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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Yes Writers, You Can Break Form

October 15, 2021 § 36 Comments

By Mary Ann McSweeny

It was one of those writing workshops after which you go home asking yourself why in Heaven’s name you ever thought you could write.

My submission to the workshop was a much-revised essay that a highly respected author had told me needed just a few tweaks to be publishable. The tweaks were made, and I was open to any final polishing suggestions that my fellow writers might propose.

The leader of the workshop said to me, “What’s it about?”

“It’s about compassion,” I said. There may have been a “duh” undertone to my words.

“Even though no one in it is compassionate?” he said. There was definitely a “gotcha” undertone to his words.

“Exactly!” I said. Because that was the whole point of the essay and I was surprised he had to ask. He sat back in his chair. The raised eyebrows revealed his judgment of me as a writer.

One of the other participants jumped in. She tapped a page of my manuscript with a glossy red fingernail. “You’ve broken form,” she said.

My head tilted. My eyebrows did their own thing: drew together in puzzlement.

“You can’t break form,” she said.

Now my head tilted a little more and my mouth dropped open.

“You. Can’t. Break. Form,” she enunciated, as if the grey in my hair also indicated a hearing loss.

Several years later, I still don’t understand what she meant about my essay, but I have reached a verdict about her emphatic, unequivocal statement. My conclusion—and it’s not an original idea—is:

Form is meant to be broken.

The Beatles. From “Love Me Do” to “Tomorrow Never Knows” was a matter of three years. Tell me about breaking form.

Bob Dylan. Who broke form by giving a pop music artist the Nobel Prize for Literature? The poet or the Nobel Committee for Literature?

Jo Ann Beard. The Fourth State of Matter breaks form by working creative nonfiction to the point where I had to look up the events to be sure they really took place. One of the most brilliant aspects of the piece is the insertion of the narrator’s imagination as a detached witness-character to relate the horrific details that didn’t happen in the writer’s physical presence.

Instinctive innovation is how I would describe breaking form. It’s as if something—perhaps Lorca’s duende, the unstoppable creative power that commands an artist—tells you the words aren’t flowing together or don’t quite express what you want to say, and so you dare to work them in a different way, your way, not a way that imitates, but a way that releases the deepest energy of your narrative.

You have to start with the basics. You have to know how to write a sentence. A simple sentence. Compound sentence. Complex sentence. Know where to place a paragraph break. Learn about tenses and points of view. Now you can break form and write run-on sentences or a stream of consciousness story or mix up tenses or switch between viewpoints, or, like Virginia Woolf, write with sympathetic understanding from the inside of a mentally unstable person’s mind, or, like Baron Wormser, intersperse quatrains with prose in a novel—on purpose.

And you have to know language. You have to understand nuances and connotations and sounds. Carlos Fuentes described Spanish as “a language that can be kidnapped, impoverished, sometimes jailed, sometimes murdered” to make the point that language cannot be separated from the people who speak it or the experiences they endure. Learn to use language as a dynamic event on the page.

When John Lennon wrote a song based on The Tibetan Book of the Dead, he probably didn’t have a notion that this song would influence the path of electronic music. He had a compulsion to turn a vision of a soul-longing into words and music. The vision and the longing and what he created from them is what I would call breaking form.

When Joan Wickersham turned the chapters of her memoir into the entries of an index as she looked for the solution to her father’s death, her willingness to break form not only avoided a predictable chronological narration, but also underscored a desperate need to bring order to the never-ending repercussions of the family tragedy of suicide. Read The Suicide Index.

When James Baldwin worked with a variety of voices—meditative, preaching, journalistic—in The Fire Next Time, each voice became a servant to his prophetic teaching. Breaking form is hardly an adequate description of his genius.

My writing tends to be pretty conventional. Subject, verb, object. But I also listen to that inner urge that sometimes presses me to take my love affair with words beyond flirtation. So here’s what I’m saying: If the experience you’re on fire to put into an essay, story, or poem demands it, ignore the reproving fingernails and the skeptical eyebrows.

Break form.


Mary Ann McSweeny is an educator and instructional designer. Her essays have appeared in The Baltimore Review, Brevity, The MacGuffin, Months to Years, and So It Goes literary journal. She is the co-author of a series of meditation books published by Liguori Publications.

Follow the Endless Dirt Road, or, Why I am Awesome: My So-Called Plan for World Domination

March 16, 2021 § 12 Comments

By Ray Hernandez

On Goofy Titles, or Why I Use Cultural References Almost Nobody Remembers.

I grew up loving Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoons. I remember that every episode ended with the announcement of the next episode’s title, which was always in two parts. So there you have it.

On Reflection, or What the Heck Just Happened?

At the end of a recent workshop with Terese Mailhot, Writing for Survival, offered through Corporeal Writing, I reflected on the experience and my next steps as a writer.

The workshop provided a safe space and insight that carried me into profoundly personal and valuable work. Even though I had been writing for a long time and have had a few previous workshop experiences, I was still uncertain I had what it takes to make art. I am full of gratitude toward my fellow workshop participants. Their feedback was consistently enlightening and generous, and, for the first time in my life, I was able to post the words “I am a writer” where others could see them.

Most of all, I am profoundly grateful to Terese, who was the best teacher I could have hoped for. She is, without question, everything she is cracked up to be, and more.

Twelve Baskets Full, or Manna from Mailhot.

Here are just a few of the many things I gleaned during our four weeks together.

For me:

  • Center yourself in the work. Honor the work and believe that it is important.
  • I am not just what happened to me; I am much more.
  • My survival is sacred. I don’t judge myself for how I survived.
  • Self-care matters. I will give myself continued support.
  • Drink more Margaritas.
  • I am a dynamic person. (Margaritas help with this)

For the work:

  • Keep making more work; eventually, I will get better.
  • Trust the reader.
  • Don’t be afraid to be direct.
  • Not every sentence has to be art. It’s okay to call a hallway a hallway; it doesn’t have to be a vestibule.
  • I have talent and voice.
  • My art is important.
  • Writing is not thankless work.

How Shall I Celebrate? Or, the Pandemic Is a Party Pooper.

We were encouraged during the workshop to celebrate our work, but in a pandemic, opportunities are severely limited. I did, however, treat myself to an excursion to my local indie bookstore. It felt good to wander amongst the shelves and see live people in three-dimensional forms.

The Endless Dusty Road, or, Nevertheless, I Persist.

Looking forward gives me pause. The road ahead of me is a lot shorter than it used to be. The end is now much closer than the beginning. My history of failures and false starts makes me hesitant to give voice to my dreams. I grew up believing that lofty aspirations were either beyond me or likely tainted by the ego and not to be trusted. While it is clear to me now that these ideas are false, they are still hard to shake.

Nevertheless, I persist. The best way to celebrate my accomplishments and honor them going forward is to choose to embrace the generosity I have received in the context of my workshop journey and to carry it with me going forward. To choose to believe that I have a measure of talent and voice. To choose to believe that I have a story to tell.

But talent, a voice, a story to tell, and encouraging words, are meaningless without continuing to do the work. For now, my primary focus is to do more and better work.

My best shot at a plan for the future:

  • Keep doing work that moves beyond testimony to art. I don’t know any other way to do this but to read a lot, write a lot, and pay careful attention along the way. Read, write, pay attention, repeat.
  • Never stop learning. Keep my eyes open for organized opportunities to grow as a writer. Don’t ignore the disorganized ones either, as they are often the best.
  • Give myself time, space, and permission to work.
  • Finish stuff.
  • Take a shot at publication; I’ll survive. And, it just might work! I want to publish a couple of essays this year while I’m working on a collection. I’d secretly like to do a book tour someday. Uh oh, I guess it’s not a secret anymore. I suppose that means I have to finish a book first. It seems like there’s always a catch.
  • Remember, writing is not thankless work; there are rewards as well.
  • Make friends along the way; I’ll need them. They’ll need me too.
  • Fight for my work. Both to get my work done and to get it seen because no one else will do it for me. It might be exhausting, but the battle is in my hands alone.

I only hope that when I achieve world domination and Oprah finally interviews me, I can still make time to hang out with Moose and Squirrel.


Ray T. Hernandez is an emerging writer living in Port Hueneme, California. He is currently working on a memoir in essays. He can be found on Twitter @RayTBlue.

First Reader

June 13, 2019 § 20 Comments

By Elizabeth Kelsey

After three years of recovering from a divorce, a surgery, and a layoff that had occurred simultaneously, I joined a writing workshop. I was the first student assigned to share my work, an essay about my estrangement with a sister, and my family’s history of mental illness and alcoholism. I was concerned about revealing vulnerable information about myself, but I was even more fearful about exposing my family. I told myself I could cross the publishing bridge if and when I came to it. For now, I had to be brave enough to share the draft with my classmates.

I’ve been a part of enough writing groups to know that the disaster-scenarios novice writers often consider rarely come true. No one was going to plagiarize my work: Writers are generally too consumed with their own stories to even think about stealing someone else’s. I wouldn’t be judged for revealing personal information: mining one’s dysfunctional background for material is par for the course. I reminded myself that a workshop setting has a high level of acceptance and confidentiality, and that the masterclass I’d joined was advanced: comprised of serious writers who’d had to apply to get accepted. If anyone knew these unwritten rules, they would.

I emailed my essay to Staples. Since I hadn’t my work in many years, even placing my order felt momentous. I was afraid of sharing vulnerable information. I’d also been wondering, if in the years between workshops, I’d lost my touch, that my classmates would inform me that I sucked.

As if to intensify my foreboding, the weather was overcast and thunder roared as I drove to pick up my copies. I whisked down my raincoat’s hood as I walked through the automatic glass doors towards the print counter.

A mountain of a young man took up the space behind the desk, his long dark hair in a ponytail.

“Name?” he asked.

“Kelsey,” I said.

He nodded, smiled, and pointed his finger in the air in a gesture of recognition, and then placed a carton on a counter. The carton’s shape reminded me of a Dunkin Donuts Munchkin box. Instead of breakfast treats, it contained something far sweeter: my work. He pressed the box’s tabs to reveal 10 copies of my essay, neatly stacked and paperclipped.

As I fumbled with my wallet, he asked what I thought of the print job.

“Very nice,” I said as I whipped out my debit card.

“It was good,” he said.

The chatter of other customers, the beeping of office equipment, suddenly ceased. I looked at him, stunned. He had read my work.

“I know I probably shouldn’t have read it,” he said. “But I saw the first page, and I couldn’t stop. I had to see what’s going to happen next!”

He didn’t pick up on my clenched jaw. In fact, he smiled, expecting me to be flattered. Speechless, I concentrated on remembering my PIN. The clerk handed me the receipt and said, “I like your writing style.”

I thought of his eyes scanning certain sentences of that essay, his mind becoming acquainted with my family in ways many of my friends, and even my psychotherapist, were not. I felt as violated as if he had touched me. But it was too late to slap his hand away.

I got in my car, shut the door, and took a deep breath. Once I drove off, I gave up my attempt to make a left turn out of the parking lot: it was too complicated. Here I was, finally revealing some of my most intimate traumas, and my first reader was the Staples clerk?

I catastrophized: Would this weird guy track down a family member and share what I’d written, disrupting a tenuous peace? Would he stalk me? I’d submitted the document by email—would he publish my unedited first draft online, destroying my copyright?

The first people I usually shared my work with were friends who were also writers. In this case, though, the process was out of order: One of my first readers had been a stranger. In therapy, I’ve explored healthy boundaries: which people to let into my life, and who to keep at bay. But as someone who writes creative nonfiction, I must reach a comfort level in which I let in anyone who reads my work—whether my dearest friend or bitterest enemy.

I considered complaining to the store.

As days passed, my horror decreased. I couldn’t believe the Staples guy admitted reading my essay, but his easy confession showed guilelessness. Perhaps he was a writer, too. In his awkward way, he was just trying to connect.

From now on, I’ll make the copies myself. But the biggest takeaway came in that terrifying moment when my classmates pulled my printed essay from their folders, ready to critique. Part of me was relieved my work had already been seen by another…and that he’d been a fan.


Elizabeth Kelsey is a member of GrubStreet’s writing community in Boston. Her essays have appeared in O, the Oprah Magazine; the Boston Globe; Eating Well; Runner’s World; and other publications. She is a commentator for Vermont Public Radio, where she focuses on topics such as the opioid epidemic, changing marijuana laws, and mental health.


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