By Ashley Lodato
This column is adapted from a presentation at the Methow Valley News 113th birthday variety show last weekend.
The best stories, of course, are the ones I’ve been asked not to publish. When I began writing the Winthrop column, which I freely refer to as “the Winthrop gossip column,” in the fall of 2009, I suddenly made a lot of new friends. People started approaching me in the street to introduce themselves and pass on news. They’d tell me some great story about a local person or about themselves, some hilarious or fascinating tidbit, and then just as I was spinning the story in my head to get it ready for the next week’s edition they’d say, “but please don’t write about this in your column.”
Even now, after five years of gossip columns establishing myself as someone with at least a shred of discretion, my closest friends will sometimes stop mid-story and say “this is not for your column” and then resume the story without pause.
I began to understand why the community life columns I’d secretly mocked in other small town newspapers were full of stories about whose in-laws visited them and what high jinks their kittens were up to. The in-laws and the kittens were all the columnists had left after the real stories were filtered out by the censors: their friends and neighbors.
When you’re a gossip columnist, you frequently get given the gift of information, but it’s an offering you’re just as frequently asked not to re-gift. You end a conversation with someone you hardly know, who has just told you a fantastic story but asked you not to share it, and you’re left holding a juicy nugget that is ineligible for public consumption.
I hold a lot of these nuggets, as I imagine most of us do. We’re all carrying around confidential information about other people all the time. Intimate details, provincial tittle-tattle, tales of triumph and woe. We file stories away in our mind the same way we file dollar bills in our wallets. We sit richly on a fortune of personal narratives. People’s stories are currency, not to be squandered or leveraged, but instead to be reinvested in the acquisition of empathy, perspective, even wisdom.
The more trivial details of people’s lives — well, those are just pocket change, mad money. And that’s what we gossip columnists have to work with.
When you spend Sunday nights staring grimly at your computer screen wondering what you’re going to write about each week, you begin to take a predatory approach to information. There is no one more mercenary about personal stories than a gossip columnist. If we overhear something funny or interesting in the grocery store or in the halls at school our first thought is “Can I use that in my column?” And ka-ching! — we hoard it for use in the not-too-distant future, like probably the next grim Sunday night. The term “memory bank” takes on almost literal connotations as we deposit the information to eventually be withdrawn and spent.
A question I try not to ask myself too often is “Is writing a gossip column legitimate journalism?” Let’s face it — I’m writing about Christmas tree hunts gone wrong and the darndest things that kids say. Even without a lot of soul-searching, it’s fairly easy to come to the conclusion that the answer to that question is no (and the reality that I do little, if any, fact-checking tips the scales toward that answer anyway). But in defense of the gossip columnist, I’ll argue that our columns are at least something as important as legitimate journalism, at least in — and most especially in — small communities.
We in the Methow Valley spend a fair amount of time crowing about the sheer awesomeness of our community. We’re valley strong, we take care of each other, we make cool stuff happen. We are that way in part, I’d contend, because we are familiar with the stories of those around us. Our personal stories root us, while other people’s stories give definition to our own experiences.
Gossip columns connect people through stories. The personal narratives of those around us are the elements that unite us. Through having our own stories shared we feel a little less alone, a little more a part of something bigger than ourselves. Through reading others’ stories we develop empathy and tolerance. As we grow, we learn that our own lives are made up of fragments that are echoed in others’ stories, and that their lives contain elements of our own. It is recognizing these unifying elements that makes us richer, stronger.
So yes, we gossip. We dish, we blather, and we natter. Some might call us chin-wagging, rumor-mongering, nosy big-mouths. But we also reveal the personal headlines of people’s lives and the front-page stories of their personal narratives. We write the threads of the ties that bind us.