In ‘Year of Yes’, Shonda Rhimes Shares the One-Word Rule That Transformed Her World
Shonda Rhimes doesn’t seem like the kind of person who has trouble saying yes, no, or anything in between. She’s one of the most successful showrunners in television. She’s built her success, in part, on characters who speak their minds without hesitation, from the doctors of Grey’s Anatomy to Olivia Pope of Scandal. Even her production company, Shondaland — also responsible for another ABC drama with an uber-confident woman at its center, How to Get Away With Murder — implies that Rhimes is perfectly comfortable reigning over her own kingdom. Hell, she didn’t just build a kingdom. She named it after herself
Yet, as Rhimes explains in her new book The Year of Yes, the woman who gave birth to Scandal‘s gladiators is actually an introvert who sometimes struggles to assert herself and prefers to stay immersed in her storytelling, a plotline-creation process she refers to as “laying track.” But on Thanksgiving Day 2013, Rhimes’s oldest sister, Delorse, said something that caught the track-layer’s attention: “You never say yes to anything.”
That prompted Rhimes to spend a transformative year-plus responding affirmatively to every invitation she ordinarily would have turned down out of nervousness and anxiety. In The Year of Yes she recalls all the stops on that journey with a mix of humor and conversational real talk. Rhimes’s book isn’t exactly a memoir, though it contains autobiographical elements, and it isn’t a work of self-help, though some of what Rhimes offers certainly qualifies as self-improvement advice. It’s more like a diary, written with dashes of Oprah-esque inspiration but the no-B.S. frankness of, say, Dr. Cristina Yang from Grey’s Anatomy.
The Year of Yes does not attempt to dish any Hollywood insider gossip, though it does lift the veil a little on what it’s like to juggle motherhood and life as a producer and writer of multiple TV shows. At times, the author’s rarefied status can make it challenging for the average person to relate to her. Many of the things Rhimes must force herself to say yes to, for example — invitations to speak at galas, to participate in photo shoots for Entertainment Weekly, to appear on The Mindy Project and in an interview with Jimmy Kimmel — are not exactly the kinds of requests most of us field on a daily basis. To Rhimes’s credit, she owns up to that and, as she does often in the book, cuts through any hints of self-importance with heavy doses of self-deprecation.
“You might say, ‘That’s all very nice for you, Shonda,'” she writes after suggesting that everyone should regularly put a pin in work and make time for play. “‘You’re the boss at your job but I am a cashier so please tell me how I can turn my back on my job and still feed my family, stupid TV lady with your lace shoes and your diamonds. I hope your tiara squeezes your brains right out of your head.'” Even if Rhimes’s fame and career don’t make her an everywoman, she writes with an everywomanly sensibility that allows you to slow your eyeball-roll when she mentions her publicists and personal stylists.
Some of the best sections of The Year of Yes cover things that have nothing to do with the entertainment business, like parenting or weight loss. (Rhimes said yes to eating healthier food and lost an astonishing 127 pounds). Ironically, one of the strongest chapters is about finding the courage to say no, something Rhimes must do in her early days as Grey’s Anatomy showrunner; her no to an actress who remains unnamed was what eventually enabled Sandra Oh to be cast as Cristina Yang. And later, to a close friend who asks to borrow a large sum of money. “Freedom lies across the field of the difficult conversation,” she writes, “And the more difficult the conversation, the greater the freedom.”
The rhythm of Rhimes’s prose involves a lot of repetition; if she can say something two more times using slightly different words, she usually will. (Example: “Is every single solitary word of this book true? I hope so. I think so. I believe so.”) That can sometimes make The Year of Yes feel padded, as do the reprints of three speeches Rhimes gave at various events in 2014 and 2015, including the commencement ceremony at her alma mater, Dartmouth University. But her words brim with such life that by the end of the book, some readers may find themselves wanting to say yes to more things, too. Shonda Rhimes would undoubtedly be thrilled if that’s the case … just as long as all those readers continue to say yes to drinking red wine while live-tweeting Scandal every week.
Look, Rhimes’s extended period of head-nodding may have turned her into a new woman. But she needs her TV shows to stay on TV. Because no matter what, she also will always want an excuse to lay some track.
The Year of Yes: How to Dance It Out, Stand in the Sun and Be Your Own Person, written by Shonda Rhimes and published by Simon & Schuster, is available November 10, 2015.