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September 9, 2004 - Epigram Writer - 2004-09-10

Broadcast on COAST TO COAST: September 9, 2004

DAVE ARLINGTON: Every Thursday we bring you another report in our Wordmaster series, looking at American English. Avi Arditti and Rosanne Skirble will be back next week. In their place, we meet a man who puts just a few words together in unusual ways. As VOA's Mike O'Sullivan reports from Los Angeles, he has earned a living for more than three decades by getting his entertaining little phrases printed in newspapers and books and on postcards and T-shirts.

MIKE O'SULLIVAN: Ashleigh Brilliant writes epigrams, which he explains are short, pithy sayings.

ASHLEIGH BRILLIANT: "Traditionally, it's written to go onto something. That's where the 'epi' part comes from. 'Gram' means 'writing.' 'Epi' is 'upon.' So originally they were something to be written and put on a tree or on a rock. Nowadays, of course, they can go on a T-shirt or on a postcard, or anything. But it's the idea of a separate little piece of writing."

MO: He has imposed some additional rules on himself in writing his epigrams. They must be original and no longer than 17 words.

AB: "That's very short, even for an epigram. Mine must never have any rhyme of rhythm because my idea is to have them capable of being translated into other languages. Also, I try to say something meaningful, but also say it in a way that's entertaining."

MO: He is the author of nine books, made up of his epigrams, with illustrations.

AB: "The first one was called 'I May Not be Totally Perfect, But Parts of Me are Excellent.' Number two, 'I Have Abandoned My Search for Truth and am Now Looking for a Good Fantasy.' Next came, 'Appreciate Me Now and Avoid the Rush,' followed by, 'I Feel Much Better Now that I've Given Up Hope.'"

MO: Book number five was titled, "All I Want is a Warm Bed and a Kind Word, and Unlimited Power."

Ashleigh Brilliant was born in England, and says, yes, he was born with the name Brilliant. As a child, he moved to Canada with his parents, and came to California in 1956. After teaching high school briefly, he went on to finish a Ph.D. in American history at the University of California, Berkeley.

He taught college briefly, then spent two years on a cruise ship that sailed around the world offering college courses.

AB: "There was nowhere to go from that, so I had to find a new career. And it happened to be just about the time of the "summer of love" in San Francisco, 1967, so I became a sort of mock-hippie guru. And I had been writing these strange little things for quite a while and didn't know what to do with them, so this was my opportunity."

MO: He soon found that people would pay for his sayings printed on postcards. That was the start of a business. He syndicates his sayings in a newspaper column called "Pot-Shots," sells them on cards and in books, and licenses them for reproduction on T-shirts, coffee mugs, and even underwear. One of his popular epigrams says "Your smile is one of the great sights of the world." He reads some others:

AB: "'By doing just a little every day, I can gradually let the task completely overwhelm me.' 'No man is an island, but some of us are long peninsulas.' 'Instead of past, present and future, I prefer chocolate, vanilla and strawberry.' Oh, here's a good one for a journalist: 'My sources are unreliable, but their information is fascinating.'"

MO: Some sayings are funny, others are ironic. They all have the ring of truth, he says, or people won't buy them. He says the rise of the Internet has been good for the epigram business.

AB: "The postcard business has declined, but the Internet business is growing all the time. And I'm just on the verge of bringing out what I hope will be our most popular product, a database, a piece of software, containing all my work, both the text and the pictures."

MO: After more than 35 years and thousands of epigrams, he says the task of writing them is getting more difficult.

AB: "I've grown a little weary. I don't intend to go on forever. In fact, I'm thinking of stopping at 10,000, which I'm now approaching."

MO: But at 70 years of age, the writer of epigrams is still satisfying his fans and rounding out his extensive body of very short works. Mike O'Sullivan, VOA News, Los Angeles.