Ashley Lodato is a hard-working community newspaper columnist, and a consistently good one. (Consistency is another challenge of the job.) She is one of four Valley Life columnists who fill the back page of the weekly Methow Valley News with features and commentary about goings-on in the small population clusters that dot a mountainous strip of north central Washington state.
It’s long been a hobby of mine, when connecting through an airport, to grab the local newspaper. That used to be more fun when local newspapers were reliably robust. Even more fun, when road-tripping, has been to pick up the local weekly — if one remains. Fortunately, the Methow Valley News does. I buy it at the little grocery store when I am in the mountains at my cabin in the farthest north of those mountain communities; it is mailed to me at home in Seattle. I get to read Lodato and the other columnists every week. It’s a useful barometer of the world they write about. It also — if I’m paying attention — signals those moments when consistently good rises to special in the sense of writing craft.
The latter happened recently when I read Lodato’s column about high school graduation. First reaction: Who doesn’t write about this, especially because it is in many places the first in-person graduation in two years. Second reaction: Who has written about this better? In a tight essay (nine paragraphs, under 700 words), Lodato takes me into the insecurities of parenting a now-adult, the particular attributes of a community, and an unapologetic blessing for the future.
What makes it so good?
- Lodato writes in three perspectives without losing the thread or her voice. She starts in first-person — “my oldest daughtet will graduate from high school on Friday” — and frets, as most parents must, whether she and her husband have done enough to prepare their graduating daughter to fly solo. She is specific about her family but in a way that encompassses life in the small mountain community. One parent is all parents.
- In the fifth paragraph she shifts to third person, focused on they, the soon-to-graduate kids. Here is the largest-ever size of the class, the things they learned because of where they lived — how to douse a wildfire, field-dress a deer, identify the constellations. She summarizes mountain life in a parallel construction that is as practical and specific as it is romantic and thematic.
- In paragraph six, she provides a compressed and accurate summary of recent stand-out history — “these past eight years of fire, flood, smoke and pandemic” — that again includes the entire community in her personal essay. Translation: We’ve been in this together.
- Graf seven: She soars to the top of the ladder of abstraction to underscore her theme about how a community has readied these young people and (wink wink) takes a shot at the world they are about to enter: “From watching the examples set by community members around them, they understand that compassion and generosity will take them farther than suspicion and intolerance ever could.”
- In the eighth graf, she switches to second person, talking directly to the graduates, wishing them the best. Pro forma stuff until …
- In the ninth and final graf, when she offers a blessing that honors the four elements that define mountain life. Earth, fire, air and water. That could come across as cheesy in pieces that aren’t as place-based, but Lodato knows her audience. As she releases her daughter onto whatever the future holds, she manages, without cheese, to let her readers know that she sends her daughter off, confident that she is “rooted by a sense of place and sustained by this extraordinary community.”
After reading Lodato’s column, I reached out to learn a bit more about her and her writing background. She has a BA from Stanford University in English and Italian literature and a masters in English studies from Western Washington University, where she took some classes in memoir and creative nonfiction. She doesn’t consider herself a journalist because, as she says “I don’t know how to report on anything complicated or controversial (and thus never offer to take those stories). I’m a storyteller, or working on it at least.” I would love to argue with her about the definition of “journalism” (It comes in all shapes, not all involving investigative takedowns) and “complicated” (What is parenthood if not that?).
She is a contract columnist for the weekly newspaper, which she calls a “side hustle” along with other freelance gigs. Her primary role has been as education director for a local arts organization; next month she will shift to the nature conservancy in the Methow Valley.
She said her quick email answers to me were not well enough crafted for a full-on Q&A, but I dared to pull out some notable points:
Mostly I have learned on the job, writing for the Methow Valley News. It’s how I developed my voice, thinking about writing for this very specific audience: people who know and care about the Methow Valley. Readers of my column are not shy about giving feedback (both positive and constructive) and that helps me shape what I write about. They like personal stories about others; they like funny things; they like it when I give voice to shared emotions.
I try to do what I think of as “putting money in the bank,” which means getting my column idea early in the week so when I sit down to write it on Sunday night (deadline is Monday morning) I know what I’m going to write about and, ideally, have interviewed any necessary parties earlier. But 10- to 20 percent of the time Sunday night rolls around and I look at a blank screen for awhile. I always get something submitted, but a few of my friends will say “I can tell you didn’t have any content this week.”
I’m mercenary about moments. Enter an interesting conversation: Could I spin this into a column? I see something funny: This is definitely column material.
I thought I always needed to write about an event or a person. Over the years I’ve become more comfortable going a bit out of my lane — or maybe it’s just widening the lane or driving on the shoulder — to write what I’m thinking. The more it resonates with people, the more I feel more confident to do it again.
I’m in a conversation with community members. We are a diverse group and this sometimes makes it tough, especially if I am getting snarky with my political/social beliefs. It was particularly hard during the Trump/COVID era. I live here, I’m raising my kids here, my kids go to school with all types of families. So I try to walk a fine line, but sometimes my left-leanings squeak through. I try to provide a range of column topics, to make sure I’m at least occasionally reaching the social circles that I’m not a part of. But when I’m writing a column without “content,” as my friends would say — in other words, if I’m just waxing philosophical (ie, blabbing on) — I try to write about something that at least a few others could relate to: kids, family, this beautiful valley, this awesome community. Usually if I write about something that is a common experience, people seem to forgive me for not having “content.”