As a book critic, I am about to mete out some very high praise: This year, the book I found most fun, a complete joy to read from start to finish, was “Year of Yes” by Shonda Rhimes.
Even better? I wasn’t expecting that joy. Rhimes may—as she reminds us numerous times throughout her candid, voice-y, self-help memoir—“rule Thursday night” (her shows “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Scandal” and “How to Get Away With Murder” are ABC network gold), but that doesn’t mean all of us are under her jurisdiction. I’ve never seen a single episode of any ShondaLand production, and I’m here to say that whether you’re the world’s most die-hard “Grey’s” fan, or don’t even know the name Shonda Rhimes, this is a book with something to teach you.
“You Never Say Yes to Anything”
The premise is slight, and that’s just fine. On Thanksgiving Day 2013, Shonda’s older sister Delorse mutters as she preps the meal: “You never say yes to anything.” What Delorse, 12 years Shonda’s senior and the eldest of six siblings, wants to get across is that she sees the baby of the family is miserable. Although Shonda writes some of the hottest shows on TV, has three healthy daughters and lives in the kind of material comfort most people only dream of, she isn’t a whole, happy person.
Dreams are for losers… Dreams are lovely. But they are just dreams. Fleeting ephemeral. Pretty. But dreams do not come true just because you dream them. It’s hard work that makes things happen. It’s hard work that creates change.
Delorse’s words roll around like painful marbles in her sister’s brain for a few weeks until, on Shonda’s January 13th birthday, she declares “a year of saying yes to everything”—although what she really means is a year of saying yes to the things that scare her, such as public speaking. Coincidentally but perfectly, she receives a call from the president of her alma mater, Dartmouth College, requesting that she give the 2014 commencement address. She wills herself to agree, and part of the book’s fun is not just reading the resulting address, but listening as Rhimes recounts how she managed to forget all about writing it until the week of graduation, and then re-wrote it on the red-eye flight east.
The Dartmouth speech grounds the book, since Rhimes includes several other speeches she gave during the “year of yes,” including one to the Television Critics Association about the idea of the glass ceiling, and one to the Human Rights Campaign about how love means never having to say you’re all alone (I’m paraphrasing, but I think the author would approve). Given that she fears all sorts of bodily projections while confronting an audience, she really does make a breakthrough during her twelve-month challenge. And that’s terrific…
…but fortunately, that’s not all. “Year of Yes” is less about the stunt and more about the stuntwoman, who wasn’t always the fierce, sassy, gorgeous, successful Hollywood showrunner we now know her to be. Part of what got her into the days of declining invitations and opportunities, we learn, is her congenital introversion. She includes several photos of her awkward ‘tween and teen self, pointing out that in at least two of those snapshots she has a book hidden in the back of her pants, the better to be whipped out as soon as our heroine can get back to her own private Idaho.
Ultimately, memories save Rhimes, because memories of her parents’ long, strong marriage (she calls them “MFEO” – “Made for Each Other”); of her quiet, exuberant childhood hours in the pantry, using canned goods as characters in little plays; and of “the hum” she experiences when she’s doing her best writing—all of these remind her, when faced with a very important question (no spoilers!), that her choices should be made from a place where she is the sun. Not where she’s in the sun. Where she is the sun.
Your Typical Memoir, This Is Not
All very well and good, you say, sounds a trifle Oprah-esque. Yes, The Big O does appear in these pages, and more than once. But Shonda Rhimes shines because she’s invested in helping others to find their own light. For her, those others specifically include her daughters—and bless her for wanting alternate Mother’s Day cards (instead of “Mom, you allowed us to be amazing” she suggests “Happy Mother’s Day to the mom who taught me to be strong, to be powerful, to be independent, to be competitive, to be fiercely myself and fight for what I want”). However, she is careful to remind readers that her truth isn’t theirs, and that is one very warm ray of light.
I rarely enjoy memoirs, and I like self-help books even less. Yet I gobbled “Year of Yes” in one sitting and felt as if I were seated beside a very dear and very low-maintenance friend, even during the parts when she talks about swagger and badassery (like many lifelong “good girls,” both terms make me uneasy—although now I’ll pay more attention to why they do). Rhimes has created something, with this book that is high-level badass: She’s produced a work in a different medium that proves she’s a consummate writer and storyteller. As she tells the Dartmouth Class of 2014, “Dreams are for losers… Dreams are lovely. But they are just dreams. Fleeting ephemeral. Pretty. But dreams do not come true just because you dream them. It’s hard work that makes things happen. It’s hard work that creates change.”