Thursday, May 7, 2009

Work in Progress: Red Hat Ladies

An odd convergence has led me to think about the “Red Hat Ladies,” those groups of older women who form clubs and do things like go to tea, all the while wearing red hats or boas. Here’s the official website of the Red Hat Society, and the motto seems to be, “We celebrate life at every age.” Nothing wrong with that, is there?

In yesterday’s post, I talked about a Lee Smith short story in the new issue of Shenandoah that as a plotline involves a group of “red hat ladies” accidentally showing up at the narrator’s house, mistakenly thinking it’s on the house tour. I admit that when I was reading and first came across the phrase “red hat ladies,” I had an instant image in my mind and perhaps I rolled my eyes and got ready for the writer to poke fun at these ditzy, older women. (Note: Lee Smith, the author, was born in 1944.)

Certainly there were some easy shots, and Lynn (the narrator) is terribly cruel to these women as she fabricates a mean-spirited ghost story about her house. But in the end, I think that we see how Lynn—who hadn’t been able to tell anyone about her husband’s recent abandonment, who doesn’t feel very connected to her community—might have benefited if she had dropped her superior attitude and joined up with the women and had some fun, and there is, in my mind, a hopeful note to the ending.

Still, you write “red hat ladies” and we’re all quick to make fun of them in the way that we don’t necessarily make fun of groups of male war vets all gathered together and making too much noise at the same restaurant we’re at. Or guys riding Harleys. Or men in a sports bar.

My mother happened to read yesterday’s blog entry and told me she wanted to read this story to see how the red hat ladies were treated. I assured her that it wasn’t as bad as it may have seemed, but she wants to see for herself. She’s a smart woman, a good and wide reader, a discerning critic. Also, she noted, “The women I know in those red hat groups would NEVER make a mistake like that on a house tour.”

Then today, this information was in the Writer’s Almanac entry:

“It's the birthday of a woman who—when she was only 28—wrote a famous poem about growing old: Jenny Joseph, born in Birmingham, England (1932). She wrote:

When I am an old woman I shall wear purple
With a red hat which doesn't go and doesn't suit me.
And I shall spend my pension on brandy and summer gloves
And satin sandals, and say we've no money for butter.

The poem, "Warning," was printed in anthologies and on T-shirts, magnets, and greeting cards. It was voted as Britain's favorite post-war poem, beating out Dylan Thomas's "Do Not Go Gentle Into that Good Night."

And it led to the creation of the Red Hat Society, groups of women over the age of 50 who get together for tea parties, wearing purple clothes and red hats. The groups spread quickly, and today there are more than 40,000 chapters.”

And honestly, I have to ask, Is there anything so wrong with having a little brandy in your life? With living it up? With taking care of yourself now and then? And if a red hat is what allows you to get to that place, so what? Why is it wrong and subversive somehow when middle-aged women want to have fun?

What does any of this have to do with writing?

This was a reminder to me that as a writer, we work to create nuanced characters and not rely on easy “brand names” to shortcut to the reader certain assumptions we believe our reader automatically shares (i.e. red hat ladies = stupid old ladies). As it turns out, of course Lee Smith is a better writer than that, and I don’t think she automatically did that –though IMHO she skirted the line with bringing in these women into the story to make fun of them, assuming that most readers of literary journals would have the same opinion of these groups. And in the end, she pulled it off because the Red Hat Ladies became women, characters, people…not mere caricatures to poke fun at. But in lesser hands, I’ve seen it go the other way: the country club Republican in the story is only there so we can laugh at him. The woman who thinks NPR is boring who’s in there so we can feel superior.

One of the good writing teacher sayings goes something like this, Your “bad” characters don’t think that they’re bad; try to see the other side of who they are. I would add: Your “dumb” characters don’t think that they’re dumb, either. Treat your characters—even the icky ones—with respect.

Here’s the complete text of “Warning”—what a great title, when you read the whole poem. (Note: I admit to having sat on the pavement when I was tired!)


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.