The conference table is covered with impossibly cute photographs of cats and dogs. There are soft, gauzy images of puffy white kittens with blue eyes playing with pink yarn. There are wrinkly puppies lying upside down on red velvet with their tongues wagging. There are all manner of yippy little dogs with pink and red bows tied around their necks.
It is 10 a.m. and I am trying to write captions that will transform these photos into Valentine's Day cards -- "Cutes" in Hallmark parlance. I have been given a stack of 3x5 notecards and a felt-tip pen. I've been told to grab any image that catches my fancy, write a caption appropriate for a husband or a wife, clip it to the back of the photo, then start on a new one. We will write for half an hour. The captions will be anonymous.
Seven of Hallmark's humor writers and I are assembled around the table. To my left is John Dill, the manager of Hallmark's Humor Studio, who has written our key words on 3x5 cards: "Husband," "Wife," "Love." The glassed-in conference room we're sitting in is called the "fishbowl." The windows to the outside are closed but the beautiful Kansas City sun shines through.
Fifteen minutes pass, and I am still staring, first at the pile of cats and dogs, and then at my blank, white pile of notecards.
"Think warm, uplifting, sweet," says a woman named Pam Kelley, who sits at the head of the conference table. Kelley is an editorial director from another department outside the Humor Studio. She has tapped these writers for what Hallmark calls a "forced writing" session -- it's also called a "short order" -- in hopes of gaining the Humor Studio's fresh take on next season's Valentine's Day line. She's looking for a dozen new cards, she says, "but for today, I'd be happy with six."
"We want ideas to bubble up," Kelley says to me. "We want a lot of brains working on this."
After about 20 minutes, Kelley decides to read what we've all written so far. She holds up a photo of a cat lying upside down on a pillow. "I'm whiskers over paws about you," she reads off the 3x5 card. There is a low grumbling among the humor writers, a couple of whom exchange eye rolls. Kelley holds up a photo of a cream-colored puppy with a pink bow. She reads, "Puppy, Sm'uppy. Nothing's cuter than you, Valentine!"
There are several nods of the head. Kelley picks up an image of dogs with lots of wrinkles. She reads, "We'll always be the cutest couple, even when we're old and wrinkly."
Next, Kelley holds an image of a lone, sad-looking dog lying on a bed. Its caption: "How do you spoon with someone when you're only one spoon?" A round of "Awwws!" emanates from the table.
"That's what we're looking for," Kelley says with a big smile. Then she reads the next 3x5 card clipped to the back: "You bring out the Snuggly Wuggly in me."
"I think that's a little too sweet for us," she says. "I think what's working best is when we don't try to be too cute, but instead let the photos be cute."
Finally, Kelley gets to one of mine. It's a photo of a greyhound with a red bow around its neck, gazing doe-eyed. She reads the first 3x5 card I've written, the one I wrote before I realized that we weren't supposed to be writing humor. My caption, unfortunately, reads, "Hope you'll still love me, even after my days at the track."
The response is good. There are actual laughs from the writers. Kelley chuckles, too, but says this won't work. "Who wrote that?" somebody wants to know. I meekly raise my hand. Kelley hands me a card with a photo of two hermit crabs. She explains that this is one of Hallmark's best-selling cards ever. Inside it reads, "Thanks for loving me even when I'm crabby."
Kelley asks for another round of forced writing, though the morale of the humor writers is lagging. Later, Dill, their boss, will try to put a good spin on it. "Cute is only one step removed from humor," he'll say. His staff is often called upon for ideas for other areas of the company, and writers will usually end up in two or three of these short-order sessions each week.
Another 10 minutes of scribbling goes on, and one writer huffs. "I'm having phrasing issues today," she says.
Kelley gathers up the photos, disappointed by the exercise. "I knew these animals weren't bringers," she says.
After she leaves, all of us sit at the conference table silently, until someone finally says, "That sucked."
Paul Barker grabs his chest, looks me in the eye, and asks, "How do you say what's in here?"
Barker is the senior vice president in charge of Hallmark's creative product development. He is an attractive, youthful, middle-aged man with a trim mustache, dressed in stylish business casual. His office screams "creative." There is a sleek new Macintosh on his desk. A Grecian bust and urn are featured prominently on a jet-black cabinet. He has an extensive rare butterfly collection on display under glass. Barker started at Hallmark as an illustrator, and his own paintings, including a portrait of his neighbor, grace the walls.
"We're really a company that's about developing emotional content," he says. "In other eras it was called sentimentality or relationship management, but there's always been some sort of descriptor for it." Barker talks a lot about his department's "focus on redeeming value," its attempt to "capture emotions and feelings," and about the greeting card's potential as "keepsake-able." He says that consumers often say, "Hallmark must be spying on me, because how could they know exactly how I was feeling?"
The question I keep asking him in different ways is this: Why do so many people seem to need Hallmark? After all, most human beings feel these various emotions on their own. Why can't normal people express these emotions to a loved one by themselves? Why do they need Hallmark's creative staff to do it for them?
"You'd be surprised how many people can't put emotions into words," Barker says. "There is a lot of risk in sending a greeting card. No one wants to sound lame or stupid." He adds, "Men, in general, can't express their emotions."
Barker, like nearly everyone else at Hallmark, wants me to understand that his creative staff is the best in the business. "Our creative organization is responsible for understanding emotional depth," he says. "It's a bit of an art, and a bit of a science."
Almost as an afterthought, he adds, "Of course, it is important to acknowledge that this is a business. The job here is to create things to sell as product."
Consider for a moment the job of greeting card writer, this developer of what Barker calls "emotional content." Many people might be surprised to find out that greeting card writer is indeed a real, full-time job -- one that can pay more than $100,000 a year. In the popular imagination, it is safe to say that the greeting card writer, if he or she is regarded at all, is not regarded highly. "We're definitely in the lower pecking order among writers," says Sandra Miller-Louden, greeting card guru and author of Write Well & Sell: Greeting Cards. "I was once speaking at a writing conference and I overheard one of the other speakers saying, 'We've sunk so low as to include a greeting card writer on this panel.' And to think this woman was a romance writer!"
The only time most people ever consider the greeting card writer is when they've browsed the racks at the local mall and thought to themselves, "I could have written this stuff," or more likely, "I could write better stuff than this." Which may lead to this question: "Who does write this stuff anyway?" I sometimes find myself contemplating these questions, usually for a period of about seven seconds. At which point I usually grab something, head immediately to the cashier, and never think of greeting card writers again -- at least until the next birthday or major holiday.
Yet the pervasiveness of the greeting card is astounding. Nine out of 10 Americans buy at least one greeting card every year. The average U.S. household purchases 35 individual greeting cards per year. Greeting cards are a $7.5 billion industry with its own lobbying group, the Greeting Card Association, in Washington -- a surprisingly powerful one that monitors U.S. Postal Service rates and reforms. According to the Greeting Card Association, 80 percent of greeting cards are purchased by women. Hallmark is the overwhelming leader of the greeting card industry, owning 56 percent of the market. The company peddles its cards in more than 42,000 retail outlets across the United States. At its corporate headquarters in Kansas City, Mo. -- the Greeting Card Capital of the World -- Hallmark maintains an in-house creative staff of more than 700 people, including artists, designers, photographers and stylists. Together, they generate about 23,000 new and redesigned cards and related products each year.
Almost everyone at Hallmark will tell you that the words are the most important part of selling greeting cards. You may pick up a greeting card at the drugstore because of the pretty drawing on the front, but the people at Hallmark say you're not going to buy it if the words aren't the right ones. Hallmark is a $4 billion company that invests millions in trend-spotting, test-marketing and consumer focus groups. It knows. For this reason, Hallmark employs nearly 50 full-time greeting card writers, and more than 60 full-time greeting card editors.
Writing jobs at Hallmark are tough to land. Hallmark has hired only a dozen new writers in the past several years. And all would-be greeting card writers must complete Hallmark's onerous portfolio of "creative writing exercises" in which candidates try their hand at writing one rhymed and metered verse, and one short prose sentiment, and then evaluating the "sendability" of half a dozen sympathy verses. If Hallmark likes the first set of creative writing exercises, the candidate will then be sent a second, more grueling set in which he or she must write more rhymed verse, rewrite rhymed verse, write long prose, and develop something suitably "quotable" for a sister, for Kwanzaa, for graduation, for Hanukah, or for "personal philosophy." In this manner, Hallmark has hired writers from all walks of life -- former elementary school teachers and college classics professors, former psychiatric nurses and newspaper columnists, former actors and engineers, former housewives and card shop salespeople.
"A lot of people want to escape to Hallmark," says Derek McCracken, a manager who recruits and trains new greeting card writers for Hallmark. "We get applications from people who say they've been given the gift of writing from God. We get a lot of that. Or else they write that their mother thinks their writing is wonderful."
What McCracken is looking for in a Hallmark writer can be elusive. "Have they ever had a Hallmark moment? That's what a writer channels," he says. "If there's anything that makes me reject a piece of writing, it's that it's cold, and it has no feeling."
Hallmark looks for writers who are willing to set aside their own issues. McCracken, for example, recently had to write a Father's Day card -- even though he personally has a strained relationship with his own father. "So I had to subjugate that," he says. "I had to write just the opposite of that. I was channeling something like, 'Dad, you weren't there all the time, but you did come to at least one of my swim meets.' "
I am sitting in a conference room with Mark Mills, the company's editorial director for Masculine Relative Birthday, and Mary Loberg, the manager of the Creative Writing Studio, the largest of the four studios. We are approving greeting card copy written by Hallmark's staff, and Mills and Loberg are waiting for my opinion on the heartfelt birthday verse that Loberg has just read aloud:
You've played so many roles
throughout your life --
father, mentor, coach,
to name a few.
But the sum of who you are
is more than that.
It's the way you go about the things you do
with integrity and kindness
and good humor.
The world's a better place
because of you.
"I thought this was supposed to rhyme," I say.
"It does," Mills says. He points to the words "few" and "do" and "you."
"You're thinking of the old iambic pentameter," Loberg says. "We try to stay away from that these days." Loberg, who has been a writer at Hallmark for 34 years, senses that I have never sent a greeting card of this type. She happens to be right. My family's idea of a birthday card is usually some variation on an old zinger -- a "Slam" in Hallmark parlance. You know, the card with a setup on the front like, "I think of life as a game. Age is just one way to keep score." And then inside, the punch line, "You're ahead." That sort of thing. For my last birthday, my mother gave me a card with a cartoon of a man, bare butt on display, running down the street.
Loberg tells me that she's here to watch for "craft," while Mills's job is to read more with an eye toward how a certain verse fits into the product line. And the verse we're looking at seems to meet both requirements for a dad birthday, since Mills and Loberg enthusiastically approve the copy. "With dad, it really seems to work well when you list all the different things he does," Mills says. "With mom, that doesn't work so well, because it seems like you're listing all the things she had to do."
" 'I seldom say' is also a golden theme for masculine relatives," Mills says. "And a huge theme in brother cards is, 'When you were little you were a pest, but now you're a great friend.' "
The next card that Loberg reads aloud is for a brother, and it moves away from traditional toward a more contemporary prose style.
Let's talk about trust.
Let's talk about loyalty.
Let's talk about a connection
unlike any other --
Let's talk about love.
Let's talk about family.
Let's talk about the special guy
I call my brother.
"The 'Let's talk' has such a sense of candor," Mills says.
Loberg, however, hesitates over the word "special." "Special is a real big greeting card word. We try to use fresher words when we can," she says. "But then, we wonder if it's just us. Do card buyers really notice?"
Mills agrees that certain words become shopworn. "For example, 'rad' was a word that was an easy rhyme, that the writers used a lot a few years ago. And boy, did that feel really dated really fast," he says.
The brother card verse, nevertheless, is approved.
Before moving on to the next, I notice the job request forms that accompany each of the verses we're reviewing. Each form contains a number of checkoff boxes, which let Mills's writers know what type of card is requested. There are boxes to check off for a "traditional" or "contemporary" card. There are blanks to specify whether the card is for "Dad" or "Brother" or another relative. And then there is a set of boxes checked off that indicate the particular "Level of Emotion" to be conveyed: "LOW," "MEDIUM," "HIGH."
So far, the Level of Emotion for the two verses we've reviewed has been marked Medium/High. The next card, written for a husband, is marked Medium.
One of the great things about you
is you're still such a big kid at heart.
Sure, you're warmhearted, sweet, and
but then there's that smart-alec part
with the freewheeling sense of adventure
and the mischievous outlook on life.
You still make it fun to be married.
Count me one very satisfied wife.
"The word 'smart alec' jumps out at me," Mills says. "But then again, that's what a lot of relationships are like."
"Is that how you spell smart aleck?" Loberg asks.
It's decided that this verse will be sent back to the writer for some fixes.
"Lighthearted versus humor is a fine line," Mills says. "If we're calling it humor, it should make you laugh. Lighthearted should make you smile. Cute versus lighthearted is also a fine line. Cute is a little more saccharine. Sometimes we find something and say, 'Well, that's a little too humorous,' and we'll send it over to Humor."
After the copy approval meeting, I follow Mills back to his planning/production room. Various Hallmark creative slogans hang on one wall: "Literal is not always best"; "Warmth/personal 'touch' are crucial"; "Don't overwork/overthink the idea!"; "Move past obvious solutions."
All of the current cards in the Masculine Relative Birthday line are displayed on panels, each with a rating that describes how well it is selling. We flip through the brother cards. "A lot of people think Hallmark uses the same old, same old all the time," Mills says, "but it isn't true." Birthday cards have a short life span on the rack -- even the bestsellers will rarely stay on the market for more than 18 months -- so Mills has his hands full coming up with new ones.
On the wall with the slogans, Mills has posted various numeric reminders he uses as motivation: The average wholesale sales of a card per year are $170,000; the average cost to produce a card, from design to ship, is $77,000. One reminder reads, "A poor performing card at a retail outlet can cost Hallmark approximately $100,000 a year in lost sales."
'When You Care Enough'
Hallmark owns a sprawling chunk of downtown Kansas City, a chunk that includes its offices, a bevy of fountains (Kansas City boasts of having the largest number of fountains, per capita, of any city outside of Rome), and the Crown Center, which features a hotel, food court and shopping mall that publicist Rachel Bolton told me was "Hallmark's gift to Kansas City."
As a sort of orientation, I go to Hallmark's Visitors Center, where I am first shown a short documentary film, "Coming From the Heart," which chronicles five days in the life of employees attending a creativity seminar at Hallmark's corporate retreat in rural Missouri. The film's narrator effuses, "This is where the story begins. It's about people who touch lives. It's about a company that keeps looking as far as the heart can see. A company that would be judged not by its gains, but by its gifts. Not by its pride, but by its compassion. Not by its might, but by its gentle humor, and grace. Not by what it is, but what it means ...
"What is it about the communications of our lives, of our feelings, that we wind up keeping them on a bureau, a mantel, a shelf ...
"These are the moments of our lives. These are the people we have to tell now, not later but now, how we really feel. Because if we don't tell them now, they may never know ... "
And finally: "If we can continue our days searching for, and discovering ways to communicate who we are, and how we really feel, we can lie down, however late, and sleep at night knowing that we have cared enough, and we have indeed sent the very best."
My guide for the rest of the tour is Doris Crews, a former elementary school teacher, who sweetly speaks to me as if I were a
second-grader on a school trip. We come to a glass sculpture of a waterfall inscribed with the words "ARTISTRY," "INSPIRATION," "CREATIVITY," "CELEBRATION," "SPIRIT," "EXPRESSION," "EMOTION." "I want you to read the words on the waterfall," Crews says. "And think of them as they pertain to you. Because they're all inside each of us."
The displays in the visitors center tout Hallmark's innovations, including the development of the drugstore card rack and the first greeting card advertisement, in Ladies' Home Journal. There is an homage to the famous "Pansy" friendship card, with its simple drawing of a bunch of purple flowers. Since 1941, 30 million copies of this card have been sold, making it the world's best-selling greeting card. Nearly 255,000 pansy cards are expected to be given nationwide this year. And of course, there is an homage to the famed Hallmark slogan, developed in 1944 -- "When You Care Enough to Send the Very Best."
We linger for a moment by the portrait of Hallmark's legendary founder, Joyce Clyde Hall ("J.C."), who 93 years ago came to Kansas City as an 18-year-old with no money, two boxes full of postcards he would try to sell, and a dream. In the portrait, Hall poses with his prized possession -- a beach landscape painted by Winston Churchill, who gave it to Hall as a gift in 1954. "Mr. Hall was a visionary. He was a risk-taker," Crews says, in an animated whisper, as if she's never told this to anyone but me. According to Hallmark legend, until 1966, when J.C. Hall stepped aside in favor of his son, no greeting card ever made it to market without his "O.K.J.C" imprimatur. Hallmark is still a privately held firm, run by J.C. Hall's grandson, Donald Hall Jr.
At one point, Crews makes me stop in front of a display that marks the evolution of Hallmark's logo, through five incarnations, ending with the famous crown, still used today, which was created in 1949. "Now people always ask me, 'Why would a greeting card company need to worry about putting a logo on a card?' Well, I hope when someone sends you a card, you check the back to make sure someone cared enough to send you the very best."
Linda Barnes is wearing a red-, white- and blue-striped shirt. Today, as she has for the past several months, Barnes is furiously writing verse for a new line of Veterans Day cards that was created in response to market research that suggested a post-9/11 consumer demand.
Barnes has been at Hallmark since 1984, when she left her job as a high school English teacher, and she is one of the most productive writers in the Creative Writing Studio. Last year, she alone wrote 250 greeting cards. Within Hallmark, Barnes is known as a master of the "crafted, poetic stuff," as she calls it. "Sometimes they come to me and say, 'We need a $5 card.' And they know I'll come through. I am wordy. I emote."
Her editors love the fact that she takes on so many different types of cards. "She can use the word 'dirt' in a verse and it seems completely appropriate," says Mark Mills. "She wrote one card that talked about Grandpa's 'scratchy whisker kisses.' That card was the equivalent of printing money."
Like a lot of writers at Hallmark, Barnes explains that role-playing makes her more versatile, and that giving up her ego has been part of her growth as a writer. "This is not the place to work if you want to write the Great American Novel." But that doesn't mean every type of verse comes easy for her. "I'm not usually comfortable with love and romance," she says. "My husband and I are not mushy." Barnes, who is white, was recently asked to write a romantic card for Mahogany, Hallmark's African American line. "I had to imagine I was writing to Denzel Washington," she says. The result became a card that was a strong seller:
The way your voice sounds
With my head on your chest.
The strength of your arms when you're
holding me tight --
The smell of your skin --
The taste of your lips --
The love that we make in the heat of the
I love how, with you, it feels so right.
Happy Valentine's Day.
"The love stuff is hard, and it always feels artificial to me," she says. "But my stuff seems to rate really well."
Love does not come hard for Dean Walley, who sits a few cubicles from Linda Barnes. Walley is moving a little gingerly today -- he's still recovering from recent retina surgery -- but his bloodshot eyes light up when we talk about love. "I am a romantic. I like to idealize the possibilities of relationships," he says. "When I think of what the writers do here, I think of a scribe in a Persian marketplace. Somebody a man without much writing ability would come to because he needs to write a love letter." The following verse shows a seasoned pro at work:
I love you for so many reasons,
large and small,
and all of them are wonderful.
I love you for the special qualities
that make you "you," one of a kind,
the only one in the world for me.
I love you for the things you say
that bring such meaning to my life,
and I love you for the silent times
when your eyes and your arms
tell me all I need to know.
I love thinking of all the adventures
we may share, the places we may go,
the discoveries we may make together.
I love you because you know how
to bring out the best in me.
I love you -- just because I do --
because now in a place
where there was nothing before,
in the deepest part of my heart --
there is love.
"I am always aware of the cynicism about Hallmark cards," Walley says. "It's become a working metaphor for all things sappy and sweet. But these emotions are the things people really want to express. I think the world needs this."
Walley joined the company when he got out of the Navy, nearly four decades ago. "I pretty much do everything here except funny," he says. And except for a brief period when he went freelance outside the company, he's been writing verse at Hallmark ever since.
"Twenty years ago," Walley says, "the whole greeting card industry was more sugarcoated than it is right now. People wanted a card that told them the way they hoped things would be, rather than the way they were at the moment." Walley remembers an example of one card that he wrote in the swinging 1970s with the caption "Please don't promise me forever" -- a too-true sentiment that card buyers may not have been ready for. "It was a saying during those times that meant, 'Let's get together, but let's not have a total commitment,' " Walley says.
Though the company characterizes its miscues as "being ahead of its time," Hallmark has made the occasional market blunder. Hallmark released divorce cards, for instance, in 1973, when the nation's divorce rate was rapidly nearing 50 percent. Those cards, however, didn't sell well. It took another decade before consumers really began buying divorce cards.
After Walley's "Please don't promise me forever" card was released, a distressed young woman contacted Hallmark, and was forwarded to Walley's line. The woman's boyfriend had just given her this card, and she demanded that Walley tell her exactly what it was supposed to mean about their relationship. "I told her as gently as I could that her boyfriend was probably both practical and romantic," he says. "But I also told her that they probably weren't going to last as a couple."
'Our Creative SWAT Team'
The Collaboratory, everybody tells me, is the writing studio where Hallmark puts its most creative "outside-the-box" thinkers. "We major in innovation," I am told. "Writers who come over here are highly conceptual," they say. "They're comfortable with ambiguity, people whose brains zig and zag. This is our creative SWAT team."
Here, the office is furnished to look like the living room of a Vermont farmhouse inhabited by people who couldn't decide whether they were hippies or Victoriana buffs. Everyone here has an old-fashioned roll-top desk, and there are bits of architectural salvage about, including stained-glass windows. A large Ringling Bros. circus poster that proclaims the "World's Biggest Menagerie" hangs on the wall. The Collaboratory is a kind of incubator for new ideas and projects within the company, working not just with greeting cards, but also with Hallmark's gift lines, its entertainment division, and Binney & Smith, makers of Crayola crayons, which Hallmark also owns.
"We're looking out over the hood of the car," say Deborah Velie, the writing manager of the Collaboratory. "There are no ditty writers here. Those folks don't make it. We have some very high-level poets here."
Velie has only been at Hallmark for two years, after a 15-year career as a magazine journalist and journalism professor. She had been doing research on creativity in business, was living in Kansas City, and "of course Hallmark's name kept coming up over and over again in my research," so Velie decided it sounded like a nice place to work. After completing the creative writing exercises, she landed a job here as a sort of creative guru. "I'm not someone who ever saw herself working at a big corporation. I used to think it was selling out," she says. "I had my nose in the air about a place like Hallmark for a long time. Now, sometimes, I find myself naming plush dinosaurs. It's a real hoot."
One of the main things Velie does is provide writers with "protected time" away from daily pressures to work on what she calls "blue sky" projects. One example of this is a new line of cards called A Little Slice of Happy, pitched by writer Cheryl Hawkinson and illustrator Eric Disney (no relation to Walt), and developed through a yearlong collaboration. Disney, who wears arty, square-framed glasses and blue suede shoes, and Hawkinson, a tall woman dressed this day in a purple sweat shirt and purple Birkenstock sandals, definitely look the part of outside-the-box thinkers. Both have been at the company more than 20 years. Together, they have created a whimsical cartoon world around the fictional Cloud 9 Cafe, and peopled it with characters such as Coco, the owner, and her son, Guy. There's Sage, the art student; Fontina, the social worker/jazz singer; and Mrs. Chamomile, who apparently has mystical powers.
The copy is short and sweet, with sentiments like, "Well bless your little heart -- and every other part," or, "It's your birthday, just sit back and be your own sweet self." The illustrations are light, full of pastels, and they're -- well, I guess you'd call them cute. Which may make sense, since the initial line of more than 100 cards is categorized as "Adult Cute" and is targeted at 35- to 45-year-old women. As a continuation of their blue-sky work, the two are currently working on a tie-in gift book and merchandise. "They started asking us to make this bigger," Hawkinson says. "We thought, how about a musical? Why not a sitcom?"
"Hallmark gets formulaic sometimes, and we try to break out of it," Disney says, in reference to the storytelling aspect of A Little Slice of Happy.
"A lot of writers and artists like to be left alone," Hawkinson says. "Hallmark was benevolent enough to let us be left alone."
That benevolence ended, however, when it came time for Hallmark's consumer research people to test-market A Little Slice of Happy, and the pair's hard work and vision were ruthlessly scrutinized. "At first, the line didn't test well, and that was stressful and annoying," Hawkinson says. "I was at one of the focus groups, and there was one very loud, aggressive person saying, 'I wouldn't buy this.' And I'm sitting there on the other side of the dark mirror saying, 'Shut up and let the other people talk.' "
A Little Slice of Happy was sent back for more work and was then retested a few months later. The second time scored better results, and now Hallmark is soon to unveil the new line. Still, Hawkinson remains guarded, knowing that the fortunes of A Little Slice of Happy -- once it leaves the friendly confines of the Collaboratory -- will be at the whim of sales figures. Hawkinson and Disney are already developing at least 30 new cards to replace ones that prove to be laggards in the marketplace.
"We'll find out in early 2003 if this is going to bomb or not," Hawkinson says.
'Funny, But No'
In the Humor Studio's daily read-through, eight writers are gathered, sitting on beat-up furniture, listening to Sarah Bearley read the cards they've written today. A doll of the Creature from the Black Lagoon leers over us from the top of a shelf filled with magazines and videotapes. Several humor writers have said that the difference between a good day and a bad day often depends on whether or not their work draws laughs in this meeting.
Bearley is a 30-year-old associate editorial director with Shoebox, Hallmark's humor division, and she is looking for a huge group of replacement cards for everyday occasions -- Birthday, Anniversary, Get Well, Congratulations, etc. -- that have been assigned over the past few weeks. She sits with a stack of about 50 3x5 notecards, folded in the shape of little greeting cards, and reads all of the work anonymously, in no particular order. "Once, when I didn't have my homework done, I used the excuse that my dog ate it. You know what, on our anniversary, I think the dog is going to eat my underwear."
Bearley laughs uncomfortably. "Ewwww," says Allyson Jones.
Bearley reads another: "I would rather be sick myself than see you sick ... Nothing serious, mind you. Maybe a fat-eating virus. Is that a thing? Maybe one of those after the holidays? Get Well Soon." There is wild laughter from Jones, but no one else. Several writers sit cross-armed and straight-faced.
Bearley continues. "You're leaving? Is it something I said? Is it something I didn't say? ... Or even worse, is it not about me at all? Because you know how I hate things that aren't about me."
This draws several laughs. "Oh my God, perfect," Jones says.
Bearley continues. "Get well soon or I'll kill you ... Come on, I don't want to go to prison, so heal up." There is dead silence.
She picks up a new one -- and it's a twist on an old birthday standby: "Happy Birthday to my mom, the giver of good things -- Except the family butt. That is one gift you can have back." There are several polite chuckles.
Bearley shows off an old-time, black-and-white photo of a man and a woman playing miniature golf. She reads, "Word balloon from guy: 'You know, I'm pretty good at sinking my putts, if you know what I mean?' Woman's word balloon: 'Yes, I know what you mean. You're not that subtle. The little elf on the pole probably knows what you mean.' Happy Birthday to a wife who can always see right through me." This is a winner. There is laughter from all the humor writers -- the biggest laugh of the day.
When the read-through ends, Bearley explains that these cards will be evaluated with a much more critical eye the next afternoon. That's when it will be decided which ones will be rejected and which will become cards. "The writers will then get little reject stacks on their chairs," Bearley says. "It's a tough part of the job. It's a hard thing to come to work every day and see a stack of rejects in your chair."
"Well, not really," Jones says in response. "If it works, it works. If it doesn't, just throw it away. Try again. I mean, I'm here every day."
I follow Bearley into her planning room, where there is a large bulletin board that reads, "Funny, But No." Underneath, there hangs a group of rejected ideas: a black-and-white photo of a sweet, wrinkled old man with a thought bubble over his head that reads, "Porn?"; there is a photo of a woman with a huge beehive hairdo and a thought bubble that reads, "Screw the ozone! I look hot! Happy Birthday Hottie!"; there is a card that reads, "Ways to meet men," above a cartoon of two dogs on leashes fornicating.
Bearley flips through the panels of Shoebox's best-selling cards. I notice a lot of cards that include illustrations of bare butts, including the one my mother sent me for my birthday. "Yeah," she says, "we've been asked to get away from the bare-ass jokes here. But look, they're definitely the top sellers."
"This is a much harsher reading than yesterday's read-through," John Dill says. It's the daily 2 p.m. copy approval meeting at the Humor Studio, and Dill and Bearley are sifting through yesterday's cards. They've already accepted the miniature golf innuendo card that got big laughs from the writers.
"Mostly what we're looking at is whether the stuff is funny and also how well it fits into a relationship," Dill says. "A danger with the read-through is that we can drift into writers writing for writers." Dill and Bearley regularly reject over 75 percent of what is written.
Dill reads the next card, "You're more than a sister, you're a friend I can hit up for a kidney -- Happy Birthday. (P.S. Don't smoke)." Brows furrow. "We don't feature smoking at all," Dill says. "We avoid it completely."
We move on. "Congratulations. Even at one of those mass weddings where a thousand couples get married at the same time, you two would stand out ... And not just because they had to throw a tarp over you during the bride kissing either."
"I want that to be so much funnier than what it is," Bearley says.
"Just the inside?" Dill asks.
"The inside just needs to be faster, right? I mean, throwing a tarp over you when the kissing starts?"
"But I want it to be different for another reason."
Dill marks the copy and sends it back for revisions, then moves on to the next card: "We all wanted to wish you a happy birthday in our own unique way ... But we're not all that unique. We're pretty much the same. Hence the one card."
"Noooo," Bearley says, with a look of despair.
There is another sister card: "I'm so glad I still have you around. Who knew there'd be a whole new set of things to make fun of you about when you started to age. Happy Birthday, Droopy."
Bearley and Dill both sigh. "Too harsh for you?" he asks.
Dill will eventually tell me, privately, "A lot of people connect with sarcastic humor, but Hallmark is never about hurting relationships. There's no reason to send something truly hurtful. We try not to make fun of people's jobs, for instance, or of fat people. Mean language, a lot of times, is fun language. On TV, there's a lot of mean humor, but you don't really care about the target of that humor. We, on the other hand, have to be careful we don't use entertainment standards here."
Dill will tell me he still remembers well the type of sarcastic, ironic humor that he enjoyed in his younger days, when he came to Hallmark 18 years ago after "selling my plasma in Minneapolis" because he had no job. Dill believes that working at Hallmark for almost two decades has broadened his view of what's funny to include gentler, traditional forms of humor. "I see the value in earnest communication," he says. "There's also not such a push anymore to establish my own personal self in the universe. Now, I'm more into finding what connects me to other people."
"We make fun of what we do all the time. But if we really didn't like it, then we wouldn't stay," he says. "There are very few people who dream of becoming greeting card writers, and sure, the greeting card writer gets made fun of a lot. But hundreds of thousands of people will see a really good greeting card. It has a huge effect on people."
Dill says he'll always remember sitting on the other side of a dark mirror during a recent focus group. He watched regular people sobbing, and saying things like, "This card saved my daughter's life," and, "I haven't talked to my daughter in years, and she finally called me after I sent her this card."
His eyes start to tear a bit when he tells me this. "To hear somebody say that about your work," he says. "It's very powerful stuff."
Finding new ways to say the same old things is the toughest challenge for any writer, and I leave Kansas City having gained some measure of respect for the writers at Hallmark. But something else nags at me. Even with all the quality time spent with the happy staff at Hallmark, I still don't understand the reason people feel compelled to send such sappy cards to one another. I keep playing over and over in my head something that Derek McCracken told me: "I don't see how a cynic could survive here at Hallmark." I once edited a newspaper called the Cynic. Could it just be me, or is there another reason?
The next time I visit my mother, sender of bare-butt birthday cards, I tell her about my visit to Hallmark and show her some of the treacle cards I collected on my visit. I expect us to have a little chuckle, but instead my mother makes a confession. She goes to her desk and pulls out a group of stuffed manila envelopes that are marked "Sympathy/Get Well," "College/Graduation," "Marriages," "Birthdays" and so on and dumps the cards they contain out on the table. One envelope bears a note written to my father: "To F -- I have collected at times throughout the years. And never sent. Love B." My mother says that the cards in this envelope are in case "something ever happened" to her.
Over the years, she's bought dozens of traditional, emotional, rhyming Hallmark greeting cards -- for my father and for me and my brothers -- that touched her when she read them in the store. She has rarely sent any of them, out of fear of seeming too sappy. "A lot of times, I hold one or two sentimental cards in my hand before I end up sending you guys a humorous one," she says. "Sometimes they're too long, and one phrase or sentiment just doesn't apply. But most times, I just didn't want to embarrass you. I always think, 'Oh, you'd rather get something else.' " Instead, she has kept them stashed away, some more than a decade.
Among the cards on the table is one with a soft photo of a Persian kitten -- just like the ones I was trying to write. My mother has even purchased, and never sent, the best-selling card of the hermit crabs that reads, "Thanks for loving me even when I'm crabby." Then there is a card from years ago that was supposed to be for me -- it's of a little boy holding a teddy bear at the end of a dock, as sailboats float by. Inside it reads, "Sometimes just being close is enough."
Jason Wilson is the series editor of the annual anthology The Best American Travel Writing. He will be fielding questions and comments about this article at 1 p.m. Monday on www.washingtonpost.com/liveonline.