Brain Pickings

Inside The Kelly Writers House Audio Archives

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The muses of happiness and misery, or what closet hedonism has to do with the arts.

For the past fifteen years, Kelly Writers House at the University of Pennsylvania, our alma mater, has been hosting over 150 public programs each semester — poetry readings, lectures, film screenings, seminars, workshops, radio broadcasts, salon-style gatherings and other multimedia happenings. One of KWH’s most invaluable assets is the Fellows Program, connecting young writers with seasoned and accomplished ones. Since 1999, KWH Fellows have included cultural luminaries like Gay Talese, Susan Sontag, David Sedaris, E. L. Doctorow and many more. Archival recordings of readings by and discussions with many of the fellows are available on the program website and, today, we’ve curated a few of our favorites.

Ian Frazier on imitation and writing (2:18)

Susan Sontag on the physical spaces of writing: her library and New York City (5:29)

I’m very drawn to the ways in which the arts transform us, or have the potentiality of transforming us and deepening us. You can say that lots of other experiences could do that too, but then what instrument of consciousness do we bring to that experience?” ~ Susan Sontag

David Sedaris on the importance of anger (6:35)

Art Spiegelman on disaster as a muse (05:29)

I don’t work when I’m feeling good. I know artists who do, they work out of exuberance, and I work more out of trying to retain enough equilibrium so I can say ‘good morning’ to people in an elevator and just function in a day.” ~ Art Spiegelman

The question always is there: What kind of a privilege is it just to be able to feel purely and simply happy? But we can, and in spite of so much knowledge.” ~ Adrienne Rich

Adrienne Rich on happiness as the opposite of guilt (5:19)

Susan Sontag on conversion that sticks: the need for narration & promoting the inner life (10:02)

I’m such an up-front, out-in-the-open moralist. I am a closet hedonist. I do respect the search for pleasure because I don’t believe it is to be taken for granted. And just the sheer pleasure that the arts give, the pleasure of color, for instance, and the education of the eye, actually to see, the education of the ear — those things, I don’t really know how to factor them in. But I think of the arts as being something that really keeps you alive, keeps you going, keeps you growing.” ~ Susan Sontag

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