Behind the Words: Katrina Knebel

Posted by on Sep 14, 2018 in Uncategorized | Comments Off on Behind the Words: Katrina Knebel

Katrina Knebel’s Saturday’s Treaties was published in the fifth issue of Spry Literary Journal. Here she talks with general reader J.G.C. Wise on writing and life. 

J.G.C. Wise: In “Saturday’s Treaties,” you do a tremendous job of detailing what seems a somewhat routine conflict for the protagonist. What was it that drew you to this subject matter?

Katrinia Knebel: Routine was really the thing that I wanted my audience to think about.  Particularly, the conflicting nature of routine—how in some moments we cleave to it and in the next are repelled by it.  (My daily routine of waking up a five AM to go for a run would be case in point here.)  How often we want to break free from the suffocations of routine (I need a vacation) and in the next want to return back to our old ways (I’m ready to go home). How routine has both the capacity to assuage us in our darkest moments or the opposite—prevent us from growing, becoming, and/or breaking out of a cycle of discontent.  It probably comes as no surprise, but at the time I wrote this, I was feeling pretty discontented not only with my marriage but also by the insipidness of routine itself.  So at the risk of sounding cliché, I must confess that this work definitely sprung from my own experience of conflict within a relationship. I was thinking at the time about the difficulty of seeing a relationship objectively when we are in the thick of turmoil.  That is, how hard it is to discern whether or not the habits of the relationship are categorically healthy or unhealthy, since even in a definitively bad relationship, there are these good parts as well, something there that compelled you to love that particular person. Deciding whether or not, then, to stick with a person becomes a rather impossible equation to solve: do the moments of bad plus the good add up to something positive and worth sticking with?  Or rather is it time to subtract your losses, abandon your established routines, and “live in your mother’s basement.” 

What about second person present tense do you feel makes this piece work?

I like the reflective nature of second person, and I think it works in the piece because the protagonist is dealing with an inner turmoil.  Speaking in second person, it’s as if the protagonist is observing as an outsider the actions and ruminating on them, rather than performing them directly herself.  There is a feeling of disembodiment created by the second person.  It’s as if the protagonist is just going through the motions, trying to find distractions in those actions in order to avoid the crux of the conflict.  The second person also ties in to the performance of routine.  We use the word “you” when we speak of ritual, when we speak of an action that gets repeated, when we speak of how something is typically performed.  First, you do this, then you do that.  In that way, I think the second person works.

What is it that draws you to flash fiction? Do you write any other styles?

I love the conciseness of flash and the close attention that it pays to syntax.  As a writer, I work quite methodically, and I think a lot about the micro level of my writing, sometimes too much, sometimes to my detriment.  I have a tendency to get hung up in details, which means that I produce writing rather slowly.  Flash is fun to write because there is immediate gratification, and it just feels more manageable.  And due to its shortness, it creates a freedom that allows you to play and experiment with the language.  You can get in, fumble around as much as you want, and still find your way out.  I have often thought that I should write poetry because of my meticulous nature as a writer and because I am so organizationally challenged—I really struggle at the macro level—but I prefer writing in prose, and I think I have a better ear for it.  Over the past few years, I have constructed quite a complicated body of short works, and right now I am working on a manuscript of short lyrical creative nonfiction essays, which is what I primarily write.  I write a lot of memoir, but I also like to write about subjects that just fascinate me: abandoned mines, otters, zebra mussels, butchering chickens, etc.  Anyway, I am feeling pretty lost in my collection, which I am trying to thread together.  I’m currently stuck in a labyrinth, trying to find the path to the goblin king.  The central thread of my manuscript remains elusive.

What does your writing process look like?

It looks like crap.  I am a divorced mom with two children, high school English teacher, Writing Center director, Writing Club sponsor, Poetry Slam Team coach, and, unfortunately, it seems like I am a writer last.  Nevertheless, I like to work on Sundays.  I need to start early in the morning; otherwise, I’ll never sit my ass down at the desk.  I’ll find a million other things to do instead.  But once I’m in it, I go into hyper-focus mode and can sit for hours.  In fact, I have a hard time stopping, reemerging to meet a friend for dinner (and make it there on time), fold the baskets of laundry on my couch, take a much-needed shower.  As a writer, what I really need is a long period of distraction-free time, so the summer is a good time for me to actually get things accomplished.          

How do you know when you’ve finished a piece?

I feel like I never know, but fortunately literary journals have deadlines and word counts.  These parameters help me to find a stopping point. 

How does being a teacher inform your writing?

I learn a lot working with high school students who can be unforgivably honest, who wear their hearts on their sleeves, who challenge me every day to really pay close attention.  And I have written a few things that speak directly to my experiences as a teacher and the students whom I have had the opportunity to come to know well.  One thing that I learn from my student writers is that it is hard, complicated work, but so rewarding when you get it right.  Another thing about high school writing is that it can be really raw, especially the work of my slam team poets.  And I didn’t really think of “rawness” as an important characteristic in writing until these past few years.  But rawness especially when coupled with gorgeous writing, can, I think, make a work pop (for lack of a better word) where others just blend in amidst the heap of other decent works.  Working with young writers has made me think about this aspect in relation to art.  What is the quality about works like How Should a Person Be by Sheila Heti or Call me Zebra by Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi or even I Love Dick or Transparent that engage me in a way where other works do not?  It is the raw portrayal of characters who come to feel more real and authentic by its inclusion.  Oftentimes, writers shy away from this aspect in their work from fear of being too crude or coming off too intensely.  (Insanely perhaps?) But sometimes that act of omission (or of fibbing) distances the reader, and it might be the very place where the real meat of the story lies. Of course, there is always the mistake of overkill and I’ve read many a high school story that was way too raw for my taste.  But done well, I think this can be a great quality in a work.

What’s one piece of advice you’d give to a writer just starting out?

Quit your job and marry for money.  Really I’m not sure.  It’s really not something I would recommend for others just as I wouldn’t recommend that one go into teaching right now.  It’s brutal.  I guess finding my people, a community of writers, was key to me in becoming a writer.  I didn’t really start thinking of myself as writer until I took a few Creative Writing classes and actually had a real audience.  From there, I started sending out work to editors who became my new audience.  (My very first piece of writing was published in Spry, and I will always remember that.)  I also became good buddies with one of my former writing professors along with some other local writers, and I realized that I need these people so much as a writer.  They check in on me and keep me writing by having the expectation that I am writing.  They make the work not feel utterly meaningless because many times I question why I even do this. 

J.G.C. Wise is a writer and bartender with an MFA in creative writing from Fairfield University. His work has appeared in The Curator, Baeble Music, Surrounded by the Sound, and Spry Literary Journal, among others. His essay, “End Stage Renal Delay” was a runner up in Welcome Table Press’s Essaying the Body Electric and the manuscript for his as-yet unpublished memoir, Fall Risk, received the Top of the Mountain Book Award through the Northern Colorado Writer’s Conference. He lives in Brooklyn, NY with his dog, Percy.