Amanda Montell is One of Those (Occasionally High) Coffee Shop Writers
This is Rough Draft, in which our favorite writers get to the bottom of their own craft. From preferred writing drinks to whether or not you really need to carry a notebook, we find out all the ways they beat writer’s block and do the work. This week, we speak with Amanda Montell in honor of her recent release Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism. From SoulCycle to Scientology, Montell breaks down the sociology behind some of the world’s most infamous cults—both culturally-endorsed and otherwise. Below, discover all the things that helped her get it done.
JULIANA UKIOMOGE: Describe your ideal writing atmosphere. What gets you in the mood?
AMANDA MONTELL: I’m one of those coffee shop writers. I like ambient noise, a slightly uncomfortable chair, and WiFi unstable enough to deter me from tripping and falling into a YouTube black hole.
UKIOMOGE: Do you eat or drink while you write? If so, what do you like to have?
MONTELL: Iced cortados and plain seltzer. None of that flavored bubbly water. (I don’t like to taste my burps. Is this getting too gross?) I am trying to work on getting better at feeding myself while I write.
UKIOMOGE: Do you ever smoke or drink while you write? How do you think they impact your writing?
MONTELL: If I get stuck while editing a piece and can’t tell what it needs, sometimes weed reorients my perspective just enough that I can see with fresh eyes what’s missing or what needs to be cut or rearranged. I used to think weed would just be distracting, but for me, it’s actually proven quite useful. Lately, I’ve taken to these futuristic little cannabis-infused sodas, called CANN Social Tonics, which contain 2.5mg of THC—the perfect dose for cracking a tough editorial nut.
UKIOMOGE: Do you keep a notebook and/or journal?
MONTELL: I keep digital notes on my phone for my creative projects, but I don’t journal just for my mental health or to prove to myself that I exist or anything like that. I probably should. I shall bring this up with my therapist.
UKIOMOGE: What’s your favorite quote?
MONTELL: I cherish so many Mary Oliver quotes, it’s impossible to pick just one, but let’s go with: “You do not have to be good. You do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting. You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.” On my moodier days, I also covet this Nabokov quote: “The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.”
UKIOMOGE: Whose writing do you always return to?
MONTELL: Mary Roach, the popular science writer. And Didion.
UKIOMOGE: What books did you read as a kid/teen? Have your thoughts about the writers changed?
MONTELL: When I was a kid, I was utterly obsessed, almost in a fetishistic way, with those Chicken Soup for the Soul essay collections, specifically with the sections on “Death & Dying.” I never cared about fantasy books or fairy tales or YA novels, just breezy dark nonfiction, which totally tracks.
MONTELL: My writing is research-heavy and focused on translating and synthesizing more academic work for a general audience, so mostly I just read a lot of source material while I write. When it comes to voice and other craft things, though, I always come back to Mary Roach, whom I worship for her wicked humor and one-of-a-kind mind.
UKIOMOGE: How many drafts of one piece do you typically write?
MONTELL: I kind of edit as I go, but maybe 3?
UKIOMOGE: What would the title of your memoir be?
MONTELL: Owns Four Thesauri But No Vacuum Cleaner: The Impractical Life of Amanda Montell.
UKIOMOGE: Who’s your favorite screenwriter? Can a movie ever be as good as the book?
MONTELL: Diablo Cody. And abso-fucking-lutely. So can TV series. I think I enjoyed Sally Rooney’s Normal People adaptation for Hulu just as much as the book.
UKIOMOGE: Do you consider writing to be a spiritual practice?
MONTELL: Hmm. For me, usually not. Depends on the genre, though. As I transition into writing more literary nonfiction and hopefully fiction one day, I can imagine it becoming a more spiritual experience.
UKIOMOGE: Which writers would you choose to have dinner with, living or dead?
MONTELL: Nora Ephron, Samantha Irby, Jia Tolentino, and Miranda July.
UKIOMOGE: What advice do you have for people who want to be better writers?
MONTELL: Writing is not some sort of heavenly blessing, it is a skill that is honed over years of working the writing muscle, receiving feedback, and reading, of course. I don’t think you have to be born a “genius” to become a wonderful writer; you just have to chip away at your craft for a long time. My motto is: Strive not to be the most naturally gifted, but instead the most improved.
UKIOMOGE: What are some unconventional techniques you stand by?
MONTELL: I don’t know if this counts as unconventional, but changing up the font or physical format of what I’m writing every few days helps me see it anew.
UKIOMOGE: Can great writing save the world?
MONTELL: Without question. With great writing, ideas can be cast far and wide, and become embedded in people’s bones — ideas that, when acted upon, certainly have the potential to save the world.