Life is an onion—you peel it year by year and sometimes cry. ―Carl Sandburg
Here’s a practical writing tip: if you’re stuck, write “Once upon a time.” Go on, try it—I think you’ll find that even the action is soothing. It’s not just that now you have something on the page, although you do. The words themselves are calming.
Where did I encounter this piece of advice? I don’t want to rob anyone of credit, but misattribution would be bad, too. I think it was in the cookbook The Splendid Table’s How to Eat Supper, but I can’t swear to it. Anyway, in this book, one of the authors relates a time-honored tip passed down from her grandmother: if you don’t know what to make for dinner, just cut up an onion and put it on to cook. The action, the aroma, the fact that an onion is the basis for so many dishes—these factors will conspire to prompt a plan. And if nothing else, you’ll enjoy the savory smell of industry.
This is good advice, and with a bit of adaptation it can apply to many things in life. Any sort of improvisation must arise from a basic technique. And just as important, the advice understands that there’s nothing more intimidating than a pristine kitchen, a blank canvas, an empty screen. (The blink of a cursor can become downright insolent, when you’re in the wrong mood.)
“Once upon a time” has been my onion for as long as I can remember. Ninth-grade biology reports, junior-year art-history papers on the nude, college papers on the role of food in the work of Flannery O’Connor, college papers on the role of food in Villette, college papers on the role of food in Elizabeth Bowen, college papers on the role of coffee drinking in Raymond Carver’s “Where I’m Calling From” (because they don’t eat anything), book reviews and food articles and fashion items—I’ve started all of them with “Once upon a time.”
It’s a little embarrassing to admit—although if it’s useful to anyone, that’s of little concern. Obviously, I end up erasing the introduction every time. (Well, with one exception.) In fact, I’ve woken in the night in fear that I’ve forgotten to remove “Once upon a time” from the top of an interview with a poet or something.
For anyone who has been a child or heard a story (most of us), these words stir a certain excitement. Something is about to happen—usually something with a reliable beginning, middle, and end, safely contained in a world apart from your own. And even as an adult, they conjure promise. And they’re reassuring: they imply that someone is in control—a grown-up, an omniscient narrator of some kind, something timeless—even if that is just you. Indeed, especially if it is.
Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily’s correspondent.