Lynn Melnick “Had to Think Up a Way to Survive” in Nonfiction Debut

For nearly all of us, there’s a song – or a lyric, or string of notes – that unlocked something inside we didn’t know we needed, that helped us make it through whatever we were facing at that moment. For Lynn Melnick, author of I’ve Had to Think Up a Way to Survive, that experience came at age fourteen, when Dolly Parton played on the speakers while Melnick sat in the triage room of a West Los Angeles hospital, waiting to be admitted to a drug rehab program.

Being raped at age nine had sent her down a self-destructive path – toward alcohol, cocaine, getting kicked out of school and other (self-described) reckless behavior – and her attempts to cover it all up had finally been exposed. “I’d worked hard since [the rape] to convince the outside world to join me in giving up on my potential,” Melnick writes. “But Dolly’s voice from the hospital’s ceiling speakers held a different kind of promise than that which I’d failed to meet. It was a release, a renewal, euphoric.”

In her latest book – her first work of nonfiction – Melnick recounts her life through the lens of Parton’s music, which provided the inspiration to get clean, finish her degree, go to grad school, land a job in publishing, get married, become a mother and finally face the traumas of her life head-on, through therapy and poetry. (Her three collections of poems focus heavily on the abuse she has endured.)

“I’ve had to think up a way to survive” is the opening line from The Grass Is Blue, on Parton’s 1999 album of the same name, which won a Grammy for best bluegrass album. “Up,” Melnick writes, “implies survival methods will need to be invented from whole cloth, that survival is a creative act.”

In her own way, Melnick conveys her survival in these pages. Each chapter corresponds to a different Dolly Parton song on Melnick’s personal playlist that she ties to a larger theme – patriarchy, rape culture, feminism, abortion, religion, sex work and more – recounting her life experiences accordingly, although many of the connections are a stretch. “Writing this book has been an act of defiant joy, despite all the sadness,” she writes.

The book doesn’t progress linearly like a conventional memoir; instead, it jumps from one experience to another, often involving many traumas at once. It’s scattered, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Who’s to say how a person’s story ought to be organized, especially when trauma is involved? If you can accept this, then you can come to terms with the reality of trauma; it lives on long after the event is over and is as much a part of our present and future as it was our past.

There is rich texture in the details Melnick shares of her life, which she weaves into Parton’s history and the backstory of each song, with Parton’s hardships and struggles as much an inspiration to Melnick as the star’s thrilling success. But while Melnick offers insight into what occurred to her, often through vivid recounts of the traumatic experiences, readers are left without the depth of how she handled it and moved forward.

I picked this up hoping for Menick’s journey of survival, expecting to read a narrative of triumph over trauma and the “way” she overcame it. The book jacket hails Melnick’s trip to Dollywood as a sort of pilgrimage of healing, a central event in the book during a particularly grueling time for Melnick, but it is only briefly mentioned. The book itself is more about Melnick’s reaction to the songs analytically than how her life ties into them, or how they influenced her. She keeps the lens pointed straight at Parton, giving more a biography of the music star and a musical analysis than her own memoir. Page after page is filled with Dolly’s story, the background of the songs, and what Parton endured, with snippets of Melnick’s story sprinkled in.

It’s part memoir, but mostly biography and tribute to Dolly, with a heavy dose of musical criticism and analysis. It was delivered in a spectacular way, just not as advertised.

This is absolutely the book for any Dolly Parton fan, full of anecdotes and intricate history of The Leading Lady of Country. It was empowering and inspiring to read the stories of these women (Parton and Melnick) and to know they have made something of the ashes left when others lit a match.

Expect a trigger on almost every page. There are vivid recounts of sexual assault and rape, as well as domestic violence and other traumas, often popping out at unsuspecting times. Although painful, Melnick’s are experiences that must be told so that they can no longer hold power. “There is such power in telling our stories,” Melnick writes. “This is how we change the culture; inch by inch we let the light in.”

And maybe that’s the way of survival: just making it through, enjoying whatever can be found along the way.

I’ve Had to Think Up a Way to Survive
By Lynn Melnick
University of Texas Press
Published on October 4, 2022