When I was 18 years old, I was a research assistant to Robert Greene. My job was to find stories he could use in his writing. Nearly seventeen years later, I still use so much of what Robert taught me about finding great stories in researching for my own writing. But the gift has been less in how it has helped me professionally, and more in how it has helped me personally.
As I would learn much later, Robert was teaching me how to find what the ancient Greeks called a chreia: “an exemplary story about a famous person, often culminating in a memorable utterance,” as Gregory Hays has defined it. “Learning by precepts is the long way around,” Seneca wrote. “The quick and effective way is to learn by example.” In this article, I thought I would share a handful of my favorite stories I have found over the years — ones that have stuck with me and that I think will have a lasting impact on your life.
The writers Kurt Vonnegut (Slaughterhouse Five) and Joseph Heller (Catch-22) were at a glamorous party outside New York City. Standing in the palatial second home of the billionaire host, Vonnegut began to needle his friend. “Joe,” he said, “how does it feel that our host only yesterday may have made more money than your novel has earned in its entire history?”
“I’ve got something he can never have,” Heller replied.
“The knowledge that I’ve got enough.”
How you do anything is how you do everything.
On the campaign trail, a heckler once tried to embarrass President Andrew Johnson by shouting about his working-class credentials. Johnson replied without breaking stride: “That does not disconcert me in the least; for when I used to be a tailor I had the reputation of being a good one, and making close fits, always punctual with my customers, and always did good work.”
Anything you do well is noble, no matter how humble.
The dancer Martha Graham tells a story about her vaudeville days, when she was followed by a bird act. When the music went on the white cockatoos, trained by years of reinforcement and ritual, would become almost hysterical with excitement, clawing and beating at the cage…