Three things being a (failed) beauty queen taught me about being a writer


My “beauty” shot from when I entered the Miss New York National Teen-Ager Pageant 1987. Look, the 1980s were rough on everyone. 

There are a lot of seemingly unlikely things in my past. I mean, let’s get real, that Mary Kay thing was a shocker to some of you. But I was also a teenage beauty queen.

Okay, not a queen — since I never won — but I did participate participate in beauty pageants as a teen, including the Miss New York National Teen-Ager 1987 pageant held in scenic Albany, New York. (Apologies to Albany, which I actually think is a super cute city, but the height of glamour and fame New York State’s capital is not).

I entered pageants, despite my parents’ objections, for all sorts of reasons. I wanted to be famous. I wanted to be beautiful. Intensely queer, I wanted to prove I was a “real girl.” And most importantly of all — I thought if I had a certificate or award attesting to any and all of those things that other kids would stop being mean to me.

Thanks, you can stop laughing now. Because I know what a three-diamond turn is and you don’t.

Anywayjust like that Mary Kay business, being a beauty queen also ran has taught me a few things about writing, publishing, and staying sane.

1. Much like I was a girl because I identified as a girl, you are a writer if you write. Period. End of discussion. You are a writer before you get published. You are a writer after you get published. You are a writer whether you write romance or literary fiction or poetry or personal essay or trivia books about Harry Potter (my first book!) or Duran Duran (Neil Gaiman’s first book!). People who don’t think you’re a real writer because of their genre biases or inability to remember we all enter life unpublished are not worth trying to win over.

2. Lots of parts of the publishing process are fun, but not that many of them are glamorous. The sequin dresses may have been fun, but still Albany. Not exactly where I was going to get discovered, even if Halle Berry once competed in that very same pageant system (that’s true!). Similarly, most of us aren’t going to be J.K. Rowling or another one of those out-of-the-gate hits (also out-of-the-gate hits usually have a long backstory; instant success is not only rare but rarer than we often think). This game is incremental and often relies on — in addition to talent — time, luck, and a robust back catalogue. Also paperwork, copy edits, and more administrativa than anyone wants to think about.

3. Not all awards are created equal. In Pageant Land, there’s Miss America, Miss USA, and then there is everyone else. The land of book awards isn’t dissimilar. Compete if you enjoy competing. Compete if you think there is a business benefit to doing so. Compete if you can afford the entry fees and feel what you get in exchange is valuable to you. Don’t feel bad if you don’t want to compete, can’t afford to compete, or compete and don’t win. You’re still a real writer, doing real writer things because you’re making words and wearing sequins dealing with all the glamour of being a writer — currently published or not!

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