A Hallmark Writer's 'House Of Cards'

Author David Dickerson

hide captionBefore he got his job at Hallmark, author David Dickerson designed greeting cards to entertain colleagues in the Navy.

Halley Wolowiec

For seven years, David Dickerson wrote birthday rhymes and sympathy wishes at Hallmark. As a result of that experience, Dickerson realized there's a world that calls for sentiments for the unexpected and somewhat bizarre.

To help fill that gap, Dickerson established a Greeting Card Emergency channel on YouTube. He writes cards for awkward occasions — say, the wedding of your former fiancee — and tricky celebrations, like Moby's birthday, which falls on September 11.

Dickerson talks about his memoir, House of Cards, and solves listeners' greeting card emergencies.

Excerpt: House Of Cards

Cover of 'House of Cards'

I've been writing poems ever since I first read Dr. Seuss. My favorite Dr. Seuss book was On Beyond Zebra! It posits a series of made-up letters beyond the usual alphabet: letters like floob, yuzz, quan, and thnad. And then each letter goes on to illustrate an imaginary animal ("Floob is for Floobooberbabooberbubs"). In that book, everything seemed to dance: language, letters, even the very concept of nature. It's the only Dr. Seuss book I remember keeping with me as I fell asleep, back in kindergarten. You could say it was the first time I read a dictionary for fun.

Then in college at the University of Arizona, I suddenly, oddly, developed a habit I'd never evidenced before: I would come into class twenty minutes early when no one was there and anonymously write a poem on the board about whatever we were studying. When my undergraduate English class read Crime and Punishment, I wrote:

Higglevich-Pigglevich,
Rodya Raskolnikov
Axed an old woman who
Didn't belong.
After long chapters of
Psychoanalysis,
He concludes, finally,
"Murder is wrong."

And when my Reformation class studied a particularly grim chapter in medieval German history, I wrote:

Imperial taxes had jolted,
And Prince Maximilian had bolted.
While trapped on worse land,
Things got out of hand —
And that's why the Peasants Revolted.

I couldn't help it. The words seemed to beg to be played with, and there was no other venue to share my creations in once they were finished. It's not like anyone publishes this stuff anymore. It was fun to stretch my brain and come up with a joke about premodern literature* and then share it as an inside joke with people who would actually get it. For those few years where I had a regular excuse to write it, life had been thrilling.

But when I graduated with an MFA in fiction and looked around, I asked the universe, Where can I get a job writing silly poems? And the universe had answered, Unless you can time-travel back to the thirties and kill Ogden Nash and take his place, you're probably out of luck. Try to enjoy a long, unrewarding life of Plan B.

Now I suddenly had a new answer. Hallmark, eh? So that was on the one hand. On the other, I realized that even in this simple act — walk across campus and say hi to some Hallmark rep — I had to face my own worst enemies: my brain and my will, both of whom were skeptical of exerting even this much effort. My life up to this point had taught me two things: (1) All jobs are agonizingly, intolerably boring except the job of writing (either stories or puzzles); and (2) It's impossible to make money writing stories or puzzles. Puzzles in particular were impossible. From the three friends of mine who have done it, I know you have to be a constructing genius and an entrepreneur, and I'm merely competent and loath to hustle.

But even in writing stories for money, the way I was told to go about it was to submit to small nonpaying literary magazines, then get enough published that you could get a story collection with a small press, and then — on the basis of that or of whatever small-press novel came next — get a teaching job at some obscure college no one much cared for. Yet even this simple plan seemed impossible. I could barely manage to submit ten copies of a story and send them off to various magazines (writing a different cover letter every time, making sure you got the editor's name right, including the SASE that was properly weighted, etc.). Just thinking about it made my limbs heavy, and my brain gasped for anything more exciting to occupy it. Mailing off stories involved actual suffering. And for what? For ten rejections to trickle in over the next nine months. And even if I made it (I'd succeeded once in the six mass mailings I'd managed to shoulder through), you got no money and no one noticed you were in this stupid magazine that only other MFA students had ever heard of. You were supposed to do years of this. I could barely handle it for two hours.

With this as my background, the idea of applying for a job with an actually fun company everyone wanted to join seemed utterly absurd. No one gets lucky. That's not how the world works.

But four things pushed me forward that day. The first was the fact that there'd be an actual Hallmark representative present. I've always despaired of ever impressing anyone with my resume and my writing so far had gotten almost no attention. But I know that in person I'm charming. It's what I've counted on my whole life to get me out of trouble for being late, or for forgetting assignments, or for all the other difficulties that my absentminded brain gets me into. People are generally receptive to my jokes and my friendly nature, as long as they aren't humorless office manager types.

The second was that I had just come up with this idea for a novel set at a greeting card company (Strange Greetings), which was basically an excuse for me to exercise my MFA and write funny poems in a work of alleged literature. I'd worked out the characters and the rough plot, but I didn't know what a card company was actually like. I figured, then, that even if I went to this thing and nobody there liked me, I could still meet an actual greeting card employee and ask some questions by way of research.

The third thing — minor, but there — was that I was starting to hear rumors around the office that our contract with the government might not get renewed. Possibly all of PREVENT could be let go and I'd be forced once more into a work environment that seemed devoid of the security that comes from dating the boss's daughter. I'd actually have to work hard at some mindless job that I knew I'd hate, for as many as eight hours a day. This was so horrifying a possibility that I didn't even dare to take the rumors seriously. But just in case, why not say hi to Hallmark?

Fourth and finally: no matter what happened, it would make a good story for when I called Jane that night. Even when she was in another state, I found her inspiring me to do things I'd never have tried on my own.

*Shakespeare,
It's claimed by some, was really Ed de Vere,
While others vote for Bacon. But I say
Whatever answer helps get me an A.

Reprinted from House of Cards: Love, Faith, and Other Social Expressions: A Memoir by David Ellis Dickerson with permission from Riverhead, a member of The Penguin Group (USA) Inc. Copyright (c) 2009 by David Ellis Dickerson

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