Portrait Essays


I find Creative non fiction a challenge. My hermit crab essay – for which we were supposed to write an essay in a given ‘shell’ – form – from a source text, was a mess that I got a C, my first and only grade from this course. Somehow, the ‘shell’ really confused me.

Following the Hermit Crab essay, we were to do a portrait essay through an interview. The interviewee should preferably not be someone whom you are related to, close to , or work with. Imagine someone sitting for an artist for a portrait. That’s what we had to do, except not visually, but through written words after interviewing the person.

In the book ‘You Can’t Make This Stuff Up’ by Lee Gutkind,  he writes : First you are watching them,  taking notes,  and always thinking about how you’ll capture them in words on paper…. They’re on your mind day and night while you’re just a fleeting memory to them when the article is finished.



My lecturer told us that an interviewer is in a powerful position – you ask questions to your interviewee that you would not ask your friends/relatives. Of course, the interviewee does not have to reply, but surprisingly most do. I had already conducted my interview then and I thought what he said was really true.
In class, we were made to practise by interviewing our peers. We got 10 minutes each to interview and then to write a short profile of each other, before presenting it to the class. The time constraint for spontaneous essay indeed was stressful.

I was paired to Subject A, only because of the geographical distance of our seats in class. Otherwise, unknown to my lecturer, we had chatted often and I was rather familiar with her. She had asked me about Ajahn Brahm when she heard I had worked at Brahm Centre and we shared information of the retreats, as I had just returned from a silent retreat in Bali. Still, I was surprised by the amount of intimate information she shared, like the sudden death of her stepfather which lead her to re-examine her life. Here is what i presented in class:

I feel an instant connection to A as I sat across her. Shy and soft spoken, yet intense in how she shared honestly with me within five minutes of our conversation. At twenty-nine, A tells me she wants to be a better human being by improving her character. She feels she is judgmental. She wants to be more mindful and be more appreciative, and learn what her intention in life is. She does this by reading Buddhism books and going to retreats. I can’t believe this young lady just articulated who I was just two years ago, except I am almost twice her age.

Gutkind says: Sometimes, you never know if your subject resent or appreciate your work-and why. 

And so,  I made it a point to ask A what she thought of my profile of her. She replied that ‘it was great!’. 

Coincidentally, the interviewee for the actual portrait essay, my yoga teacher, is similarly spiritual. Our interview went on for two-hours and he tried his darnest to answer every questions, some of which was so vague that I myself have no answer to. (I had googled for the questions!) I even found some simple questions difficult, as I don’t really know myself very well. Perhaps that’s why I find the know yourself quiz in The Bitecharge Daily so interesting. I was hoping for some answers from there.

He liked my profile of him too. Perhaps both my interviewees were too polite. 

A visiting professor I showed the essay to wasn’t impressed and suggested I rewrite. He felt I had put my yoga teacher into a box, into which was how I felt a yoga teacher should be, instead of showcasing him as the interesting personality he is who just happens to be a yoga teacher. 

The lecturer  was right.  I had wanted the readers to feel they would like to join his yoga class after reading it. I hadn’t done justice to the man in the portrait. 

I have learned so much after doing both these portraits that I all I want to do is to do more interviews and portraits. I am amazed that both these interviewees, who are much younger than me, are constantly seeking self-improvements through frequent introspection.

When I was twenty-nine, I was already a mother of two toddlers and juggling a full time job that required regional travel. I didn’t have the time nor the energy for self-reflections. For the next decade or so, I devoted myself to child rearing, and was almost the helicopter mother. I wanted my sons to be a better version of their mother, but I wasn’t presenting the best of myself to them. As I approached middle-age, the stress of how I was living my life started to make me ponder. And I have been pondering since, although not as often as I want.

There is just too much distraction in my external life to allow for any introspection. But I shall get there soon.

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About vickychong

Just an ordinary woman.
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