This is the last in a series of short essays on “building sentences.” I wrote this series for the National Post in Toronto. They all appeared in the online section of the newspapers this week. To get the greatest benefit, it’s best to read them in sequence as they begin simply and increase in elaborative possibilities as you go along: but-constructions, lists, parallel construction and the epigram.
Writers create drama in sentences and paragraphs by using grammatical forms to juxtapose material with different shades of meaning. If you say, “Usually Mel’s mother reminded her of a giraffe, but today she seemed more like an elephant,” you force the reader to compare elephants, giraffes, and mothers and the differences between them. Power lies in the differential relation.
Here is Keats on modern love: “And what is love? It is a doll dress’d up…” – a line of poetry that forces the reader to measure the distance between his idea of love and a dressed up doll. And here is an aphorism from my story “Bad News of the Heart”: “And what is love? An erotic accident prolonged to disaster.”
In his Historie of Serpents (1608), Edward Topsall wrote: “Some learned Writers..haue compared a Scorpion to an Epigram..because as the sting of the Scorpion lyeth in the tayle, so the force and vertue of an Epigram is in the conclusion.”
Aphorism, epigram and apophthegm are words that refer to roughly the same set of constructs: short, witty statements built around at least one balanced contrast. I taught myself to write them after reading Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet. Someone called Durrell’s style lapidary; after I looked up the word, I wanted to be lapidary, too. The Greeks wrote epigrams as epitaphs, to be carved on stones over the graves of heroes, hence the term lapidary, words worth being carved in stone for the ages.
The easiest way to teach yourself how to write aphorisms is to collect an assortment from your favourite writers, group them into formal types, and map the types. “Love is an erotic accident prolonged to a disaster” is a definition type. You get a lot that begin: love is, life is, women are, the world is, and so on. “The world is but a school of inquiry.” (Montaigne) “Life is always better under the influence of mild intoxicants.” (Glover, “Woman Gored by Bison Lives”) Here is one I stole from a woman I dated briefly and put into a story: “Love is like the telephone – more than one can use the line.”
The predicate contrasts with the subject of the sentence, or, to be more precise, it contrasts with the common understanding of the term in the subject. Epigrams and aphorisms are always subverting the common understanding and reader expectation; their nature is to be provocative and ironic.