I was on an escalator in the MOMA, and I heard a mother ask her son, “What was your favorite exhibit?” The boy hemmed and hawed and ultimately failed to answer the question.
I wanted to explain to the mother that a better question would have been, “What exhibit did you hate the most?”
This would have most certainly generated a response.
A fundamental truth about human beings, and especially about kids, is that they are more likely to remember the things that they despise rather than the things that they love. I can’t remember a single gift that my grandparents ever gave me save the socks and underwear that I received on Christmas.
It’s just more fun to complain.
And while the mom on the escalator might have preferred to know that her son loved the Mattisse exhibit the most rather than listening to him gripe about the creepy photography, getting him to gripe and complain about the worst exhibit would have been a more effective way of getting him to talk about his visit, and ultimately, he might have gotten around to talking about his favorite as well.
The same holds true in writing.
One of the most common essay topics in the history of mediocre writing instruction asks students to write about their favorite moment from summer vacation.
I find that I get a much more enthusiastic and interesting response if I give the kids the choice to write about their most miserable moment of summer vacation instead. More than half of the class typically chooses this version of the topic, and the responses are often humorous, detailed and utterly engrossing. Most important, the kids appreciate the choice and are more engaged.
Everyone is a critic, so why not embrace this tendency and get kids excited about writing.
It’s why kids took the time to write hate mail to author Neil deGrasse Tyson regarding his mention of Pluto’s recent loss of planetary stature in his book.
People write most enthusiastically when they are angry.
You’ve probably noticed this about me from time to time.