My Summer Vacation, Part II: Where the action is!

By Anne-Marie Oomen
Sun contributor

This is the second of three pieces on how to capture your best Leelanau moments in words.

In Part I of “My Summer Vacation” series, I suggested how to use sensory language to keep the brain engaged in the story of those most important moments of summer vacation. I made the claim that if you could write just one important moment of your vacation in sensory language, using language that appeals to taste, touch, sound, smell and sight, you would have made a memory that will last longer for you and your reader than the tiny image an iPhone photo gives. I am not negating the value or the speed of a photo, but I’m saying if you want to build memories, and keep memories rich, then enrich the brain with story by writing that moment.

Now, I’m going to suggest another step in the process. Action. The brain really likes action. In fact, the brain loves action, even when we are veging out on the beach, action runs in the drift of our minds. After all, we are part animal, and we still have that watchful animal awareness that what moves might be predator or prey, so it gets and keeps our attention. But how does this translate into that more sophisticated thinking we do when we write, even just one paragraph.

Action in writing comes from first from verbs, from very specific verbs sometimes called action verbs. There is one kind of verb that just shows a relationship of the subject to something else. She was cool. He is my cousin. Those tourists were really stuck up. These verbs, was, is, were, are all forms of the verb “be,” and while useful, they are not action based. So think of action verbs, not just the easy ones we use every day: walked, drove, talked, slept, ate, and vegged, but the ones that get more interesting and suggest movement that we feel as sensation. That again? Yes, it’s all about the brain being stimulated. The brain loves action, just think of the success of the “Rocky” films or “Guardians of the Galaxy.” Talk about action.

Back to the page that you want to write about your summer vacation because really, won’t it be cool to share these with Grandma? She will be so impressed, and you will become her favorite son. For example, That little toddler on Empire beach, yes your grandchild, trundles along the water’s edge, throwing stones that splash into the waves, murmuring little thrills of words and half words. She laughs when a wave knocks her over, but then bursts into sobs when she loses her favorite stone, now disappeared in the blue. What grandma wouldn’t enjoy that? She’ll be driving up here from Cleveland tomorrow, bringing a carload of comfort and special little stones. Humor aside, the words that bring vitality to these simple sentences are action words, even when they are not exactly verbs: trundles, throwing, splash, murmuring, thrills, laughs, knocks, bursts, loses, disappeared. The strongest among them suggest movement: trundles, throwing, splash, knocks. These are the workhorses of language and you guessed it, story making. That’s what will get grandma here. Then you’ve got your babysitter, and you did it all with action verbs. Well, perhaps that is hyperbolic.

A note about the process of writing. As you write, you may not think of these verbs first. But, as you work through the story, especially if you are writing this on a computer or in your Gmail or even on an iPhone (yup, I do it too), think about choosing strong verbs. Even if you aren’t sure what a verb is, don’t worry about that, just use words that suggest strong action, and the brain is almost immediately engaged. And that helps memory. It may seem odd at first, to make this effort, but because action words make us see a motion in the brain, more neurons are involved in the physical memory, and yes, then we remember better. And here’s the cool thing. It also makes us become more engaged in the writing because as writers, we feel it too. It’s one of the pleasures of writing.

So, let’s go back to that school essay by the girl who tries to climb the dune climb for the first time. Maybe she writes something like this: I was at the bottom of the giantous sand hill and I was scared. Everyone else was at the top. That’s honest and real and you can’t fault that. But what if she adds something like this: I stood at the bottom of that giantous sand hill and watched all three of my big brothers climb it like happy soldiers. They hollered and tossed sand into the air, and they bent over like monkeys and crawled. Sometimes they stood up and breathed hard and then they looked taller, and the higher they climbed, the taller they stretched, and I could see, when they got to the top, they would touch the sky. Sometimes they ran a few steps, and their feet sprayed sand all around them, and it scattered on the dog, but the dog didn’t care. He tried to climb too, barking every few steps, headed for that sky. So I lifted my feet and took a few steps up onto that slippery hill and what happened first? My shoes filled up with sand, just packed full of sand right off the bat and they weighed so much, they turned into rocks. I knew then, I wouldn’t make it.

Most of the verbs in her piece are action verbs, but even if you didn’t know a verb from a veggie, it wouldn’t matter. The description carries action in every sentence. That’s what you want to strive for. That’s the key to what the great writer, John Gardner, calls the “continuous fictive dream.” The fictive dream happens when the writing is so good, so appealing to our brains, that we forget we are reading. We are inside someone else’s dream, and we don’t even realize that we’re zipping along, taking in the experiences and not paying any attention to the act of reading because we’re inside the actions of the dream on the page. We are reading someone else’s mind. How amazing is that? So we want to find out if our girl gets to the top of the dune climb, or if that little toddler finds her Empire stone. We are lead by the action and our minds follow it.

So pick up that notebook. Open to a new page. Think of that crazy moment just yesterday when no one told Uncle Jack that Lake Michigan had turned over again and the temperature of the water had dropped twenty degrees overnight. Instead, you all just watched, trying not to snicker, while he stripped to his shorts and ran down the beach at top speed like he always does and just plowed right into the waves, and then he couldn’t stop himself, so of course there was that sound he made. He was thrust by his own speed out into that freezing water and you could hear that scream like a bad engine winding up all the way to the Friendly Tavern in Empire—which is where you are when he comes in all huffy and you are all still razzing him about it.

In part III, we’ll explore “How to Make it all Mean Something”.

Anne-Marie Oomen is a writer from Empire. Her fifth book, Love Sex and 4-H will be published in the spring of 2015 by Wayne State University Press. Visit her website at