A friend sent me this question a few days ago: "I seem to have a group of very apathetic and passive writers. How do you bring in some passion?"
Get them to write about what they care about. Forget covering the school and timely issues and all of that. Ask them,
"When was the last time you were really angry at someone?"
"Have you had a big argument with a friend or family? Over what?"
"What do you worry about the most?"
Let them come to you with a topic, then say, "OK, how do we make this interesting for all of our readers?" It can't be a rant or an off-the-top-of-my-head moon trip. It has to be relevant and it should be timely, but keep in mind, the human condition is always timely.
For example, a few years ago, I was teaching a class of mostly underclassmen, and an older girl — a senior, I learned later — sat in the back, bored stiff. So I approached her, and I rolled out all of my tricks. None of them worked. Finally, I asked her, "When was the last time you cried?"
And she told me this story.
A year ago, her grandmother was admitted to the hospital. The girl had volleyball or basketball practice and wasn't able to get to the hospital before 8 or 9 p.m. When she got there, her father told her, "She's asleep. You can see her in the morning."
"No, I want to see her tonight," the girl said.
"We're not going to wake her," Dad said. "You can see her in the morning."
Her grandmother died that night.
She said she was still angry at her dad, and then she began to cry.
This is a true story.
By the way, around 2 that next morning, the phone in my hotel rang. I'm an insomniac, but I was asleep and very upset that the front desk or some drunk in another room had misdialed and awakened me.
"What???" I snapped.
"It's me," she said. "I want to read this sentence to you. I want to make sure it's perfect."
So, she read the sentence. And it was perfect. It said what she wanted and needed to say, in her own voice.
The next morning, she read the entire piece to me. I got a little misty-eyed and gave her a hug and told her, "You absolutely must let your dad read this."
I wish I could say that she did. But it doesn't matter. All that matters is that she wrote it. With passion.