One Joint With Amanda Montell
Author and feminist pop linguist Amanda Montell’s star is rising, and quickly. Her debut book, Wordslut, which she published this year at the age of 27, conversationally canvasses how we understand and are heard by others because of gender. It’s refreshing and impactful, and reads as if the author were sitting across the table discussing the matter at hand. Wordslut led to a TV deal, and also to a second book deal, this time on the secret language of cults, (spoiler, as Montell says, we’re all using it already). We met at her home in Silver Lake.
Alyssa Shapiro: Tell me about the first time you got high.
Amanda Montell: Well the first time I got high and the first time I smoked were very different. The first time I ever smoked I was 16 at a playground with two of my best friends, and I don’t know if I did it right or what, if I didn’t inhale, but I didn’t get high. The first time I got high was like ten smoke sessions later. I had driven—this is such illegal behavior and I don’t condone it—but two of my best friends, one of whom is the same person I had smoked with every time before then, and these two cool girls in my high school, these two babes who it was like a big deal for me to be socializing with. And these were two girls who were coming to get high with us, like, we were gonna smoke them up.
AS: It brings people together.
AM: It does, it marries wildly different social groups. I drove us to the parking lot of the nearby elementary school late at night, and we all smoked, and then for the first time in my life, I actually felt the sensation of being high. And I remember telling my friend, Dude, I feel like I’m in a dream! Why do I feel like I’m dreaming? And she didn’t know I didn’t get high every single time before then. She was like, Amanda, you’re high! That’s why it feels like you’re dreaming. So then I couldn’t drive back, I was super paranoid, so we had to walk half a mile, and I ate an entire box of Kix cereal with my fingers out of the box.
AS: What’s your relationship to weed now?
AM: I didn’t smoke weed for like eight years. I always convinced myself for the past eight years that weed would fuck with my productivity, and it totally can do that, I don’t know if I’ve just not smoked enough for it to affect my productivity, but I haven’t found that to be the case. If I’ll smoke an energizing weed and then go to write, or have gone to edit, I’m like oh wow, my brain is turned six degrees to the left and I can see this piece of writing in a new way, and that’s helping me get clarity on it, and realize how to edit it, or realize what direction this needs to go in. It’s not like I smoke every time I write, I hardly ever ever do.
AS: Reading your book made me a more compassionate listener; I caught myself and let go of judgment around upspeak and vocal fry—I realize I’m vocal frying right now—which as you point out in Wordslut, are actually somewhat misunderstood conversational tools for social agency.
AM: Yes, reading comprehension!
AS: Yes, and it came to me in a dream, which I texted you about. That’s when it all came together… So I want to ask you: when was the last time you changed your mind about something?
AM: I feel like I change my mind a lot. I’m very strong in my beliefs but I also don’t presume to have all the knowledge in the world. While I base a lot of my decisions on my internal sense of right and wrong, I make space to let other information and influences in and then I sort of make the call here and there. I’m not impressionable by any means. If anything, I’m sort of the opposite, but I try to strike a balance. Myers-Briggs personality type is ENFJ. That might be informative. But I do find in my life now that the older I get, the more I realize how little I know, especially in this political time. You have to just be very very open to being “called in” on information—a more positive spin on being “called out”—and just can’t presume to know everything because there are so many different experiences people have, and expertise, and backgrounds…
Last time I changed my mind? My impulse is to talk about some things that I’ve changed because of the relationship that I’m in. The last big decision I made was to decide not to close myself off to love just because prevailing wisdom would tell me that I should. Or that I want to be the type of person who just says, I’m going to be single for the next six months, and then does it. Like, I want to be that steadfast in my ability to be on my own or whatever, but there was a point a few months ago when I decided that sometimes the most beautiful things in life happen when you least expect them, and when you don’t plan for them. So I change my mind about what I wanted my relationship’s near future to look like.
AS: I totally get that. I made a similar decision in my last relationship. I don’t know if you’ve experienced this, but when you start to change your thoughts about it, then it becomes real in your life.
AM: Totally. Manifest. There’s a lot at work there. Well, you change your mind or your perspective on something now, literally you can see new things. It’s not as if it wasn’t there before, it’s just that you couldn’t see it.
AS: It’s like, every option is available to you, so what do you want? When it comes to language and communication, both spoken and unspoken, has your research made you better at understanding maybe what people mean but don’t say?
AS: Oh my god, no. Like, the book is really just about the science of language, but there’s so much more to language than just the words, just the data, or sentence structure, or vocal quality or whatever, and so it’s not as easy as, oh you can look at this pattern of speech… that’s almost savant level. You can’t like memorize how someone uses language in this way and then apply it to real life and have it always be the case. I’m talking emotionally, or in terms of deducing someone’s motives. Not at all. You can be a language nerd and actually be distracted by it. I sometimes find myself listening to someone’s accent instead of the content of their statement, because I’m like, oh my god, I’m gonna ask them as soon as they’re done speaking if they’re from Baton Rouge, Louisiana. They sounds like they’re from Baton Rouge, Louisiana! That’s like a language geek really listening to what someone’s saying but not at all hearing it.
In my studies I’ve become, kind of like you said, a more compassionate listener, and I don’t judge people for using such and such a grammatical construction. I choose to be fascinated by language instead of judgmental about it. I can’t imagine being any other way, because being curious about language is my livelihood, it’s my identity, it’s everything. But have I learned anything in my research about how to understand what people are saying better? No [laughs]. Not at all. I’m constantly baffled by what’s informing what people decide to say.
AS: Do you ever feel like, for you, language is insufficient to get across what you feel or mean?
AM: I mean yeah, that’s why there are those fascinating, untranslatable words. And sometimes you learn them—words inform languages that represent an experience for which there is no word in English—and sometimes you’ll come across one of those untranslatable words, and feel so seen! Whenever I’ve come across one of them that really resonates with me, I felt such sorrow and regret that I haven’t been able to use that word my whole life.
Words are sometimes insufficient, especially because everyone has access to different words. There are over 470,000 entries in the the most current edition of Merriam Webster. There are so many fucking words. As somebody who identifies as pretty loquacious, I certainly don’t know them all! And people who grow up in different communities learn different words. There are straight up English words in different dialects that you and I might not have access to or know because they’re specific to a certain regionalism. There are grammatical constructions that exist in some dialects of English that we don’t know that probably communicate something completely different. I definitely think language can be insufficient to express feelings, but I’ll also say that you can feel a feeling without having a word for it. You can feel something that you so desperately wish there were a word for, and even if you did have all 470,000 of those words in your mind, there still wouldn’t be something.
AS: I think about that a lot—how to understand a feeling without knowing how to verbalize it… Given that words are your life, do you ever crave silence?
AM: Well, not only are words my life but I’m also very talkative. I think people are sometimes afraid that I’m not going to be capable of silence because I’m so damn chatty, but I definitely crave silence. If it’s silence meaning me being silent, or like not hearing any specific words, then yes I totally crave that. But now I’m thinking, do I only crave it because I’m writing in those moments…?
AS: You’re still using words.
AM: I’m still using words, it’s just I’m not hearing them. I have to write in silence or in ambient noise. I can’t write to music, if there’s music in the background of the coffee shop I’m in, and it’s too loud or I know the song, then it’s really distracting. I don’t meditate. I probably should. I do daydream a lot and I guess that’s in silence? I’m an extrovert, not as extroverted as I am chatty though, I do always want to stress that distinction. I’m definitely talkative and enthusiastic and I get excited about things and I want to talk about them at length, but I take pride in not wearing people out.
AS: Talk to me about Wordslut on TV. What is happening!
AM: Shortly after I signed the book deal, I signed with a TV agent who was like, think about how you would adapt this for a narrative television show, and I was like, yeah sure, I have no idea how to do that, and this probably won’t happen, but yes thank you for inviting me to this fancy office.
But after I turned in the final manuscript, I had sort of been passively thinking of a narrative TV show idea about this brilliant but sort of extremely self-unaware and socially anxious young genius girl who, in the pilot episode, scores the career break of a lifetime as an undercover reporter and thanks to her language genius is able to blend in with a ton of different communities that no one else could, and hear things in their speech that no one else could, and sort of morph into their community in order to report on them. After such a slog of writing a nonfiction book, to just make things up out of thin air is really fun. So I did come up with a pitch doc summarizing the basic premise of the show, the pilot episode, the series arc, all the characters in great detail… I did each character’s favorite word…
I got really into it because it was just fun, and I figured that absolutely nothing would come of this, and I’m not a TV writer, I never aspired to write for TV, this is just an exercise and I’m having fun doing it… I did it on the weekends while I was still working full time, and I ended up signing a development deal with FX to write a pilot and have the book option, and one day if it gets made, to executive produce, and all this stuff. Who knows if it really will get made, but I just finished my first draft of writing the pilot. I literally downloaded Final Draft and just wrote it in the 30-day trial, and the day after I was done, it was like, your trial’s done, you no you no longer have access to the software, and I was like [laughs] ok!
AS: But hold on a second. In a year you published your first book, and got a TV deal.
AM: Yes, At the end of May the book came out, and at the end of July the TV deal happened. And I just signed my second book deal which is called Mindfuck: The Secret Language of Cults (Spoiler: You’re Already Using It). It’s about cults from Scientology to Soulcycle and how they use language to brainwash us.
AS: Two and a half years ago to now, pre book deals and TV deal to now, can you talk about the difference in your life? The changes that have occurred in who you are, where you are, did you think you would be here? What’s this like?
AM: So let’s say February 2017. I was in a really bad relationship, and was nowhere near as emotionally honest with myself as I am now, and that’s part of why I was in that relationship. I had no literary agent, I had no promise of a book deal in sight, I was just working at Byrdie and doing the side hustle. I was making these little web videos about gender and language with no idea if they would lead to anything, but just kind of putting a million irons in the fire, they were getting hot, but none of them were striking yet. I was only 24, so I wasn’t worried yet. I guess I would identify as an ambitious person, and I do set lofty goals for myself, but they’re always goals I feel like I can achieve, and I give myself a really long timeline.
So I had it in my brain at 24 that I wanted to get a literary agent by the end of that year, and even that was a really short deadline, but I was ready, and I signed with one two months later. Wacky. And I wanted a book deal by 30. I had no idea you could get a book deal a month or two months after signing with a literary agent. Especially when you have no book written and no book idea. I was like, I’ll probably have my first human baby and my first book baby around the same time in my life. And then the book thing ended up happening really fast, and I was like, ok I guess we can set another goal!
So then my goal was that I would love to be able to quit my day job, I would love to be able to get a second book deal and slap together a career that looks like maybe one of the writers who I’ve known in my life who has a setup that looks good to me—my former creative writing professor at NYU was always working on a book, always submitting to and getting published in places like the New Yorker and the Paris Review and then had two adjunct professor gigs at NYU and Hunter College. I thought, that sounds like an amazing life, I would love that life. After Wordslut was signed and while I was writing it, I was like, I’m going to go back to Byrdie, I’ll work there until the book comes out, and then I want my goal to be quitting my job. When I told my literary agent that I wanted to quit my job, she was like, I don’t know! Nothing’s certain! This second book deal might not happen…the advance might not be enough to live off of… And I was like, No! I’m not doing it anymore. This is what I want. So I made that happen shortly after Wordslut came out. I put a bunch of irons in the fire, I had my next pitch for Harper Collins which was Mindfuck which did end up happening, I had a different book idea that I still plan on pitching to Audible originals which is a book about the language of dating and sex. And this TV show thing—the least likely thing—might happen. And I have a bunch of freelance contacts. So odds are one or two or three of those irons could strike, and that would definitely be a life.
AS: You decided it was going to be a certain way, and it appeared for you. Yes, it took work…
AM: I also want to acknowledge how privileged I am as a person. I saw this meme on Instagram the other day… Did you manifest it, or is it white privilege? I would love to take credit for every single ounce of my “manifesting,” but the world has also treated me very nicely. And I’ve been so encouraged and supported by people, and have only worked with women—every single person who has contributed to any successful event over the course of my career thus far has been a woman. That’s been really nice. I’ve never had to work in a super hostile environment, a little here and there, but then I could quit or find a new job pretty easily because of the ways in which I am lucky. So, I manifested it, but I also feel guilty saying it because I’m super lucky and privileged, and yes I work hard, and yes I try to make the most of my opportunities, but I have so many damn opportunities, and I just want to acknowledge that.