The Importance of “Personal Story”

June 30, 2022 § 7 Comments

By Julie Ryan McGue

In the fall of 2017, I was in the hot seat. Several chapters of my memoir were up for critique before a writer’s group I had joined through the University of Chicago Writer’s Studio. Prior to the session, I’d emailed my classmates a synopsis of my work-in-progress and twelve pages of material from the midpoint of my adoption search journey. The chapters dealt with the pivotal moment when my birth mother denied contact with me. While this section of the memoir had been percolating in my head for months, the words were fresh on the printed page. My expectation was that the workshop would expose what was working in the draft, highlight what might be confusing to the reader, and reveal areas needing revision.

Any writer who has been workshopped knows that presenting their work is not for the emotionally fragile or vulnerable. To receive critique, writers are warned ahead of time to check their egos at the door. Often during the peer review process, the writer being workshopped scribbles notes while fellow wordsmiths carve up their manuscript. In many workshops, the writer is discouraged from entering the discussion. With many craft classes under my belt, I had thus far survived this kind of creative scrutiny without hiring a therapist.

Once our class settled in, I pulled out my stapled chapters and introduced my draft, explaining that it was from a memoir-in-progress about the five-year search for my birth relatives.

A young man, about the age of my oldest daughter, injected a loud query. “What do you consider your story to be about?” 

My head snapped away from the excerpt I was about to deliver. The question dumbfounded me. Either my classmate had not read what I’d provided before the class, or I had failed to effectively explain the scope of my work.

Blinking hard in his direction, I found my voice. “This is about my search for ‘personal story.’” 

“What does that mean?” my colleague volleyed back.

I set my pen down and wiped my palms on my khakis. Twelve sets of eyes bored in on me as I explained that my search for “personal story” meant learning basic information about my biological parents, my ancestors, and exploring my sense of self.

For the next few minutes, I described how “personal story” is a catch-all term that adoptees use to incorporate the details of their lives both before and after adoption. Until I found my birth relatives, my “personal story” held only the facts specific to my adoptive family: a German and Irish Catholic couple from the western suburbs of Chicago with infertility issues. In 2014, shortly after I turned fifty-five, my “personal story” filled in with fresh details: a family farm in Minnesota; blood that contains Chippewa and Cree Indian; ancestors who were not Catholic but Messianic Jews. It had taken me fifty years to assemble the hodge-podge of facts that described all of who I was and who I have come to be.

I went on to say that for most folks, “personal story” is a given, a privilege, a right that is presumed or taken for granted. While adoption law varies across the country, in many states the privacy rights of the birth and adoptive parents still preclude the adoptee’s right to know. For adoptees like me, from closed adoptions, the possession of basic genealogy or family medical history is a need so profound that until we possess it, it’s buried neatly next to other impossible desires like winning the lottery or owning an island.

Writers, sometimes your classmates’ questions will hijack your workshop discussion. I’d entered class expecting to hear what word choices were off, where I might have missed a comma, and where I should start a new paragraph. But I quickly realized that to engage my audience, they first needed to understand the narrator. Plopping my classmates into part two of my memoir had cheated them out of essential backstory. If I could do this over again, I would have presented an earlier chapter for context, and one from the midpoint of my story on which I craved feedback.  

While my writing group didn’t offer much discussion about the words that I’d presented, I exited our session with their written critiques to review at home. In turn, I left them with something new consider: the importance of possessing a “personal story.”

JULIE RYAN MCGUE is the author of the award-winning adoption search memoir, Twice a Daughter: A Search for Identity, Family, and Belonging. In her weekly blog,Julie writes about finding out who you really are, where you come from, and making sense of it. She is currently working on a collection of essays and a second memoir. Follow her at

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§ 7 Responses to The Importance of “Personal Story”

  • Carole Duff says:

    Loved your memoir, Julie, and thank you for this post.

  • Wonderful! I have four adopted children. At least one of them has already expressed interest in finding out their personal story and I’ve promised to help him when he turns 18.

  • Teachable moments are far more important, IMO. Readers cannot review fairly with so little knowledge. The more “non-adoptees” we can enlighten the better!

  • Another lesson from this useful essay is to know where you are in the writing process. This writer knew.

    Early critique—reader response—while grammar and sentence structure may come into it, primarily concerns overall impact of the text—appeal, structure, sense. Does the reader want more information? less? the story to be organized differently? That’s where the young man was.

    Line editing—punctuation, paragraphing, sentence structure, etc.—comes late in the editing process and assumes the writing is already complete. This was what the author was looking for.

    That young man did “hijack” critique by challenging the writer’s right to the story.

    (Editing another’s work, even as part of a writing group is an exchange of labor and should be respected as such. Though retired, I still sometimes read and edit applications and other work for former students. Too often, “young” writers assume they are further along in the editing process than they are, and yet will resist learning as they go along—failing to correct grammar and rethink chronology, or condensing or expanding. For example, a self-published novel that I had edited several times contains grammatical errors and other issues pointed out in earlier drafts. I was not the only beta reader, but the author failed to thank anyone for their reading. Just as well.)

  • Elaine says:

    Thanks for sharing.

  • poxigtheelf says:

    As a U of C alum, I can understand the weighty and penetrating glare of fellow students. It is awfully hard to share stories, and to ‘check one’s ego.’ But your story helped me to see that this is necessary. Thanks for posting!

  • Ah, you think you know how a reader will receive your work, how a critique session will go. There’s always something to derail you. Thanks for this comforting reminder, Julie. Shared on Twitter.

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