Interview with Daniella Mestyanek Young: “Often I can paint a book concept before I write it.”

Daniella Mestyanek Young is an American author and TEDx speaker who was raised in the religious cult, Children of God. 

She later served as an intelligence officer for the US Army for six and a half years, making the rank of Captain, and became one of the first women in US Army history to conduct deliberate ground combat operations when she volunteered to serve on a Female Engagement Team, and received the Presidential Volunteer Service Award. 

Daniella lives with her husband and daughter in Maryland, and holds a Master’s degree in Industrial and Organizational Psychology from the Harvard Extension School. Daniella is an organizational development speaker with the Macmillan Speaker’s Bureau.

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Hi Danielle, welcome to Famous Writing Routines! It’s great to have you here with us today. What inspired you to write about your experiences growing up in the Children of God cult, and your journey to escape?

I started studying culture, and I realized you can’t spell culture without cult. So, I started thinking and reading a lot about that, and always thinking about the parallels of my two group experiences in the cult, then the US Army. I wanted to write more than just a “cult” book, I wanted to really have a message. Then I read a book called Educated which does a good job of modeling how to do that. So I got started, but still wasn’t sure if I wanted to blow up my life by writing a memoir.

In the summer of 2020, amidst everything else, the country learned that the body of a woman named Vanessa Guillen, an Army soldier stationed at Fort Hood and gone missing, was found. Her murderer was her supervisor, someone she had complained to friends and family about, but knew that any attempts to report him in the Army’s system would fail. Her death really impacted me hard, and I think all women veterans, and #iamvanessaguillen became our #metoo movement. 

As I was sitting in a dark room with my head in my hands, wondering what we could do to get our “brothers in arms” to stop raping and murdering us, I had a thought. “Someone is going to have to bleed their soul onto the page to tell Americans what it’s like for the daughters of America when they disappear behind the high commune walls of the Department of Defense.” And, about one second later, I realized that I was the person who could, and therefore must, tell that story. 

Uncultured coming out just after the repeal of Roe v. Wade made me realize even more how important it is that we are having these discussions about group behavior and how easy it is for toxic group behavior to spread and oppress those who have been made to be the most defenseless in our communities. 

How did your time in the military influence your perspective on toxic group behavior and leadership demagoguery?

In Uncultured, I show you two kinds of charismatic leaders. In one, you are a man I consider to be a truly transformational leader (defined as when both the follower and the leader are changed for the better by the leader/follower experience.)

In the other, you have a pretty typical charismatic narcissist. Is he as bad as the “bad Uncles” in the sex cult in the first half of the book? Not by a long shot. But do the personality traits and much of the behavior come from the same place? In my opinion, yes. I saw so, so many examples of bad or terrible leaders in the military, and a few shining examples of really great ones, and I shared a lot of leadership snippets in the story.

I think the biggest influence it’s had is that I now think of transformational charismatic leaders and charismatic narcissist leaders as two sides of the same coin. It’s something I think about a lot and will be writing about in my next book, The Culting of America. 

Can you tell us about a particularly challenging aspect of your writing journey and how you overcame it?

I had to go to a lot of very, very dark places in my past to write this book in-scene and really take you to some terrible and extreme places and show you what it’s like there. Coming down from that and going back to being a happily married wife and mother with a normal day-to-day life was quite challenging and my family was very supportive and understanding.

The actual hardest chapter to write, regardless of all the hard, triggering scenes in other parts, was chapter 17, Bring Me to Life, which is about my journey in college after the cult, and my decision to join the Army. And the reason it was so challenging was because I was still telling myself lies about why I had really joined the army–not just out of patriotism and gratitude to this country like I’d been saying, but also because of falling into a toxic relationship.

What I see today is that, though I didn’t get to pick my first cult, I joined the US Army for all the same reasons that rational people join cults all the time, as do many other service members. I had to make a decision with Chapter 17. Was I just going to throw all caution to the wind and put it all on the page and hope that I would find understanding and grace with the reader? Or was I going to stick to the story I’d been telling myself.

It felt like death, as a crack in the brainwashing often does. But I told myself, “it’s the better book”, over and over again as I got it out. And, I truly think it’s a small but extremely crucial part of the message of the book–which is that humans will do almost anything to be accepted by our groups, and that none of us are free of programming. 

Can you walk us through your creative process? What does a typical writing day look like for you?

Okay, first, I’d say, make sure you have an outline of your book BEFORE you start drafting, for just so many reasons. Plan the book, then write it. This part is hard, and a lot of people skip it, but it makes the book better. I ended up brain-dumping all my first chapters as my family drove around the country in our RV during 2020 after my current husband had just retired from the US Army. But brain dumping is different from writing.

After I sold the book proposal, I was living in my townhouse in Maryland, and my husband suggested I go up to the rooftop deck to write. I just never came back down. I surrounded my space with a bamboo privacy hedge and turned the space into a Brazilian themed beach cabana. Brazil is the place where I spent a decade in my childhood and feel very connected to.

I’m now a huge fan of power-writing/work spaces for women. Everyone would have their own version of this–but mine is fake-Brasil, which you’ll read about in the epilogue of Uncultured. Every morning, I get my coffee, kiss my daughter off to First Grade, and my husband off to his college sophomore classes, and then I climb up to the deck (I also have a beautiful indoor spot for winter with tons of house plants and an old secretary desk).

I basically step into my loft or deck and I’m no longer in my townhouse in Maryland. I even dress kind of beachy, and what giant dangly earrings I’ll wear that day is a huge part of my inspiration. After picking those and which wind chime to hang, I start with my gratitude journal and regular journal, then I read a book of something I’m interested in or teaching myself more about for about 30 minutes (and often make TikTok videos @daniellamestyanekyoung to chat about it). Then I take my toy poodle for a walk and read some poetry while drinking tea. I’m not a “flowery” writer, and I’ve never read much poetry, so I’m working on reading a little poetry everyday as just another way I can improve my writing. 

When I’m really in the zone, I start writing, and usually go for 1-3 hours, or until I need to stop for lunch. I have put a small sauna in my house, so sometimes I also go in there, or go for a workout. In the afternoon, I’m usually doing research for my next book, doing things that sell Uncultured, or doing work related to my speaking and consulting with companies on group behavior.

Because my work is all on pretty negative topics, I try to stop about an hour before I have to pick up my kid from school, and do something light that puts me in a better mood. I really like puzzles and witch/vampire novels right now, but also I paint. Often I can paint a book concept before I write it. 

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If you could have a conversation with an author throughout history about their writing routine and creative process, who would that person be?

Oh, I think I’d have to say Jane Austen. She kind of invented this concept of the “every woman”, where Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice is only described by her “fine eyes”. So, every woman reading can read as though she is Elizabeth. Learning has been a part of my personal journey in so many ways, realizing how my “extreme” stories relate to “every woman”, and of how I ultimately wrote Uncultured. Also, she invented the “marriage plot novel” in order to satirize marriage and a society that demanded it of women, so she’s just the GOAT. 

I’d love to know about the books you’re reading at the moment. What have been some of your favorite reads? 

I’m loving East Winds by Rachel Ruekert where she’s investigating the Mormon idea of marriage through her own marriage and world travel, but really she’s questioning everything. 

Divergent Mind and Invisible Women are amazing about trying to fit into a system not made for you, and how it impacts us. My book has these themes as well. 

I’m reading so many books right now for research, most about cults in some way, but also fun ones like Holly Madision’s Down the Rabbit Hole, about her time at the Playboy Mansion–all for work! 

I’m also loving Sophfronia Scotts’ Unforgivable Love, which is a retelling of Dangerous Liaisons (or Cruel Intentions) but set in Upper Class Harlem families in the late 1940s when Jackie Robinson is breaking the color line. I like to read about perspectives that I could never dream of having. 

What does your current writing workspace look like?

My vintage secretary desk faces a huge window that looks out on fake-brasil, so I’m either outside or there. I have a keyboard that looks like an old typewriter but connects to my laptop via bluetooth. I’m aware that it seems super pretentious, but the clack-clack sound is actually very soothing and works to sort of get me into the zone where the writing just flows. I could tell you a lot about cults and chanting and zoning to back this up.

I have some quotes that are very important to me, including “people don’t read your story, they read their story”, which helps me remember to always connect any concept back to every person, and they will & do connect in the reading. And plants! I have well over 100 houseplants, so it’s like a tropical jungle here and so very soothing. 

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