You Do You

How Cooking Helped Me Peel Away Self-Doubt

By: Pauline Campos

I figured out I was holding myself back with my writing the moment I twisted the top off of the onion powder. I was standing in front of the stove preparing dinner just a few months before I turned 40.  My Christmas birthday meant that I was thankfully distracted from obsessing about my milestone birthday because I was too busy thinking about making the holiday perfect for my daughter, but all thoughts of letters to Santa were lost the moment I popped the top on that onion powder. I froze, turning the bottle over in my hand as if seeing it for the first time, realizing that there was a perfectly fine onion sitting in the crisper I had not even thought to reach for instead.


Because the seasoning was easier, that’s why; it was the actual onion that would make me cry. One could argue that using the seasoning could be considered practical. It’s a time-saver, after all. No cutting. No slicing. No chopping. No need to peel away the protective skin on the onion that had become such a familiar part of the landscape of the contents in the fridge that I often overlooked entirely. Again.

Huh, I thought, looking at the bottle of onion powder still in my hand. I’m used to inspiration coming from the strange and unexpected. I am a writer, after all. But a life-changing epiphany, complete with angels singing from on high and the heavens parting above, was new territory.


I set my shoulders, put the onion powder back in the spice rack, and took a deep breath, steeling myself for the inevitable tears to come with the stinging fumes of the onion itself.


I’ve seen my name published in newspapers and magazines and online media outlets featuring bylines I am proud of. I even had a book “published” by my elementary library when I was in the 6th grade (Hi, Mrs. Grabner!) and puffed up with pride each time I learned it had been checked out. I’ve hit publish on thousands of blog posts in the time since I learned that I could share my words with the world.


My blog, I realized as I wiped away tears with the sleeve of my arm, was the onion powder. I’ve let the blog sit, treading water, so to speak, for a few years now, not really knowing why I’d stopped adding entries after I started getting published with major media outlets. It took me forever to even connect the sudden lack of blogging motivation with my burgeoning freelancing career, but the tear-free onion powder I’d been relying on in my cooking, told me they were.


The blog had served its purpose by allowing me the luxury of doubting myself until I was ready to stop of holding myself back.There’s no fear of rejection when you are your own publisher.  Rejection is the name of the game when you’re not the one in charge. Rejection meant a recent college grad beat me out for a newspaper reporting gig I’d had my heart set on in my 20’s (I got hired as an editorial assistant). Rejection meant 42 agents passed on representing me when I was querying for my first book, BabyFat: Adventures in Motherhood, Muffin Tops, & Trying to Stay Sane, before the 43rd said yes. Rejection meant every publishing house came back with paragraph-long praises for my manuscript, softening each blow as house after house passed. “She’s hilarious and has a strong voice,” they said, “but no one knows who she is.” Rejection had me questioning my sanity, wondering if I really had what it takes to survive writing non-fiction, a genre in which platform alone is often the difference between a book sale and another shattered dream. But I kept at it, eventually self-publishing BabyFat and religiously updating my blog, never knowing why I still felt like something was still missing.


My blog never satisfied me, I think, because I was relying on the onion powder instead of working my way through the actual onion.


Writing non-fiction is like peeling an onion, you see. First you peel off the outer layer, exposing the toughest (and thickest) skin. The peel comes away quickly, like a band-aid ripped off of a wound now healed without mercy, because any slower and the tears would pour out even faster. The tears don’t come until the first slice of the knife, making two halves of a whole, exposing the layers the had been hidden within pieces of what once was whole, the smaller the better because they’re easier to handle that way. The sting of the onion is always stronger than you had thought it would be and now your mascara looks like shit and you’re wondering if adding the onion to the sauce simmering on the stove was really necessary. You do have onion powder, after all.


That would be easier.

But it wouldn’t taste as good because then the simmering sauce would be served without your tears blended into the flavor and you know that because you’ve taken the easy way out before. So you keep going.  And it’s worth it.


I’ve always said that Fate makes you wait for things that are meant to happen until you are ready for them to happen. And she’s hell-bent on making sure I figure my shit out. So I peeled away a layer and found my voice. Another and I saw the beginning of an idea. Yet another and I’d found the confidence to reach out to writers I wouldn’t have been brave enough to approach yesterday. Another still and I was making the sign of the cross as I held my breath and hit send on another essay and Fate handed me the tissue box. Rejection didn’t disappear, but I had stopped being afraid of it. It was such a gradual thing that happened over two decades — it took the onion powder and the onion to bring me full-circle.


I smile because my name is on a book. Two books, actually. More, if you count the manuscripts clogging up the hard drive. (I don’t. Not anymore.) Once a blogger afraid to go beyond my little corner of the internet, now a writer that has written an advice column to 4.5 million people for a major magazine, bylines with TIME, The Washington Post, Marie Claire, Longreads and many others. Once I’d become brave enough to step outside of myself and send my words out into the world, I couldn’t go back to the blog… not when I knew how easy it would become accustomed to avoiding the fear (and actualities) of rejection.

I set the diced onion in the sizzling oil, smiling through my tears, and turned quickly to the sink to wash my hands thoroughly before cupping my hands under the faucet to splash water over my face. I sighed with the relief the water brought to my still stinging eyes, then turning back to get back to cooking.

Maybe it took finally growing up and tossing the onion powder in favor of the sincerity that comes with the trueness in the flavor only a freshly cut onion can impart on a dish as it sautés over an open flame. I smile because I’ve gotten comfortable in finding the universal in the singular and putting the words out into the world I could not find when I needed them myself. Maybe it’s time to dust off that novel I started six years ago, the one I call “Diary of a Mexican-American Teenager” about the girl who isn’t me but is me with an eating disorder and my personal journal entries used as the foundation for the story. Maybe I get over my latest bout of imposter syndrome and reach out to a larger market and a new editor instead of sticking to the few I’ve worked with so many times. That way, I don’t have a stomach full of butterflies attached to new pitches and story ideas. Maybe, no matter what, I stick to cooking with fresh onions.

One layer peeled away at a time.


Pauline Campos is a freelance writer & artist living in Minnesota. She is the author of "Be Your Own F*cking Sunshine: An Inspirational Journal for People Who Like to Swear". Find her on Twitter @Pauline_Campos and at aspiringmama.com.

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