My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands. Today’s guest is Rachael Hanel, the author of We'll Be the Last Ones to Let You Down: Memoir of a Gravedigger's Daughter (University of Minnesota Press). Memoirist Alison Bechdel calls it “Mesmerizing!” and novelist and memoirist Nicole Helget says the book “gently untucks dying, death, and mourning from the dark recesses of the drawer we Midwesterners, descendants of the stoic and neat, have kept it.” Hanel’s work has been published in Bellingham Review and New Delta Review, and an essay was selected as a “Notable Essay” in the 2012 Best American Essays. She lives in Mankato, Minnesota and blogs at We'll Be the Last Ones to Let You Down. Click here to visit her website.
The First Chapter I Wrote
My book started in a creative nonfiction classroom at Minnesota State University, Mankato, in 2000. I was not an MFA student—I was getting my M.A. in history while working as a reporter at the Mankato Free Press. Even though I was 25 years old, I only had vague notions of what an MFA was. I was a journalist, after all, not a creative writer. Heaven forbid that I mix the two.
But on the top was a bronze clasp, a clasp irresistible to my young fingers. I opened that clasp—a larger version of a locket a mother would wear around her neck—and found a photo. The photo was of a teenager named Vicki. She had pink cheeks and red hair. She looked vibrant and healthy, and I couldn’t imagine someone like her being dead.
In my writing class, I started to think about what it meant for me at age four or five to suddenly understand that death was not reserved for old, sick people—teenagers like Vicki could die, too. The more I thought about my days in the cemetery with Dad, the more I realized there were many more stories like Vicki’s that influenced me and shaped my perspective on life, death, and loss. A book was born.
Now, 13 years later, I hold the book in my hand. I had to work on it in fits and spurts while I focused on other priorities: graduate school, work, my family, running marathons. But the stories were always there, insistent, nagging at me. I knew even in 2000 that the entire narrative would emerge at some point; I didn’t know when or how. I just had to have confidence that it would happen. Some writers know early in the process when they have a story that’s worth writing, and nothing will keep them away from it when they reach that point.