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 essays 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


“Sharply detailed but hauntingly universal, THE BRITTANYS encapsulates a moment in time for those who have lived it and introduces those who haven’t to an entire world underneath the carefully manicured surface of suburban teenage girlhood. The details Ackerman chooses to leave out are just as important and telling as the ones her narrator obsesses over, creating an achingly solipsistic narrative. Ackerman deftly captures that exquisite contradiction of female adolescence, the simultaneous yearning both to stand out and to disappear.”

Eleanor Kriseman author of THE BLURY YEARS

“Honest, funny, and totally engrossing, THE BRITTANYS chronicles the freshman year of one of five Brittanys at a suburban prep school in the early 2000s. Author Brittany Ackerman’s most impressive feat is transforming the unspectacular, everyday events and humiliations of teenagehood into a fascinating and heartfelt narrative. Somehow, she’s captured that special blend of nostalgia and cringe that you can otherwise only find by flipping through a high school yearbook.”

Maria Adelmann author of GIRLS OF A CERTAIN AGE

“The Brittanys. Teenage girls who really have everything: youth, beauty, swimming pools, and private school. And so much pressure. I read Brittany Ackerman’s page-turning debut novel THE BRITTANYS with my heart on my sleeve.”

Marcy Dermansky author of VERY NICE

“Full of brilliantly-rendered awkwardness and the hilarious minor horrors of a privileged adolescence, THE BRITTANYS shimmers with the everyday incandescence of youth—car rides and homework, tampons and eyeliner, questionable fashion choices. Ackerman writes convincingly and empathetically about fourteen-year-old girls caught in that painful, exhilarating span of becoming. For anyone who has ever dyed their own hair, worn an absurd outfit, had a crush on someone ridiculous, or said the wrong thing—in other words, for anyone who was once a teenager—this book is for you.”

Kimberly King Parsons author of BLACK LIGHT

“I’ve never read any book that captures so perfectly all the sweet and bitter and mess and tenderness and hard lessons in being fourteen. Nor the highly specific, totally unfakeable feeling of the year 2004. Brittany Ackerman must have kept the most detailed diary. Her voice in THE BRITTANYS, naive yet seeing all, looking both forward and backward, always figuring and looking for wisdom. I found every page of this book to be the perfect mix of entertaining, satisfying, questioning, and moving. It glows with Ackerman’s love for her characters. I could have stayed inside it forever.”

Sarah Gerard author of TRUE LOVE

"I wouldn’t change anything about this class. The way you teach and listen to your students is already up to par in my standards. As a person, I always normally work alone, but this class has helped open up to people and make some friends, and become closer with friends I’ve had."

former student

"This class really helped my listening skills tremendously, for everything we talked about was very informative."

former student

"My favorite thing about this class was that you, as a teacher, are very insightful...You’re a really cool teacher, and I definitely want to take a class taught by you again. "

former student

"I just wanted to quickly say thank you for how honest and helpful you have been with not only myself but all of us in class. It is truly a great way to start my week having you as my first class of the week on Mondays. I hope you get a lot of these emails because you deserve them. It is really inspiring having you as one of my teachers."

former student