Online | Nonfiction | Seminar

1-Day Nonfiction Seminar: The Portrait Essay

Portrait writing focuses on one aspect of life: a person, place, thing, or sometimes an idea. This type of writing allows us to present a personality or a persona to the reader by playing with tone and voice.

In a way, all writing is portrait writing. Observing and bearing witness to histories, traumas, life’s joys and sadnesses, we create monoliths of the experiences. The Portrait Essay can be an access point for writers to find the grounds on which to begin to share their stories. In JELL-O Girls, Allie Rowbottom writes the story of JELL-O; but below the surface we come to know her family history, the generational trauma, the female bonds that held and carried her through to now. In Sunshine State, Sarah Gerard explores Florida’s environmental threats and economic pitfalls; but the collection is also a personal narrative on Gerard’s youth and what Florida means to her as a place to call home.

In this one-day course, writers will explore an essay from John Green's collection The Anthropocene Reviewed: Essays on a Human-Centered Planet in order to spur ideas for an experimental essay form. We will discuss how Green uses image, language, reflection, tone, and voice in order to go beyond the superficial and dig deep into a reflective space where we will write our own portraits.

The goal of the two-hour class, open to nonfiction writers with all levels of experience, is to help writers generate subject driven pieces that may stand alone or fit into a larger collection of creative nonfiction. Students will leave this class for ideas to continue writing portrait essays on their own time.

Our class platform works best on laptop or desktop computers. Class meetings will be held over video chat, using Zoom accessed from your private class page. While you can use Zoom from your browser, we recommend downloading the desktop client so you have access to all platform features. The Zoom calls will have automated transcription enabled. Please let us know ([email protected]) if you have any questions or concerns about accessibility. 

Check out this page for details about payment plans and discount opportunities.  


- Identifying and distilling singular subjects for writing

- Exploring how writers might include personal experience and supportive research into their writing

- Using mini-essays as a progression or working toward one larger piece

- 10% discount on all future Catapult classes


No pre-work or reading is required for this class.


Together, we will read excerpts from The Anthropocene Reviewed, then complete an in-class writing prompt. At the end of class, writers will receive a take-home prompt to complete on their own time so they have ideas to continue writing portrait essays.

Brittany Ackerman

Brittany Ackerman is a writer from Riverdale, New York. She earned her BA in English from Indiana University and graduated from Florida Atlantic University’s MFA program in Creative Writing. She teaches General Education at AMDA College and Conservatory of the Performing Arts in Hollywood, CA. She was the 2017 Nonfiction Award Winner for Red Hen Press, as well as the AWP Intro Journals Project Award Nominee in 2015. Her work has been featured in Electric Literature, Jewish Book Council, Lit Hub, Entropy, The Los Angeles Review, No Tokens, Hobart, Cosmonauts Ave, and more. Her first collection of essays entitled The Perpetual Motion Machine was published with Red Hen Press in 2018, and her debut novel The Brittanys is out now with Vintage.

Photo: Carl McLaughlin