Tara Centeio is anything but typical for the rest of the world’s corporate soldiers. For starters, she gets to wear what she wants, and on casual Fridays that might mean her most comfortable pair of overalls. Her cubicle is stocked, not with bulging files and mind-numbing spreadsheets, but with the music that often serves as her muse: Donny Hathaway, Stevie Wonder and, of course, the Lord of Love Songs, Luther Vandross.
Alone at her desk, she often listens to these mellow giants croon as her mind wanders over a landscape of emotions, memories, sentiments, hopes, and desires. As a writer for Hallmark Cards Inc., she gets paid $30,000-plus while doing this and whatever else inspires her to write the verses that attract the legions of card buyers who “care enough to send the very best.”
“I know this sounds corny,” she says of her job in what some regard as the Cornball Business, “but it’s everything I thought it would be and more. I have a passion, I have a skill, I have a talent and I’m able to get paid doing exactly what I love to do. I feel very blessed.”
Sentimental musings aside, there’s nothing corny about the size or vitality of the greeting card market. And Hallmark, with net sales of $3.6 billion and more than 20,000 employees worldwide, is the undisputed industry leader, offering Centeio the thrill of having her work on display at up to 40,500 outlets nationwide.
Her portfolio includes wistful expressions written for Hallmark’s Between You and Me and Connections lines, as well as this soulful verse, written for Mahogany, the line Hallmark targets to African Americans: ..CT.- I looked at him and heard with my heart words he did not say… He let love’s truth fall from his soul to mine, and it was soft and beautiful… and it made my spirit fly.
The same words Centeio uses to describe the Mahogany line (“effusive, very warm, very real”) could be used to describe Centeio herself. At 23, she virtually bubbles over with enthusiasm for her employer, its products and her personal contributions to the nation’s booming card supply. That supply is dictated largely by Hallmark’s editors, who send assignments to the writers and artists, who then write prose and create a design to suit the occasion. For example, Centeio may get a request for a Valentine’s Day card from a grown son to his mother. She’ll then generate as many verses as she’s moved to, although she may write between five and 10, and submit just the one or two she deems worthy.
The former Spelman College English major first tried her hand at Hallmark as a summer intern. Her 1996 decision to write cards full time came as a surprise to many of her classmates, since her work on Spelman’s literary magazine was limited to art direction.
“I was a closet writer,” Centeio confesses. “In college, I sort of felt like if my poetry wasn’t of `The Struggle,’ it wasn’t valid.” At Hallmark, where business is about