Good writing reveals the personality of the writer. Oscar Wilde was the master of the bon mot. Snarky and observant with a keen turn of phrase. You can picture him in a rakish velvet jacket and walking cane holding court at a restaurant or parlor as amused gentlemen chortle over brandy and cigars. As you read Wilde, think of ways you can show your personality through your writing.

There is nothing permanent except change. — Heraclitus

Good writing has a timeless quality. What Heraclitus said 2,500 years ago is still true today. When we touch on basic truths about people, we can create writing that endures.

Now all the world’s a sage. — Marshall McLuhan

Each of us has insight we can offer. If we can distill our ideas into a short burst with clear imagery, questions for readers to ponder, a dash of personality, and timeless truths, we can produce a wisecrack worthy of Carnegie Hall.

Have a favorite epigram or one you created yourself? Post it in comments.


Also published on Medium.

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