When I was a teenager in the late eighties and early nineties, I wore the fragrance Eternity by Calvin Klein. The scent drew me. So did its high price. Eternity was a luxury, and I’d grown up with precious few luxuries. I wanted one. To purchase the perfume, I had to dish out a whole weekend’s worth of income—fifteen hours of earnings!—from my job at the nursing home. I wore Eternity religiously.
I loved that fragrance. Mostly, I loved the compliments I got, walking around, wafting those floral-fruity notes, one of which, I remember learning, was lily-of-the-valley. The lily-of-the-valley detail appealed to me some thirty years ago—the exquisite little blossoms, like white bells chiming perfume. These days, I have lily-of-the-valley taking over my entire front flowerbed. When I first planted them, I had no idea they’d be so invasive. However good the flowers smell, now I can’t help but see them as oppressors, tiny bells tolling the deaths of all the other kinds of blooms they conquer with their maniacally multiplying bulbs.
Anyway, I liked how my friends would think of me when they smelled Eternity and how they could recognize my approach and presence, simply through my scent. For a long time, I wore Eternity. In fact, I dabbed this fragrance on my wrists and behind my ears for so long, I stopped smelling it. Just as others associated the perfume with me, my brain eventually associated the perfume with me and quit registering it.
Nevertheless, I persisted. Sure, it would have been nice if I could have actually smelled the fragrance I was ritualistically anointing myself with every morning, but I couldn’t give it up. The perfume was, like, my thing. Melissa = Eternity. I was practically famous for it! Vanity superseded personal pleasure. I liked being “known” for something.
I came to my (olfactory) senses after I left for college. Nobody knew me in Binghamton, New York. My Eternity-appreciative audience was either back in Jamestown or had dispersed to other universities. I was free! And I’d learned my lesson. Post-Eternity, I started switching up my perfumes. I didn’t want to become immune to a beautiful scent. I needed to smell it.
It’s funny how persuasive praise is and how we shape ourselves based on praise and in order to keep that praise and so we can garner ever fresh praise—and how we occasionally do all of this to the detriment of our own enjoyment or willingness to experiment. Of course, praise, itself, is enjoyable. But the seeking of praise can sometimes hinder, stunt, or hurt us.
This can happen to writers, too. For instance, it’s tempting to strive to become known for something, whether it be a genre or subject or “style”—tempting and frankly, from a marketing angle, frequently encouraged. Somebody I respect, an individual who’d certainly qualify as an industry gatekeeper, suggested, “Find your audience and keep it.” A writer does this by exercising some sensible constancy. That way, when a reader likes something an author writes and subsequently buys another book by the same author, the next book will meet the reader’s expectations. It delivers more of the same.
I am this reader. Just recently, Alyson Mosquera Dutemple, one of my Twitter writing friends, recommended Jane Gardam’s novel A Long Way from Verona. I adored it and promptly purchased six more novels by the same author.
But I’m not this writer. In fact, my first thought in response to this advice was Too late! A YA historical, a YA/new adult contemporary, short stories, flashes, essays, poems, blog posts…I’m all over the place. Throw my pottery gig into the mix, and now people are really confused. While not great for my “writing career,” whatever that is, this bouncing around has been fun. I like trying new things. Maybe I’ll get better at focusing and quit playing around. I probably should.
But then I think about my Eternity-perfume period, the praise, the dwindling personal satisfaction. My blasted lily-of-the-valley come to mind, too. Honestly, I could stop digging up the bulbs and let the plants do their thing, march around the house, sweep over the front hill, and surge into the meadow and woods. A lily-of-the-valley sea would certainly be beautiful to behold. It would keep down the weeds. We wouldn’t have to mow. And the fragrance! Exquisite, at least for a time, for as long as I could discern it.
But what about the hollyhocks, roses, lavender, irises, coneflowers, geraniums, crocosmia, alliums, peonies, poppies, snowdrops, violets, bleeding hearts, windflowers, columbine, daylilies, and daffodils? What about the riot of colors, the patchwork of textures, the dizzying array of delicious smells? I’d miss them.
The wind stirs. A perfume wafts through my window. The white bells sway on their slender stems. Such lovely, determined little plants. Not that determination is bad. And in making more of themselves, they’re only doing what they need to do to survive and thrive. Lily-after-lily-after-lily-of-the-valley-of-the-hills-of-the-woods-of-the-plains. Everywhere, glossy green leaves. Everywhere, tiny bells silently stirring. No chime, no ring, no toll.
And yet, I hear a warning.