Monday, June 17, 2013

The Quest for An Expression of Affection

When I was a freshman in college, an English professor told me my poetry sounded like a Hallmark card. Though I know now that many people earn lucrative checks writing greeting card copy, I knew then that he didn't intend his comment as a compliment. Dismissing the inconvenient fact that I'd written several of the poems in the twenty-four hour period before the project was due, I concluded that I simply wasn't cut out to write poetry, so I stopped. Haven't written a poem since.

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My recent quest for Father's Day cards only provided further evidence that greeting cards and accomplished poetry are, at best, miles apart. While I used to enjoy the search for just the right card, I have come to dread not only Hallmark Holidays but also every other holiday requiring a greeting card. The more important it is to get the card just right, the more likely I am to procrastinate until the very last minute. This is totally counterproductive, of course, because what's left at that point is all of the cards that everyone else found unacceptable -- the rhyme is too forced, the sentiment too gooey, the number of adjectives detailing the exemplary nature of the potential recipient too overwhelming to carry any sense of sincerity.

At first I thought the cards had gotten worse; I'd never had this much trouble before. But then I realized that except for the price, the cards had changed very little. What had changed was me.

When I first started shopping for cards -- long before my freshman year in college -- adverbs and adjectives had been my friends, bringing clarity and detail to mere nouns and pronouns. Words like mother, father, sister and husband could not stand alone -- the horror! The people I loved -- my marvelous mother, my big, strong father, my charming sister and my darling husband deserved better (although I did not yet have a darling husband), and the more I loved them, the more adjectives they (and the cards I chose) required.

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Then I butted heads with that English professor. Learned APA style and how to write an essay that did more than fill a blue book. Read Anne Lamott and Stephen King and Writer's Digest and learned that words had to earn their keep. Simply slapping an adjective in front of a noun didn't improve upon the noun, and using adjectives to prop up weak verbs was even worse.

And the search for greeting cards has never been the same.

Sometimes, I get lucky. On my first try, several weeks before the appointed holiday when the racks are fully stocked, I find just the right card, and I feel virtuous. On holidays like Father's Day, where I need multiple cards, I typically find one card I like (this year it was my dad's card) weeks ahead of time, then end up slinking to a different store much too late in the game to try to find the remaining card stock tokens of my deepest affection -- typically the most understated card left on the display.

The funny thing is that I'm an affectionate person -- effusive, even -- but I've become so accustomed to cutting extraneous words out of my writing that when I search for a greeting card, my inner editor takes over and my threshold for nausea drops so low that any word ending in -ly is likely (oops) to make me queasy. It's as though my self-expression is at stake, and after years of improving my craft, I must find something that represents not only what I feel but how I would describe it.

Yeah. No pressure there.

Fortunately, the next card-purchasing holiday isn't until October, when my marvelous mother and darling husband celebrate their birthdays.

Maybe I should start shopping now.

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