I've Had to Think Up a Way to Survive
On Trauma, Persistence, and Dolly Parton
Sales Date: October 4, 2022
A moving and essential exploration of what it takes to find your voice as a woman, a survivor, an artist, and an icon.
The first time Lynn Melnick listened to a Dolly Parton song in full, she was 14 years old, in the triage room of a Los Angeles hospital, waiting to be admitted to a drug rehab program. Already in her young life as a Jewish teen in the 1980s, she had been the victim of rape, abuse, and trauma, and her path to healing would be long. But in Parton’s words and music, she recognized a fellow survivor.
In this powerful, incisive work of social and self-exploration, Melnick blends personal essay with cultural criticism to explore Parton’s dual identities as feminist icon and objectified sex symbol, identities that reflect the author’s own fraught history with rape culture and the arduous work of reclaiming her voice. Each chapter engages with the artistry and impact of one of Parton’s songs, as Melnick reckons with violence, misogyny, creativity, parenting, friendship, sex, love, and the consolations and cruelties of religion. Bold and inventive, I’ve Had to Think Up a Way to Survive gives us an accessible and memorable framework for understanding our times and a revelatory account of survival, persistence, and self-discovery.
It is a mighty task to write generously, robustly, and imaginatively about Dolly Parton, who already exists so broadly at the intersection of many American imaginations, all of them flourishing and fluorescent. But what Lynn Melnick has managed is beyond mere tribute, and beyond biography--it is a rich, close reading of multiple lives that sometimes find themselves touching. The narratives in this book are masterfully presented and do justice not only to the life of its central subject but also to the life of its writer.
— Hanif AbdurraqibLynn Melnick’s new book is an ode to storytelling itself, how it keeps us alive and makes our lives more worth living, whether in music, poems, or even a biographical memoir that winds two stories together to make something stronger and more beautiful than either would be alone. A gorgeous and heartrending story of survival.
— Melissa FebosA riveting blend of cultural criticism and memoir...In her quest to 'be more Dollylike, rising again and again from the embers of expectation,' Melnick offers a gorgeous story of survival and self-discovery. Die-hard Dolly fans won’t want to miss this.
— Publishers Weekly, starred review
I’ve Had to Think Up a Way to Survive is more than an artful memoir; it is thought-provoking cultural analysis of a beloved icon whose relevance endures.
[Melnick] writes with remarkable vulnerability and candor yet ensures that the often-painful memories she relates don’t cloud her critical gaze. She moves gracefully between confessional and analytical registers, her prose both sharp and full of heart.
— The AtlanticDiscarding the societal demand to keep quiet about her own trauma, Melnick structures the book as an inquiry into the music of Dolly Parton that 'unmired' her when she first found herself in a drug rehab program as a teenager in the 1980s. It’s Dolly Parton’s music that offers transcendence in Melnick’s life from then on, and she scrutinizes Dolly’s songs and their personal and cultural impact in a mixture of biography, critical investigation, music journalism, social history, and invocation. 'It’s a refusal of secrets,' Melnick writes in the final chapter about a song that Dolly is singing, but this is also a perfect summation of her book.
— BOMB MagazineThere 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...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.
— Southern Review of BooksThis book revels unabashedly in the turmoil of both women’s lives. Like Dolly’s voice, Melnick’s tone is casual and joyous, yet still defiant, cogently seeking commonality between its two subjects and showing how she and Parton have each performed their womanliness—and all its concomitant mess...Carefully researched and at times uncomfortably honest, I’ve Had to Think Up a Way to Survive also avoids hagiography and handles the problematic aspects of Dolly better than most...I’ve Had to Think Up a Way to Survive is, at core, about the Appalachian skill of 'always being aware of the terrible' while steadfastly and laughingly avoiding its grip.
— The Georgia ReviewMelnick lovingly chronicles how Parton’s expansive songwriting catalog and her six decades as a household icon have been inextricable from Melnick’s own journey from a Jewish teenage addict to an accomplished artist.
— LilithEach chapter in [I've Had to Think Up a Way to Survive] glances at the author's life through a different song penned by Parton. [Melnick] deals with past trauma by analogizing her own life to the country legend's. Although Melnick and Parton didn't seem to have much more in common on the surface, discovering their similarities is at the center of this moving journey.
— The Boot, "10 Best Country Music Books of 2022"Melnick’s book is about the author’s vicarious, identity-forming relationship with a cultural figure. Each of its 21 chapters is organized around a particular song, so we learn everything she was able to find out about how Dolly...wrote or recorded that song, what the press said about it, and what the artist herself said about it in interviews and talk show appearances. Moreover, each chapter delves into what the title song means in Melnick’s life and what it says about related cultural issues. In that way, it’s a blend of memoir and cultural criticism, as well as a wealth of information.
— Chapter 16A fierce resistance to that which could destroy us or destroy our spirits (patriarchy, capitalism, drugs) drives this potent work of music criticism forward, with deft prose that breathtakingly weaves biography and personal narrative.
— The Common
- Introduction: Seven Bridges Road
- Chapter One: Why’d You Come in Here Lookin’ Like That
- Chapter Two: Steady as the Rain
- Chapter Three: The Seeker
- Chapter Four: Here You Come Again
- Chapter Five: Jolene
- Chapter Six: The Grass Is Blue
- Chapter Seven: Coat of Many Colors
- Chapter Eight: Islands in the Stream
- Chapter Nine: Do I Ever Cross Your Mind
- Chapter Ten: Will He Be Waiting for Me
- Chapter Eleven: Down from Dover
- Chapter Twelve: Silver Dagger
- Chapter Thirteen: Don’t Think Twice
- Chapter Fourteen: I Don’t Believe You’ve Met My Baby
- Chapter Fifteen: Little Sparrow
- Chapter Sixteen: 9 to 5
- Chapter Seventeen: Two Doors Down
- Chapter Eighteen: Put a Little Love in Your Heart
- Chapter Nineteen: Blue Smoke
- Chapter Twenty: Bargain Store
- Chapter Twenty-One: The Story
- Acknowledgments: I Will Always Love You
- References and Resources