The Wisdom of Titles – and Onions
Once I’ve got the title, I’ve got the story. Sometimes, the title comes from thin air because it knows the story that is ready to be told. This always intrigues me: that the title knows before I know, as if arising from the unconscious where some story, unbeknownst to me, has been brewing all along. At other times, months – or even years – of recurring ideas, images and memories finally coalesce into a title, and only then is the story ripe for my plucking. I have attempted to write stories while they were still nameless, and these were, without exception, fruitless efforts. Nor can the title be invented or forced or bent to my will to suit the story that I believe is worthy of being told. It is the title that decides, and I have only to follow.
I think of the title as a ball of yarn. I know the story’s wrapped tight and fully contained within it. I take the yarn between my thumb and index finger and I pull: and off it goes, unfurling into the story that I, as a writer, will discover as it’s being told. I trust that the title will guide me in the direction in which the story needs to go. Sometimes, I think of the title as an egg that I crack open into a bowl.
A title doesn’t last forever, though. Like once new books that have been sitting on the nightstand unread for too long, the story it contains can become covered in dust, superseded by other titles that arise and issue their own invitation. And so, every title is the gift of a story – and also a race with time.
“I think of the title as a ball of yarn. I know the story’s wrapped tight and fully contained within it.”
I’ve got a title beckoning now: The Wisdom of Onions. It is a story about my father. It takes place in Sarajevo during the Bosnian war when he took it upon himself to turn the cobblestone yard of his ancestral house into an onion patch. Or rather, onions were the only thing that thrived in the black unfertile soil which was revealed once he’d pulled up all the stone. He risked his life by going to the onion patch several times a week in order to harvest the onions and bring them home as flavoring for our lean and bland war meals. I have enormous respect for onions and all the improbable recipes we concocted with them at the time. One of them, which we simply called Onion, was the ultimate delicacy: chopped onions fried on a drizzle of vegetable oil and topped with powdered milk. Yuck, right? No, yummm!
Emira Tufo is a Bosnian Canadian writer based in Montreal and the recipient of the 2019 CBC/Quebec Writers’ Federation Writer in Residence award. Her essays have appeared in The Globe and Mail, the Montreal Gazette and on CBC. Her storytelling has been featured on the Confabulation podcast.