Journal Technique: Portrait

by Ruth Folit

Part 1, read before your write 

Much of the information in this article is a synthesis of portions of the works of two well respected authors Tristine Rainer’s The New Diary and Kathleen Adams’ Journal to the Self. The portrait journal technique is, as you might guess, a written description of a person, characterizing his or her qualities: physical, emotional, interpersonal, and intellectual.

Usually you are more willing to commit the time to write about someone if that person causes a strong reaction–either powerfully attractive or repellant. Writing the portrait helps you understand your relationship with the subject, what qualities you so strongly admire or detest. You may choose to write about a spouse, a potential lover, an adversary, a close friend, an in-law, or a boss or colleague. You may even choose to write a portrait of a character that you encounter in a dream and who has a significant impact on you.

One way to create a portrait is to simply list adjectives that describe your subject. Alternatively, you may want to free write, expressing your focused stream of consciousness thoughts and feeling about him or her. You could also write a formal essay about your subject, giving anecdotes which show the subject’s salient qualities. Or, you could create a dialog between you and the other, with the imagined interaction eliciting a clearer portrayal of the person. Any form of writing that illuminates the person’s qualities and your relationship with the subject is valuable and worth recording.

After you have written the portrait, wait a day or two and return to it. Do you have anything to add?

If you want the full experience of writing a portrait and learning about yourself in the process, for now, don’t read the next sections of this article that are below. Return to parts 2, 3 and 4 after you have chosen a person to write about and have written a full portrait.

Portrait as a Journal Technique: Part 2, after you complete Part 1

After you have written the portrait, re-read it. If there is anything else you want to include, add it now.

While re-reading the portrait, consider and list any qualities of the person that attract you, that you admire or envy. Also, make a list of any qualities that you dislike, that annoy or irritate you.

Finish this section before you go on to part 3.

Portrait as Journal Technique: Part 3, after you complete parts 1 and 2.

Write your response to these questions: Do any of the positive qualities described in the portrait suggest strengths you can see in your own character? If so, describe those overlapping qualities. Consider also that some of the positive qualities you possess that overlap with the subject’s qualities may now be present in you in a young, nascent state, and that these characteristics may blossom in you if they were encouraged.

Write your responses to the above questions, before you go on to the part 4.

Portrait as journal technique: Part 4, after you write

Do any of the negative or irksome qualities described in the portrait suggest patterns of behavior you recognize in yourself? If your first reaction is that you don’t share any of the negative qualities, spend a little time considering what might be your “shadow” side, or those parts of you which you may not want to see and accept.

Writing and then re-reading portraits allows you to see your own positive and negative qualities through “projection.” In The New Diary (pp.135-136), Rainer notes:

“Projection means seeing your own positive or negative qualities in another without realizing that what you perceive may have more to say about you than about the other person….[Y]ou may be strongly attracted to, or strongly repelled by, certain people because you project a part of your personality onto them. For example, you may be constantly irritated by a co-worker and not understand why, until you realize that the other is extremely inefficient–a quality that disturbs you about yourself….Certain people in your life may represent your potential future self. Transforming such projections into self-awareness and personal expansion is one of the major functions of the New Diary.”

A note to creative writers: You may want to use these portraits to create and flesh out characters for short stories, plays, and other fiction