Melvina Young: People think we are the lowbrow ditch diggers of the writing profession.
Melvina Young, 55, is a senior writer at Hallmark Cards in Kansas City, Missouri.
Q: How hard could it be to write pithy lines for a greeting card?
A: That’s what many people think, that we are the lowbrow ditch diggers of the writing profession, the punch lines of jokes and films. Frankly I, too, thought this would be a quotidian task.
But it requires a specific, well-honed skill set. I do a lot of research, sit in on focus groups, read The New York Times, check discussion boards, Tumblr, Pew Research, Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight, consumer trend studies, and we have team brainstorming sessions before I sit down to write.
Q: What was your professional writing experience before joining Hallmark?
A: I came from academic writing. With a master’s degree in African-American studies and as a Ph.D. candidate in U.S. history at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, I taught women’s studies, black history, empathy and social justice at the university and wrote articles, such as “Exploring the WPA Narratives: Finding the Voices of Black Men and Women,” published in 1993 in “Theorizing Black Feminisms: The Visionary Pragmatism of Black Women,” edited by Abena P.A. Busia and Stanlie M. James.
Q: What skills did you bring from that background to greeting-card writing?
A: In my scholarship and teaching, I focused on relationships from a broad sociohistorical perspective. I felt that if you could understand the root causes of certain injustices without blame, then it would be easier to build connections and coalitions that actually effect change.
At Hallmark I discovered you could achieve the same goal through meaningful words that touch people emotionally one to one. I think the most important skills I bring to this job, culled from my own life experiences and from my studies, are empathy, compassion and building connection.
Q: What personal experiences inform your writing?
A: When I joined in 2006, I wrote for Mahogany, our brand for African-American women. As a black woman who spent the first six years of her life in segregated Lepanto, Arkansas, whose grandparents could not get any other work than as domestics, cotton pickers and farmhands, I brought much more than my university credentials to the table.
My writing voice brings authenticity to the task. I had wanted to be a writer since I could remember but did not know any black women writers until I was 12 and read “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” by Maya Angelou, for whom Arkansas played an important role.
Q: Aside from writing for Mahogany, what is the range of your work for Hallmark?
A: I also write sympathy, humor and cards that celebrate occasions. I’m particularly strong at romantic love messages, a skill that surprised me.
And I conceptualize ideas for and write books, blogs, internet content, even mug and T-shirt copy. I run an internal blog called Vibrant Voices, where we look at topical issues such as mental health, disabilities and what happened at Charlottesville in 2017. I wrote a piece about creating empathic art in our consumer-facing blog Think.Make.Share.
After the 2016 presidential election, I led a project aimed at helping people heal divisive wounds among families and friends, finding words to rebuild bridges and emotional ruptures between loved ones.
I wrote a Hallmark book, “Ready to Give No Damns: Loving, Living and Laughing Like You Mean It,” that’s resonant with the #MeToo movement. It’s about empowering women with words that women need to hear, like “Each time she stood up for herself, her legs grew stronger.”