One of the most powerful things about writing is that you get to imagine the world being different than it is. Everything can be questioned, tested, reinterpreted. You can imagine different political systems, different ways of life, different places to live–and you can do it in very little space, using the senses to bring other worlds to life instantly.
But what does that actually look like? How do you actually encourage students to work on this as a skill without, on the one hand, being overprescriptive or, on the other hand, devolving into absent-minded freewriting with no pressure on the language?
This exercise pushes students to write about what happened by talking about what didn’t, what could’ve, what almost happened. Counterfactuals can be used to express a hope, question a narrative, imagine a better outcome, even critique a form of writing, just by changing a small physical detail. The goal of this exercise is to give students a tool for reinterpreting important events creatively and personally.
Although I’ve tended to frame this exercise as a poetry prompt—I find that the quick, intense images lend themselves well to poetry—with a few slight modifications it also works well as character background work for fiction or as a jumping-off point for a piece of creative nonfiction, as described here. For an in-class exercise, allow ten to fifteen minutes. The exercise can also be modified for a larger assignment.
- Ask students to take a minute to think of a specific moment in their life—or in history—that helped make them who they are. It doesn’t matter how large or small the event is, as long as it affected them directly in some way.
- Allow students to take two minutes to make a list of sensory details about the event. The details don’t have to build up to something or fit together. Students should just try to be as specific as possible. This is only prep work, gathering together kindling for a fire.
- Now, ask students to change something. What if different people were there? What if they had been a different age? What if they had been warned? What if this had happened in a time before social media? What if they were a different gender? What if their feet were twice their normal size? Instruct students to pick one of their sensory details and switch it, spending about a minute to spin out a parallel universe.
- Now repeat: Ask students to take another detail and flip it, creating a new version of the event. Suggest students use a simple phrase like “in this version…” (or just “or…”) so they can jump right in without having to introduce or explain.
- Repeat again! (You could consider giving students less time on subsequent repetitions.)
- Repeat until you have at least seven mini parallel universes. Ask students to give each version of the moment just enough attention so that it’s clear something has changed and so that there’s always one physical or personal consequence.
- Now, ask students to rearrange their parallel universes into some kind of purposeful order, other than just the order they were written. Ask, “How can you turn this random collection of alternative versions of an event into something that flows or builds or progresses?”
Larger Assignment Prompt
If this takes the form of a larger assignment rather than a writing warm-up, more demands can be placed on the contents of the “parallel universes”; for instance, each one could be a paragraph or a mini-scene. You could also have students show their work: turn in a full list of randomly ordered parallel universes, then another version where they have been curated and narrowed to create a progression or flow.
Lying in Order to Tell More Truth, or How to Modify This Exercise for Creative Nonfiction
Nonfiction means “true stories,” but it also means “subjective experience”: real events filtered through a specific person’s body and viewpoint. Sometimes, the truth can be thrown into sharper, clearer relief by placing it side by side with a parallel universe that readers know isn’t real.
Modifying this exercise for creative nonfiction primarily means rephrasing step 3—“change something”—to “exaggerate” or, maybe even better, “tell a lie.”
Doing this exercise with a real-life event you want to write about in nonfiction allows you to dig deeper into the causes, consequences, and implications of what happened by thinking about what could have or might have happened. When writing nonfiction, it can be easy to fall into the trap of cataloguing every random detail of an event rather than paring down your writing to what really makes the story hum. As you build more and more parallel universes around an experience, you come closer to the heart of what you’re writing about: with all the exaggerations and made-up bits swirling around, what piece of the experience stays the same every time? What do you keep coming back to?
JP Allen is a poet and translator whose work has appeared in Prairie Schooner, The Normal School, Tinderbox, and elsewhere. He has an MFA from the Johns Hopkins University and serves as an assistant poetry editor for Narrative Magazine. He has taught creative writing at the elementary, middle school, high school, and undergraduate levels.