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Tuesday, February 15, 2011

A Cup of Ambition: The Greeting Card Writer

We've all heard it before, at dinner parties, from relatives, from our therapists: "Oh, you write. Does that mean you'll be a teacher?" Fine, fine. We can't make enough money to "eat" or "live" from our poetry. Every MFA graduate knows the horrible feeling that settles into his/her stomach as graduation approaches. You finished a whole book!, you keep telling people. And still, no prospective employers come a-calling. Here at HFR, we know how you feel. We thought it might be interesting to take a closer look at some jobs we writers and lovers of books might enjoy. Or do enjoy. Or have tried, and regret. This regular post, A Cup of Ambition, will talk to those in-the-know about what the working world is really like. (To see our previous interviewees, click here.)

Suzanne Berry; Senior Writer II; Hallmark Cards; Kansas City, Missouri.

The Job
As you might imagine, my job as a Hallmark writer is largely to write greeting cards. I write the messages found on virtually any kind of card you can think of—from Valentine’s Day and Christmas cards to those you’d give a friend who’s celebrating a success or dealing with a setback. I write for all occasions, and in just as many styles or voices—from playful and funny to serious and inspirational. Working at Hallmark, though, I also get involved in lots of stuff beyond writing cards. We have an in-house book publishing division, so I’ve had the chance to write some children’s books, as well as some about moms and holidays. Writers here are also called on for their overall creative and emotional expertise, so we’re regularly brought in to help brainstorm and build on ideas coming through product development, to come up with clever names and taglines for a new product or business, and to write for Hallmark’s online or digital formats.

Getting Started
The simple answer is that I landed a creative writing internship with Hallmark while I was in college. I filled out the portfolio they asked for, got one of the few coveted spots, and spent a summer learning how much goes into this curious but amazing job. When I graduated with my English degree, I gladly came back to work for Hallmark full-time at their headquarters in Kansas City.The whole truth, though—as any English grad knows—is that it wasn’t quite that easy. Attending a small liberal arts college and studying literature and creative writing, I went through the requisite anguish of trying to figure out if I was doing the right thing, and if so... what to do once I graduated. In retrospect, I’m really glad that I stuck with what I loved. Because once I stopped sweating it and started thinking outside the box, I found the perfect job. To anyone who’s still in that squishy place of uncertainty, though, I’m here to tell you there are jobs for our types outside of teaching, and really satisfying ones at that.

The Good
For one, I love the creative environment I work in. Hallmark’s one of the biggest employers for creative professionals in the world—which means there’s a full stable of artists, designers, and wordsmiths to rub elbows with every day. Working alongside that kind of talent automatically makes coming to work about a thousand times better than a number of other jobs I might be doing.But on a deeper level, I love that this job combines so many things that personally matter to me... a love of words, a commitment to caring for others, and this slightly hippie notion that what you do in life really can make a difference and bring about a little more love in the world. It’s a good feeling at the end of the day to know your words will make someone out there smile or feel remembered, cared for, or loved.

The Bad
Like other writers, I think one of the hardest things about doing this for a living is having to face the blank page day after day. And in my particular job, that intimidation factor gets compounded by the little voice reminding me Hallmark’s been in business over 100 years... so how could I possibly come up with a new way to say “happy birthday” or “I love you”?But of course, the not-so-big secret is that there’s always new creative material out there, and the only way to get to it is to just start writing, even if you have to write all the bad stuff out of your system before you get to a seed of something interesting. As a wise mentor once told me, the only cure for writer’s block is to write. It’s as simple and complicated as that.

Surprise Me
I think most people would be surprised by the level of difficulty involved in doing what I do. It seems simple at face-value—just a few nice words and you’ve got a card, right? In reality, the job takes a pretty extraordinary amount of craft. Every single word counts when you’re working with that small of a “canvas,” so you have to hone your writing down to the most essential, most evocative, and most universal elements possible, much the way a poet does. Editing is everything.The other paradox is that we’re not writing for one person; we’re writing for the masses. And yet a card is an intensely personal medium and should feel like it was written just for the two people exchanging it. So finding the right balance—between universal yet personal, accessible yet evocative—is actually not as easy as you’d think. The other thing I think people would be surprised by is that being a writer here isn’t just about being good with words. It also requires having empathetic instincts, emotional intelligence, and some knowledge of psychology. The words on the page are only half of it. Understanding the lives and relationships behind the words is the real job.

Spin a Yarn
To give you an idea of the breadth of stuff I touch within Hallmark, this week alone, I’ve written Christmas cards, romantic cards, and cards for “celebration of life” memorials. I’ve finished a revision on a children’s book coming out later this year, come up with ideas for a new line of gifts, and done some research on both social networking and spirituality. As a native Midwesterner who’s all too familiar with drastic swings in temperature and meteorological events, there’s a common saying we have that also speaks to my experience as a writer at Hallmark: “If you don’t like the weather around here, wait a day.”

Who would make a good greeting card writer?
Personality-wise, I think I’m like a lot of writers in that I’m naturally fascinated by people. I’m an enthusiastic people watcher and—truth be told—eavesdropper. I never get bored paying attention to how people and their relationships tick. As I said earlier, this job also requires a pretty big dose of empathy and emotional smarts so you can step inside another person’s relationship and understand the complicated dynamics going on there. Before I ever write a word, I have to understand what someone’s feeling, why they’re feeling it, and how they want to express it. I’m constantly slipping in and out of other people’s shoes. One other personality quirk well-suited for this job is a willingness to disappear, ego-wise. The writing I do isn’t driven by my voice, personality, or agenda, but by those of thousands of other people who use my words but will never even think about me, much less know who I am. That kind of writing may not be for everyone, but I happen to find it kind of thrilling. It’s like I’m a secret agent in people’s emotional lives, helping them say what needs to be said.

How do I become you?
To quote jazzman Charles Mingus, “Making the complicated simple, awesomely simple, that’s creativity.” Not only is that creativity... that’s my job. So if you think you’re up for that challenge, and you enjoy both studying and writing for real-life people, you might consider my line of work. Want to know more? Take a look at the careers section of Hallmark’s website.

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