If in a busy teaching career a writer … the conference presentation that never was

In this workshop, we will explore a range of writing activities designed to be adapted for the classroom. Taking Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller as inspiration, we consider context and genre from a variety of texts and sources. Be prepared to write and share!

This LitHub post – The Power of W.G. Sebald’s Small Silences – came across my facebook feed this morning, reminding me of an activity I’d planned for a presentation at the IF conference in July. Since the conference is now an online experience, and the workshop would be difficult in this format, the writing activity is shared below.

During preparation, research and analysis for Amanda Lohrey’s Vertigo (a novel on the 2015 HSC English Prescriptions List), I came across the work of W.G. Sebald and the use of photographs within a novel and purchased Austerlitz. Comments on the back of my 2011 paperback edition from John Banville of the Irish Times recommend the book as:

A superb meditation on time, loss and retrieval. A new kind of writing, combining fiction, memoir, travelogue, philosophy and much else besides …

It seemed to suit my idea of playfulness and writing teachers and I thought we could have some fun by considering this extract (meant to be a handout):

At first glance, we would notice the quality of the image and develop an understanding of Sebald’s deliberate sizing that encourages reader interpretation. After reading, we would note how Sebald incorporates elements of the display with the reflected lime trees from the town square, and the use of various literary devices, (including rhetorical questions, anaphora, and adjectives), to explore and perhaps challenge our understanding.


Beginning with these words from the top of page 174

I could see nothing but the items on display in the windows

we would write freely using one of these images

taken from local shops in Moss Vale. We would then read and share our ideas, considering where we had been led by our view of the image and objects to perhaps identify a mood or atmosphere. Did a particular genre appear on your page? Was there a context that became apparent? Did you lean towards an ekphrastic style? Include emotive language?

In the classroom, we might need to remind students of the NESA Stage 6 Glossary for genre:

The categories into which texts are grouped. The term has a complex history within literary and linguistic theory and is often used to distinguish texts on the basis of, for example, their subject matter (detective fiction, romance, science fiction, fantasy fiction) and form and structure (poetry, novels, short stories).

So what do we do with this writing? It seems to me that images are useful writing prompts and that free writing opens up possibilities. On reflection, we might notice interesting ideas that would lead to a more coherent piece to be read without the image.

We could draw upon the idea of ‘zooming in’ on a particular object that might lead to exposure of a character’s behaviour or motivation. The piece could also be a moment within a narrative where characters meet on the street and contemplate the display from different perspectives. Or, as in the case of Woven, it could be that a character has created the window display: Ruby is seen by a passer-by as she creates a display in a draper’s window as part of the commemoration for Remembrance Day.

Down the rabbit hole – further reading and viewing

This film discusses the novel Austerlitz (found via an article in The Irish Times titled ‘Genre Benders: where fiction and photography meet’). It’s a fascinating exploration of the interplay between the low tech images, fictional narration and textual production that engage readers and invite multiple personal meanings.

*featured image from Yuta Kurimoto, visual designer:

This is a book redesign of an Italian literature writer Italo Calvino’s modern classic If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller. Our concept was to understand and visualise the level of reading which can be experienced in the book. The literature is a metabook, in another word, there is a story inside a story where the main story blends into other stories of books on each chapter. The book is confusing and challenging to understand initially so we designed the story section using blocks of text. As you read more, the blocks of texts slowly combine together and eventually form into a single block of texts.

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