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The Adopted Writer

A search to find her biological parents – and a learning journey at the Writer’s Studio fuel Julie Ryan McGue’s unexpected literary career.

Julie McGue

Julie Ryan McGue never held starry-eyed dreams of becoming a published author.

In fact, McGue’s jump into literary waters only occurred after a frenetic five-year odyssey to find her birth parents and pronounced coaxing from her mother-in-law.

Adopted along with her twin sister, Jenny, as an infant, McGue hungered to learn more about her family history after a breast biopsy at age 48 ignited concerns about hereditary health factors.

To capture that information, however, McGue first had to find her biological parents, an exhaustive search that would come to include a seasoned genealogist, a private investigator, and a confidential intermediary as well as the disapproving nod of her adopted mother. Eventually, McGue found her birth mother – a woman uninterested in being discovered, it’s worth noting – as well as her father and siblings. With more information about her biological families’ health histories in hand, McGue assumed that was that.

Only it wasn’t. Another adventure awaited.

Taking her shot

Whenever McGue detailed the zigs and zags of her experience to others, earnest curiosity followed. Though many encouraged McGue to pursue a book, she shrugged off those suggestions. People just being nice, she reasoned. Plus, McGue had no literary credentials to her name.

Enter McGue’s mother-in-law, a long-time reminiscence writer who assured McGue she had a tale worth sharing and urged her to enroll in classes at the University of Chicago’s Writer’s Studio. Though timid and admittedly uncertain, McGue heeded her mother-in-law’s advice.

Convinced an inspired-by-real-life-events story would be the most feasible pursuit, McGue assumed she’d take her shot at penning a novel rather than a memoir. She enrolled in a novel writing course led by heralded scribe Eileen Favorite and followed that initial course with a “smorgasbord” of other Writer’s Studio courses covering everything from penning memoirs to personal essays.

“I went in all different directions,” McGue says. “I’d always been a journaler, but the idea of writing for others was something I had to wrap my head around.”

Gaining clarity and confidence

With each class and guidance from Writer’s Studio instructors like Favorite, Dina Elenbogen, and Susan Hubbard, McGue gained clarity and purpose. She grew more confident in her voice and her material. She also ditched the idea of a novel in favor of a memoir detailing her complicated quest to discover her biological parents. The real story, she says, simply proved too impactful to ignore.

“Adoption is a universal topic,” she says. “Everyday, people are finding their birth parents or relatives they never knew they had and there is an innate curiosity from people to learn more about these stories.”

Calling the Writer’s Studio “the perfect place at the perfect time,” McGue relished instruction that elevated her craft and in-person critique sessions enabling her to monitor the reactions of classmates to specific passages.

“In the classroom with others, you can tell off the bat if something is resonating with people by looking at their body language and their reactions,” McGue says. “That helps move your writing forward.”

And for the first time in her life, McGue began seeing herself as a writer.

“That was empowering, and it pushed me forward,” McGue says.

Building a literary life

With her memoir in process, McGue created an author website and started a blog on which she regularly published essays on adoption and identity. That work served a powerful platform for the 2021 launch of McGue’s debut book, Twice a Daughter: A Search for Identity, Family, and Belonging (She Writes Press).

“I wrote the book to enlighten people in and out of the adoption triangle about this process, particularly adoptees who are trying to figure out if they want to embark upon this saga themselves or not,” says McGue, who now splits her time between Northwest Indiana and Florida.

McGue has not stopped there, however, emerging a prominent voice on adoption and a prolific writer committed to her craft. Her second book, a collection of her own published essays titled Belonging Matters: Conversations on Adoption, Family, and Kinship, is slated to drop in November this year to coincide with National Adoption Awareness Month. Meanwhile, another memoir, a tale about her experiences growing up in a blended Irish Catholic family, is on pace for a 2024 release.

“For the 6-8 million adoptees in the U.S. and the millions more connected to those individuals – parents, siblings, spouses, significant others, and more – adoption is an important issue to explore and examine,” McGue says. “My hope is that my writing offers valuable perspective and insights that help individuals navigate this world.”

Daniel P. Smith

Freelance Writer

Daniel P. Smith is a freelance writer at the Graham School.

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