peeling onions

When I was in graduate school, I wrote a 24-page research paper in just under 6 hours. I sat down at 8 am to type on my roommate’s computer, since my hard drive had crashed the night before. I stood up at 1:45, creaky and feeling a little shaky, scattering the popcorn on my lap onto the floor. As the printer began spitting out the pages, I shook my head, dazed. Outside, I saw hazy sunshine falling on the water towers. I hadn’t looked to see the weather all day.

For the past few days, I had been reading cultural theorists Jean Baudrillard, Fredric Jameson, and Jacques Lacan, underlining and taking notes. Slowly, ideas had formed in my head, some semblance of something to say. I had taken pages and pages of notes in Pilot blue ink, scrawled fast and stained with coffee rings. My brain had been chugging along, like Charlie Chaplin tightening sockets rapid-fire in Modern Times. Still, I hadn’t written anything yet. The night before the paper was due, I paced, drank some coffee, called friends, organized my sock drawer, and finally sat down to type. My computer died within a few sentences.

Frustrated, I went to sleep to dream feverish anxieties of missing trains and printers not working. When I woke up the morning the paper was due, I bolted up into anxiety immediately. And then I wrote, in a focused panic. I wrote, and wrote some more, and paced around the room, only to sit down and write some more. Even though I felt the entire morning that I might have a heart attack, and the only sound repeating in my head was Ah shit, I’m not going to make it, I’m not going to make it, I wrote. Somehow the adrenaline and my hunched body in the tiny room of a tight deadline made it happen. I did it. I caught the subway, the printed paper still warm in my hand, and made it down to NYU in time to slip the paper into the professor’s mailbox.

I did it. (Does it make this story even more ridiculous that the entire paper was an analysis of the Indiana Jones ride at Disneyland through the ideas of those theorists?)

And at the end of the day, I swore to myself I would never do it again.

Except, I did it again and again, for years.

My brother came up with the right term for this: breaking out of your own prison. You procrastinate and sit around, thinking about working, promising yourself you will work soon, and then you don’t. You clean the house or you call friends or you finally organize all the photos on your computer. When the train is approaching fast, you finally climb up off the tracks and start moving. And then, when you do it, you’re the hero of your own story. I did it! Look at me! 

I used to think I would always do this. That this is what it means to be a writer. I wrote my first book in four months. I cut 8000 words from the first draft in 3 days. I started writing our cookbook after our daughter had nearly died in the ICU, turned it in before she was six months old. I planned a book tour on the fly in a week, emailed everyone I knew, showed up smiling and hoped the rooms wouldn’t be empty. I kept breaking out of my own prison.

But this time, it’s different.

I’m 45. I have a 3-year-old. We have adoption papers to complete. We’re moving to a new house soon. And our cookbook is due in less than five weeks, with Danny at the restaurant most of the day.

I’m breathing pretty easy right now.

Am I overwhelmed? Sure. But I also know that at less than five weeks before a big deadline, I’m always going to be a little overwhelmed. The mild signs of a heart attack push me to work every day. I adore our book editor, who kicks my ass kindly when he cuts into the words. This time I feel comfortable sending him the best draft I can, instead of thinking it has to be perfect. It’s not going to be perfect.

So today, after I cooked and typed all day, I picked up Lucy from her preschool, happily. We put on Caspar Babypants and we danced around the living room. “Spin me, Mama!” she shouted, and I took her hands and twirled her in a circle. The room blurred, and for a moment all I saw was the color on the walls and her smiling face. I didn’t think about the cookbook for hours.

(Besides, a 3 1/2-year-old gives you plenty to think about besides the sound of your own words. If I survive this age, I’ll be even more calm about deadlines.)

Maybe I’m finally growing up.

This month of being quiet online (except for bantering with my friends) has really helped. Hearing hundreds of voices at a time makes mine too quiet. I’ve missed you, and this place, but I’ve loved this time. I’ve learned a lot. I’m not sure I even want to say much more about it. I just know this: if you are interested in this idea of internet respite, take it.

But it’s more than that. There’s something about the work of making a cookbook that I love deeply. There’s no way to create 120 recipes in less than six hours. It’s hard to create 3 in less than six hours, if I want them to be of use. The only way to make a cookbook good is to work on it every day, quietly, taking notes, writing as I go.

My fingers are still stained with Pilot blue ink. And I still spend too much time organizing my sock drawer and cleaning out files. But hey! Since we’re moving 2 weeks after the book is due, at least I’m productive.

Written on the blackboard in our living room is this: slow and steady wins the race. Except, tomorrow, I’m changing it to slow and steady crosses the finish line. That’s all I need, really. I don’t need to win anymore.

You have to peel a lot of onions to make a cookbook. It’s the humblest task I know.

Writing a cookbook is also an enormous leap of faith.

My hope is that these recipes Danny and I have created — with mine the main voice this time — will end up as food on your table. I don’t care about awards or accolades. I just want this book to be food-stained and open on your counter, often.

And yet, at this moment, it all feels like a dream. Right now, I’m in the cave, chipping away. The light is pretty dim in here and I’m by myself. But as one of my friends wrote yesterday: “Stalactites! Stalagmites! And maybe some bats! Being in the cave is pretty all right. Just remember your headlamp.”

So I popped up to say hi. To let in a little light. To wave to you all. To tell you that I took this photo too late in the day to see much at all, but the caramelized four-onion soup in that image is worth every onion I have peeled.

I hope you’ll make it — and 119 other meals — sometime next spring.

71 comments on “peeling onions

  1. Heather

    I did see adoption come up on Instagram! Congratulations. Thanks for saying hello, and good luck with the rest of the cookbook.

  2. Gabby @ Gabby's Gluten-Free

    What an exciting time in your lives!

    I operate the same way – I can’t count how many grad school papers were written the week they were due. The pressure somehow brings out the best in me.

  3. Suzanne

    I have missed you and are glad that you are moving forward at your pace. Good luck in the last stretch!

  4. Jen

    Words that make me think, feel, smile, relate; a hint of joy and embracing life; a glimpse of life with the invitation to feel common bonds of compassion and support and fellowship. So grateful to have your presence here today 🙂

  5. Sherri

    Inspiring to read Shauna – thanks so much for the post and congratulations on all the awesome hurdles you have come through and even more on the ones yet to come ~ lovely post ~ take care 🙂

  6. Caneel

    This sounds exactly like me – in college and as a newspaper reporter my motto was always, “If it weren’t for the last minute, nothing would ever get done.” I’m a procrastinator of the highest order when it comes to my writing, because somehow it’s what has always worked for me. My papers got the best grades when they were typed at the last minute. My articles got the best reviews when I was at the end of deadline. I want to find a way, too, to write successfully without the adrenaline having to surge. Love this post and your “slow and steady” idea. Thanks, Shauna, and best wishes for you finishing everything with no panic feelings!

  7. Marie

    Glad to see this post. We’ve missed you but understand you are working hard and taking time for yourself, as you should! Looking forward to your cookbook, and I’m not even gluten sensitive. It will be wonderful, I’m sure.

  8. Winnie

    I have so much faith in you and your process Shauna. So so much. Before you know it, the manuscript will be finished, you’ll have moved, and so much more good stuff (including your adoption!) will be happening. Just keep on keeping on.

  9. Kait

    Ahhh. The never ending time suck that is adoption paperwork. It’s been the story of my life for the past four years and I have a feeling it’s going to consume at least another two. (Good thing the kids are worth every single bit of it!)

  10. Kimberly

    What you described at the beginning of this post could have easily been me in both undergraduate and graduate school. Only you phrased it so eloquently!

    Best of luck finishing your manuscript, moving and completing the adoption process. I look forward to seeing how your life unfolds.

  11. Gina

    Thank you, Shauna; beautifully and thoughtfully written. I have been really contemplating an internet respite. Like you, I spend a large part of my life on here for work and too many other things. I could use a break from the information overload. Glad you have enjoyed your and found it to be so productive.

    We are really looking forward to your new cookbook.

  12. Ashley

    So great to read your voice again. Thinking of you often and wishing you the best of luck. I’ll be at that finish line cheering you in.

  13. Sallie Tierney

    Missed you but you inspired me to take a deep breath and slow my own hectic pace. Thanks, gal! (And I’m so excited to hear you three are going to adopt. Good for you. What a lovely family.)

  14. Jen G

    Good to hear from you Shauna! And congratulations on the adoption stuff! I am an adoptive mother and it rocks!

  15. Karla

    I have tons of memories of cramming papers in during grad school and doing just fine. However, my husband is in an art program now and there is no ability to cram in a three minute digital animation piece into a night. I am amazed by the time it takes for creative endeavors and have actually slowed down on my blogging to, hopefully, produce more quality, not quantity. Your motto, “Slow and Steady crosses the finish line” is perfect.

  16. keiko

    Welcome back Shauna and the best of luck with the exciting projects – can’t wait to see the new book, love the photo of the onion skins!

  17. Melissa Nunes

    How nice to see this. I just love seeing someone live their life in the fullest possible way. Can not wait to buy the book. Still don’t know where you get that energy but glad you have it.

  18. Eva K

    How delighted I was to come to your website, with every intention of reading another one of your older posts to catch myself up on your story, to realize the story doesn’t end yet!
    By the way, my husband is so sensitive a Celiac (diagnosed last March after 8 years of IBS misdiagnosis) that he has gluten ataxia and some damage in his frontal lobe. He gets symptoms from even too much processed gluten free foods if the ppm gets too high. We even found that some types of coffee he had to avoid, etc. Our son has Asperger’s and eczema and his anxiety has improved and his rash went away off gluten! He is nine and after eating your whole grain muffin, chicken nugget, and some other recipes he wants to eat at your house and Danny’s restaurant! He asked if we could take our camper vacation to Washington. (We cook everywhere!) My 5 year old daughter is having some attention issues in kindergarten but the teacher said she is so sweet and smart! She has a rash too…She’s gluten free but “cheats” at school…and I can tell when. Hopefully when she’s older she will understand. I’m sorry I’m bombarding this reply post!
    I do have a question. We are going to visit my husband’s family in the summer in Bear, DE and will be staying with his mom who wants to make her kitchen gluten free. We are only staying ten days. Any advice? I don’t want to impose on them. On the other hand, my husband has been really difficult to get over there to visit his family….It’s been more than a decade!

  19. Amaia

    I am very glad to hear you took the time you needed to nourish your spirit. Thank you so much for sharing your story – this was exactly what I needed to hear today!

    Take care and God Bless!

  20. mpv61

    “Except, tomorrow, I’m changing it to slow and steady crosses the finish line.”

    Good for you, Shauna!

    As for the last-minute-blues, I remember at least once in college typing all night (on a real typewriter; this was in the early 80s) for a paper due the next day. I also remember typing for a friend; someone would bring me a page at a time from the next room and I’d type! Craziness.

    Good luck with the book, the move, and the adoption. Enjoy your lovely Lu and her fun clothes choices!

  21. Eva K

    Oh, please ignore my silly question when you have so much on your plate (LOL) right now!
    I got carried away with my own stuff…happens often. Good luck!

  22. Megan

    Welcome back! I have been missing your posts, but your break was the kick-in-the-pants I need to start my own blog. Thank you for always inspiring me!

  23. Steph

    What a beautiful post, Shauna! I enjoyed every word and look forward to reading your next cookbook. Does it have a title yet?

  24. Ada

    🙂 Thank you for this (though it would have been more helpful a couple of months ago, during exams). I’ve always wondered about the psychology behind procrastination, since I’m an expert in the process firsthand *cough*, but “breaking out of your own prison” sort of makes sense… Anyway, I’m glad you’re back online!

  25. Beth W.

    So good to see you, and I’m glad things are moving along merrily.

    I’m the opposite — when I have work, I would ignore everything else in the world until the work was done. I have to remind myself to take breaks, to talk to people, to go outside. I’ve gotten good (okay, better) at balancing, but still love burying myself in work as soon as it comes my way.

  26. Ann M

    Oh! I’ve really missed your posts! I came to your site today looking for a banana bread recipe, and what a great surprise it was to see your new words. Holy cow do I get the particular prison of the procrastinate – rush – achieve – collapse cycle, interspersed with bouts of winging it and hanging on for dear life. Hmmm. Perhaps I need my own quiet time. I might go think on that for a bit.

    You know, if you look closely at the walls of caves, sometimes you see shiny, sparkly reflections of your own headlamp that can light up your life. Like spinning kids for instance. Keep chipping away, you’re almost done. I’m looking forward to peeling some onions and (inevitably) staining the pages of your book.

  27. Laura

    I’m so happy my words have become tangled up with all the other bits and pieces of motivation that are fueling your process. Cross that finish line, friend! And speaking of lines, you know I’ll be first in the queue when your book hits shelves.


  28. Anchen Texter

    Oh, Shauna, I have followed you for so long, and I lap up each new post with the eagerness of a puppy. Your continued insights and honest sharing are so refreshing, grounding and encouraging to me to do the same and continue on my own path of self-discovery and deepening relationship with community. Thank you for sharing, for being vulnerable, for your joy and sorrow and your story. You write so beautifully.

  29. PollyDee

    Shauna, I am an Australian girl, studying a double degree full time and working in a hectic comms job more than full time. My life is often just a blurr; but I always pause for you. I always remeber your warm words as if I was in your kitchen chatting with you.
    You inspire me all the time, and often perk me up in the middle of bad day.
    Much love and adoration, your (usually) silent admirer from Australia, Polly Dee xoxo
    P.S. I have missed you

  30. april

    I was peeling onions a few days ago too. 🙂 Not nearly as many as you have been! I was chopping them to freeze for later use. I can’t wait to plant my garden so that I will have fresh stuff as well as good stuff to freeze. The only problem is that 5 days later, my hands still smell like onions if I rub my nose! I hope you wore gloves for all that peeling! Hahah! I’m glad you are back for a bit. Congratulations on your upcoming adoption, and many blessings as you finish your cookbook!

  31. shez

    I’m so glad for you. There is so much freedom to be had in a self-enforced, guilt free internet break. I recently took a week off to breathe and to mourn and to just be. In past I would have spent my final minutes before leaping on the plane trying to organise pre-scheduled posts and checking whether or not I could access the internet from my phone overseas.

    Your cookbook is going to be well loved. I’m sure of it.

  32. Rachel

    Thank you for this. I’m a grad student now and I broke my wrist a couple weeks ago and I’ve been playing catch-up ever since – lots of things which were never intended to be last minute have become so! Your post today was the first time I think I’ve STOPPED since that happened and just taken a second to breathe. Thank you for always making me stop and think.

  33. Heather

    I miss you so much! Come back soon! I understand, that’s how I survived ivy league undergrad and law school. I’m grateful now that, somehow, I managed “invisible deadlines”. The best thing I’ve discovered is being responsible to other people. Setting deadlines for peer edits, etc. Fake deadlines mean more small-level procrastination, less big-level procrastination!!

    Good luck. Come back soon!

  34. The Cozy Herbivore

    I recently read Henry Miller’s work schedule from 1932, and I thought it was all marvelous advice for us writers. But I was especially struck by #3 on his list:

    “Don’t be nervous. Work calmly, joyously, recklessly on whatever is at hand”.

    This post made me think of that advice. Seems like you have found your balance. Congratulations!

  35. Bridget

    Welcome back. Was wondering if you would not come back until done and all. Glad to hve an update. I like the notion of imperfection as acceptable. I think our imperfections are a part of our signature style. And a reason to keep on with a slow progress of making things better, adding a little more clarity, sharing what we learn along the way. Oh and onion soup sounds like a good idea…

  36. Marusya

    Just finished reading your first cookbook. I read it for the writing, not the food (although I’m going to have to try some of those recipes, they look so great). It’s fantastic. The writing – from both of you – is bright, fresh, and full of soul. It has great rhythm, pacing, a unique voice. So – go for it. I very much look forward to the next one!

  37. Jacki

    Thank you for writing this. Thank you for reminding me that I am not the only one who thrives on the rush only to hate that feeling (hate is a strong word…but you know what I mean). Slow and steady…I needed to hear that. Thank you

  38. Kathryn

    Have you read Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird? Your story reminds me of the story of her brother that she tells at the beginning of the book.

  39. MellyMel

    “Slow and Steady” – my newest mantra for accepting a slow(er than I want) weight loss; and “breaking out of my prison”? Awesome…
    Always a tidbit in your posts to make me smile, share with others, or just think… waiting for the new cookbook and glimpses into your next chapter of life… stay peaceful…

  40. chris

    Ahh, this made me chuckle. I almost can’t get anything done unless I’m under pressure, and I’ve earned myself the title of ‘procrastimaster’ with my time wasting. It sounds like you make time for you, though. Good luck with the book and the move. Many exciting things are coming your way!

  41. sierra

    This post made me feel a little less crazy today as I’m a college student and in this situation far more often than comfortable. I have to remind myself to take care of myself and maybe go on a seaside walk to clear my thoughts before I write. Fortunately after it’s over I feel completely satisfied and rejuvenated.
    I love you blog-and feel like you’re a kind a neighbor since we both live in the beautiful Puget Sound area 🙂

  42. Showerman

    Can we pre-order the book somewhere? Also, please do tell more about the ongoing adoptoin process and best of luck!

  43. Bodi

    It’s lovely to have you and your family (and various related exploits!) back in my daily life.

    Thank-you for all that you do, it is much appreciated.

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