A Conversation Between Lynn Melnick and Heidi Seaborn
Lynn Melnick is the author of the memoir, I’ve Had to Think Up a Way to Survive: On Trauma, Persistence, and Dolly Parton, forthcoming from University of Texas Press’s American Music Series in October 2022. She is also the author of three poetry collections, Refusenik (2022), Landscape with Sex and Violence (2017), and If I Should Say I Have Hope (2012), all with YesYes Books, and the co-editor of Please Excuse This Poem: 100 Poets for the Next Generation (Viking, 2015). She can be found at lynnmelnick.com.
Heidi Seaborn is Executive Editor of The Adroit Journal and author of Marilyn: Essays & Poems, [PANK] Poetry Prize winner with An Insomniac’s Slumber Party with Marilyn Monroe, the acclaimed debut Give a Girl Chaos and the Comstock Chapbook Award-winning Bite Marks. Recent work in Blackbird, Beloit, Brevity, Copper Nickel, Cortland Review, diode, Financial Times of London, The Offing, Penn Review, Radar, The Slowdown and elsewhere. Heidi holds an MFA from NYU. More information about Heidi and her work can be found at heidiseabornpoet.com.
I first heard Lynn Melnick read a selection from I’ve Had to Think Up a Way to Survive: On Trauma, Persistence, and Dolly Parton, her new memoir, which is in dialogue with Dolly Parton, when we read together (or what passes for reading together these days, meaning Zoom) in November 2021. As I listened to Lynn read, I was transported to the rehab hospital in LA where a fourteen-year-old Melnick was being checked in by her parents while Dolly Parton crooned “Islands in the Stream” over the radio. This was a memoir I wanted to read. Fast forward to mid-June and another Zoom room. Lynn appears in a sundress, sitting in front of a book-lined wall in the Brooklyn apartment she shares with her husband—the poet Timothy Donnelly—and their daughters, while I’m in Seattle in front of another book-lined wall, where it’s much cooler and I’m bundled in a heavy sweater.
I hold up the ARC of I’ve Had to Think Up a Way to Survive: On Trauma, Persistence, and Dolly Parton (University of Texas Press) to show Lynn, who had yet to have the physical book in hand. Cue oohs and ahs and “oh, she’s beautiful.” She is, and pink! I also had her newest collection of poetry, Refusenik (YesYes Books), as I had seen Lynn briefly in March at AWP in Philadelphia as she was signing copies. I held that up too. Two very distinct books, in different genres, but sharing the same genealogy.
Heidi Seaborn: While I’m keen to dig into I’ve Had to Think Up a Way to Survive, I want to acknowledge that you have two books this year, with your third collection of poetry, Refusenik, arriving this spring. Let’s begin with how these two books are in conversation with one another. Were you writing them at the same time?
Lynn Melnick: They are in conversation with one another, and there are definitely overlapping stories and a slight overlap in writing. Most of Refusenik was written from 2017 to 2018. And then I put it down. And I decided I was just going to write about Dolly Parton for all of 2019. I tweeted out my intention: what if I do this? And I did. I started writing about Dolly, but I didn’t know what format it was going to take. I certainly didn’t think it was going to be a memoir. I thought maybe it would be poems. Maybe essays.
But there was a small overlap with Refusenik, because my YesYes editor asked me, “Could we add something a little more hopeful at the end?” So, I wrote the last three poems in the poetry book after I’d started the Dolly book and had signed the contract to write it. By then, I knew I was going to be taking a break from poetry. I end Refusenik by saying, when I write poems again, I want them to be about joy. Because I was looking for joy, which is why I wanted to write about Dolly Parton; I wanted to write about something that didn’t hurt. I mean, it didn’t end up happening—there is hurt, because it ended up being a memoir, but the parts about Dolly were joyous!
HS: It sounds as if your intention was to write about Dolly Parton, not necessarily to write a memoir?
LM: Well, the way that the book happened is very, very lucky, that when I tweeted: What if I spend all of 2019 writing about Dolly Parton?, it turns out the University of Texas Press was looking for a Dolly Parton book for their American Music Series. So, that led me to write a prose book. I decided to structure it around my Dolly Parton playlist that I’d had since 2012. I began writing whatever came into my head inspired by each song. Which then led to memories and thinking about my life in terms of what these songs brought up. And then I couldn’t stop.
HS: And before you know it, you’re writing a memoir.
LM: After telling everyone I knew, “I would never write a memoir. I would never write a memoir. That is bananas. Why would someone do that?” And I still believe that even though I’ve done it! But when I wrote the first chapter, which is based on the Dolly song, “Why’d You Come in Here Lookin’ Like That,” it brought me an enormous amount of joy. It’s just a fun song. Then I started thinking about what that song means in terms of our bodies and how we’re seen and how Dolly presents herself and a lot of stuff came up.
I wrote the intro, the first chapter, and the second chapter (which at the time was “Jolene”) and I handed them to my editors, and they said, “It’s really beautiful and poetic, but it needs to be more about the music.” Because it’s part of the U of T Press American Music Series. They pushed me to decide whether it was going to be 90 percent Dolly with occasional personal anecdotes or a memoir with lots of Dolly. I thought, there’s no way that I can write the book that I want to write and leave myself out of it, so I just jumped in. In the end, it’s one third about me, one third about Dolly Parton’s music, and one third about Dolly Parton, the cultural phenomenon. And I tried to keep that balance in every chapter, even doing a word count for each chapter and dividing it between my story, her story, and her music, because I’m kind of an organizational nerd.
HS: Well, your formula works and reads very intentional, and it’s very clear that Dolly has this huge influence over you, that you are connected to her in so many ways, and how she propelled you forward from a young age.
LM: When I started the book, I wasn’t even sure how much we had in common, or how much she had influenced me. I really didn’t know. I mean, aside from being short and liking high heels, we’re very different people, from very different backgrounds. Why is she this person for me? I had to write to figure that out because I really didn’t know how much we had in common and how her worldview is so much like mine and perhaps shaped mine. I think I would not have guessed.
HS: As you know, I can relate. When I began writing An Insomniac’s Slumber Party with Marilyn Monroe, I too had no sort of sense of any connection. And, unlike you, had not grown up thinking about Marilyn at all. But found that by answering that question of “Why Marilyn?” I got to the same place as you. The dive deep into another, even an icon, maybe especially an icon, can be self-revelatory. For some reason, we chose to explore these women as our guides.
LM: When I read your An Insomniac’s Slumber Party with Marilyn Monroe, I thought about one of the things Dolly has said about performing, which is, “People don’t come to see me be me. They come to see me be them.” And I think that’s a lot of what we are doing. Marilyn is being you. Dolly is being me. And I think Dolly’s so brilliant at distilling these things that maybe seem complicated into these tiny little sound bites. Performers become what we need them to be. Especially icons, icons carry this weight. And obviously Marilyn and Dolly are two iconic beings.
HS: Icons that people think they know. Yet, when you do the kind of research that we both did, you discover a much more complex human.
LM: I can’t overstate how much reading I did for this and how many hours of terrible talk shows I watched. She’s given so many interviews. I read all the biographies and a giant collection of her interviews before I started. It’s hard to go chronologically when there’s such a wealth of stuff. I’d watch as much as I could, read as much as I could, and take notes, categorizing by song or by a situation. It’s just kind of endless with her. And with songwriting too. And how songs are constructed. She’s written over three thousand songs! Her career is so much longer than Marilyn’s ever got to be. She’s been in the business for so many decades at this point.
HS: She’s been around forever, and the world has changed, she’s had to change with it too.
LM: And Dolly’s done it so seamlessly for the most part. Most celebrities have a moment where people forget about them, turn on them, something, and that hasn’t happened with her. She’s deft. And part of that is because we don’t really know her. We know who we want her to be. I say, right from the beginning in the book, all sides claim her as their own. So, she’s for everybody. And she’s done that by not giving up a lot of herself. But recently, in a podcast with Brené Brown, Dolly was much more vulnerable and honest. It was one of those rare unguarded moments where you kind of get a glimpse of who she maybe really is.
HS: How did your poetry fit in during this time?
LM: I turned it off. I haven’t written a poem since the last poems for Refusenik. Either late 2019 or early 2020, I think. Yeah. I turned off that part of my brain.
HS: Are you going to turn it back on again? I hope so.
LM: I don’t know. First, I set myself up because I declared when I write poems again, I’m going to write about joy. So, I have to write about joy! This is the first time I’ve ever had a book coming out where I don’t have a project on the horizon. And I mean, to be fair to myself, with two books out. I can take a break, but I don’t like it. I like having a new thing to be excited about. But lately I can’t seem to land on what it is. Do I want to write more about music? Do I want to write poems? I don’t know.
HS: I get it. I had the Marilyn book and two chaps come out last year. And now an expanded edition of Marilyn this year. All of that takes energy. But I’m writing poems. I can’t turn off that muscle that’s good and strong for me, but I can’t see where it’s going and that’s—
LM: Scary but also exciting, I think. Being at the beginning is something I love, which is why it helps to have a book come out while you’re at the beginning of something else, because you just put all your stress and anxiety into the new thing. And being at the beginning of a prose project was so exciting because it was all new to me. I’d never written anything like this before. I wasn’t a music writer. I had to learn about music. I played flute when I was a kid, but that’s the extent of my music knowledge. And so, there was just so much to learn. I felt like such a newbie and I loved it.
HS: You wrote, “I began this book thinking that despite my nearly lifelong fandom, Dolly and I didn’t have much in common at all. The more I wrote, though, the more I grew to understand just the opposite.” And you go on, “I’ve learned that the struggles that bring the smile lines and the heartbreak lines to our faces are in fact one story and that they are the story of humanity, of this connection that keeps my loved ones and the beauty of the world and Dolly close to my heart.” What else did you learn about yourself in the process of writing?
LM: I would say I learned a new kind of compassion, for myself, for a younger me, and for current me, and for those with whom I’ve had a difficult relationship. Obviously not for those who have done terrible, violent things to me. It’s hard to have compassion there. But as I wrote, I began to think more deeply about why people make certain choices and to question my choices with compassion for myself. I had boxed away many of my feelings, and then when I began to unpack them, it took a few drafts. In my writers’ group, my friend Carley kept saying, “Maybe write some paragraphs where you’re not the asshole. Try that.” So, I learned compassion for myself.
HS: Do you think writing Dolly guided you toward compassion?
LM: Absolutely. Because she is both extremely tough and extremely forgiving as a person. She won’t be fucked with, she can’t be fooled, but she’s very compassionate. And I think this is why she also enrages all sides of the political spectrum sometimes, because she is so understanding and compassionate of all sides. But Dolly’s approach guided both the book and me, in my own life, to be more understanding, and to really listen, and to meet people where they are, which is all over the place.
HS: Do you think writing a memoir was like looking in a mirror versus writing the same terrain in poetry—that you can’t bullshit yourself in the mirror of memoir?
LM: My poetry tends to be kind of angry because I’m angry and I’m angry about violence that happened to me and the way the world is. People expect me to be like Courtney Love or something in person. But I’m just a goofy, bubbly person because all of my anger goes into the poems. It’s been a good outlet for me so that I don’t become ‘riot girl’ all the time. In this book, I tell a lot of the same stories, but you get more of the details and context than in the poems. There’s a rape scene towards the end of the book, which I also wrote a poem about. I visited a class that was studying the poem and shared the chapter covering the same event. The class reaction was: “Holy shit, we did not see this in the poem.” To me, everything that happens is in that poem. But poems are open to what people bring to them. I love that about poems. But when you write a scene as it happens, you can’t do that. I had to learn to fill in the gaps that I normally leave for the reader. When you write a memoir, you’re making a character of yourself and of the other people. You need to flesh out the character more than you do in poetry because in poetry, readers will bring stuff to it.
HS: As a reader, I initially thought that your memoir voice was so different from your poetic voice. But then I realized it isn’t the voice, but a different setting, a broader context. You’re telling a rounder version, with Dolly as a foil. But it’s still very painful terrain.
LM: Writing always gives a little high. So, it’s not painful writing it because I am creating art. But when I went to revise it, I worried that it was unbearable. My husband is a poet and an extremely good editor. He knows what I can handle and how I approach things. He helped me contextualize my experiences in a way that allowed me to pull back a little. Revising it was brutal. I’m done with ever telling that story again. I’m done! But the writing just makes me feel so good. I can write the worst. It feels fine. It’s like being high because you’re almost disconnected from your actual emotional state.
I don’t know if you found this writing about Marilyn, but there’s such a joy in just getting to share your Marilyn or your Dolly, getting to share the person that you feel so attached to with everybody else. It’s like introducing a new lover or something. And so that was such a joy too, to get to share her. And that helped mitigate the painful parts.
HS: After reading I’ve Had to Think Up a Way to Survive, I have a new appreciation for Dolly Parton. And she’s having an extraordinary moment now, getting recognition for her generosity, for her leadership.
LM: Everyone knows Dolly can sing, but her skills as a musician, and her songwriting, have often been overlooked. But she just keeps on, pushing her talents ahead. Like deciding to record bluegrass albums when the country scene thought they were done with her. That first bluegrass album ended up being the most critically successful album of her career. She just doesn’t get enough credit for being as creative and as much of a musical genius as she is. Partly because she is such a lovable character, her persona overshadows.
HS: It’s very much like Marilyn in that Marilyn’s talent was diminished and dismissed. When I watched all of her films, I was surprised by how talented she was as an actor. But their talents often weren’t enough. Marilyn did very much what Dolly’s done and what women do: create this character that is beautiful, sexy, vulnerable, funny. And use that character to gain visibility and power. Marilyn did it. And Dolly is too, intentionally. Except Marilyn’s story was cut short at 36.
LM: Like Marilyn, Dolly had a moment in her thirties where she too had a crisis. Where she considered suicide because she was so overwhelmed and unhappy. She survived. And Marilyn didn’t. In their thirties, both of these icons were so famous. It was at the peak of Dolly’s crossover fame, with “9-to-5” and “The Best Little Whorehouse” and “Islands in the Stream.” I think she got very lost for a while.
HS: What most surprised you as you researched Dolly? And then what did you do with that?
LM: I was surprised again and again by how savvy she is, beyond what we can imagine. She didn’t become this icon by accident, she understands people. Another thing that surprised me was her relationship with religion. I hadn’t realized it was so personal. She’s never been a part of a church, except when she was a kid. She deeply believes in God but has no interest in organized religion.
Something that surprises me over and over is that she’s been able to keep her private life private. She will still go on RV trips with her husband. She just takes off the wig and all this stuff and nobody recognizes her.
HS: In the book, you call Dolly out about when she’s equivocated or been on the wrong side of where you are on a social issue. You also discuss her slow embrace of the term “feminist.”
LM: Oh, that has been maddening since I fell in love with her. She would always say, “I’m feminine.” And then redirect. She is the queen of answering the question she wishes she’d been asked! It was a gift to this book when she said she was a feminist during a random, live interview with TIME magazine’s editor in 2020. I understand how someone in her age group (she was born in 1946 and is the same age as my mother) is reluctant. It was a different time and if she had said, “I’m a feminist,” back then, it would have ended her country music career. She had dreams for herself, and she knew what she had to do to realize them. That said, there is activism in her art. Take “Just Because I’m a Woman,” which is a song about slut shaming. Dolly wrote extremely feminist lyrics, and let her art speak for her. Dolly wrote songs about reproductive choice, and “9-to-5” is a true worker’s anthem. Her business practices too are feminist. Her workplace protections and policies at Dollywood are very progressive.
HS: How was writing a memoir after writing poetry?
LM: Writing the memoir was a total high, just a joy to write all the Dolly stuff. Publishing is terrifying because people are going to read it, presumably, maybe one or two people . . . and it’s very personal. I’m anxious all the time because of that. But as I’ve said in the book, I’m done with silence. I just want to tell the story, which is really the story of humanity. The violence that is done to women is the story of human beings, and something I feel we should talk about more. That’s how I felt writing poetry too, but this is on a bigger scale and it’s just more in-your-face than the poetry.
HS: I think the decision to use Dolly as a construct, and her playlist essentially becoming the playlist for your life, created the dynamic where you are forced to be open and revealing and yet doing so within a safe container.
LM: Oh, absolutely. I don’t know if you found this writing Marilyn, but there is a layer of protection that that offers. In crafting the chapters, I felt like any time it got too intense, I could turn to Dolly’s story. I found that to be extremely freeing.
HS: There is a lot of trauma in this book. You’ve lived a life, and I’m so sorry, that has had too much trauma. It’s in your poetry and now your prose. Yet the way that you wrote this book, there is music and joy.
LM: I’m so happy to hear you say that. My hope was to make the trauma seem less particular to me and more universal. These are our stories, and bad things often happen. And then we hopefully can pick ourselves up and keep going. There’s always joy in art and music and connection and all of that. I wanted that to be in there. The book ended up probably more intense than I had wanted, but that’s just the nature of the story I’m telling—but I wanted there to be some fun and some joy.
HS: And love. The moments that are charged and traumatic are cushioned, I think, not just by Dolly, but by understanding that you have love in your life. And sadly, crappy things happen to people, even if they’re surrounded by love. I completely relate to that.
LM: And it’s just life—luck and bad luck. This is not a story that’s unique to me except in the details of it. With this book, I wanted to show what an entire life is like and so Dolly became my doorway to joy. During the pandemic, when I wrote the book, I shared the living room with my younger daughter who was then going to 5th grade on the computer. I was playing Dolly songs all day and interviews and watching movies. My now-13-year-old knows so much about Dolly Parton. She knows the deep cuts! And that was a joy too, sharing that time together. If I was just writing a straight memoir, it would’ve been hard to do around my kids, with everybody being home for a year. So, again, Dolly has saved me.
HS: Yeah. Dolly has saved you. Dolly’s a foil, a partner in being able to confront and talk about trauma, but more importantly, she’s your partner in getting to joy.
LM: I think that’s true. The joy that I feel in listening to her music is unlike anything else. I think a lot of it is because she understands being in the muck. I feel like we’re besties!
HS: What would you do if Dolly were to show up on your front doorstep?
LM: I love this question. I’m imagining her walking in. I’m imagining my husband cooking for her. I’d say, “Could you make her something to eat?” while I’m crying. I think I would just really want to thank her for everything she’s given me. That would be something I would want to do. The question that I have always wanted to ask her is a more technical question, which is: “Is there anything you’ve written, any song you’ve written that just makes you cringe now?” I’ve always been so curious. I’ve read so many interviews and none of them ask this, I just wonder that about her because she has written three thousand songs. Which one tanks? Just tell me! I won’t tell anyone. I’ve always been so interested in her as a songwriter.
HS: Because you’re a poet. And as you’ve written, Dolly’s a poet.
LM: She is a poet. I always knew she was a great songwriter, but I really grew to respect her even more enormously while writing this book. She doesn’t get the respect that she deserves for her songwriting. Unlike Bob Dylan, if Dolly won the Nobel prize, she would show up for the ceremony and she’d be wearing high heels.