Advice from Shonda Rhimes: Just Say ‘Yes’

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YearofYes coverGrey’s Anatomy. Scandal. How to Get Away with Murder. All on Thursday’s prime-time television schedule. All on the ABC Network. And all produced by Shonda Rhimes, founder of ShondaLand, a television production company, and one of the most powerful people in Hollywood. Despite her success, however, Rhimes realized there was something holding her back.

In this article, Knowledge@Wharton reviews her new book, Year of Yes: How to Dance It Out, Stand In the Sun and Be Your Own Person, which tells the story of what happened after Rhimes’ sister told her, “You never say yes to anything.”

“You’re my person,” the character Cristina Yang says tearfully to her counterpart Meredith Grey, on the occasion of her departure from the TV series Grey’s Anatomy. By which, she means: someone who really sees her, knows her, cares for her — part of her tribe, even if they comprise a tribe of only two.

Then they “dance it out,” pogoing, swimming, and flouncing in slow circles around the dowdy, industrial, hospital on-call bunk-room — which is how the constellation of people who populate the fictional Seattle hospital always deal with. . . any emotion, whether happy, sad, lonely, scared or exhilarated.

The phrase “Standing in the Sun” from the subtitle of the book refers to an epiphanic moment Rhimes herself has, during a photoshoot as she dances it out atop an apple crate — a feeling of warmth, calm, happiness and self-acceptance.

The overarching structure of the book, of course, follows Rhimes’ Year of Yes, which is pretty much what it sounds like: a Thanksgiving commitment her sister Delores goads her into, to stop saying “no” to the firehose of opportunities that Rhimes mostly sees as something between burdensome and terrifying, and routinely shuns.

This all makes for an interesting, entertaining and powerful book.

Diversity Is the Wrong Word

At a time when “lack of representation” has become a hot-button issue in the entertainment industry — witness the degree to which the Academy Awards in the United States have become a perennial flashpoint — Rhimes is often held up as something between counterpoint and symbol: The African-American woman who “owns Thursday night” on the ABC television network.

The Year of Yes is the result of “a Thanksgiving commitment her sister Delores goads her into, to stop saying ‘no’ to the firehose of opportunities that Rhimes mostly sees as something between burdensome and terrifying.”

This prime-time real estate comes from her production company, ShondaLand: Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, How to Get Away with Murder.

Rhimes is not interested in being a symbol. Spike Lee made the same point more than a quarter-century ago, writing, in the companion volume to his film, Do the Right Thing: “I had an interview yesterday with Joe Gelmis from Newsday. Gelmis made a nice comment that he considers me one the most important young filmmakers in the world today. He didn’t ghettoize me as a black filmmaker.”

Rhimes’ analysis, in some ways, is even sharper. The book provides readers with the full transcripts of a number of speeches she made during the Year of Yes. For example: “I really hate the word diversity,” she told the crowd at a Human Rights Campaign awards dinner at which she was being honored. “It suggests something … other. As if it is something … special. Or rare.

“Diversity! As if there is something unusual about telling stories involving women and people of color and LGBTQ characters on TV. I have a different word: NORMALIZING. I’m normalizing TV. I am making TV look like the world looks. Women, people of color, LGBTQ people equal WAY more than 50% of the population. Which means it ain’t out of the ordinary. I am making the world of television look NORMAL. I am NORMALIZING television.”

Rhimes & Rhythm

Her Human Rights Campaign address was obviously written-to-be-read — the italics, bold face and ALL CAPS are cues for inflection. But throughout the book, she consistently deploys both those and a variety of other writing techniques that give the narrative a more personal and intimate feeling, that “break the fourth wall,” quality that builds a credible relationship between writer and readers.

Around the book’s midpoint, for example, she feels readers need a little bit of a “brush-back pitch,” writing, parenthetically, “(Are you judging? I see that look on your face. Uh-uh. What did I say at the beginning of this book? Well, you are definitely not gonna come up here all the way in the middle of this book and judge me…).”

Message received. A core part of what Rhimes traces, throughout the Year of Yes, however, is how she learned to stop judging herself — so her short, anti-judgment, rant isn’t just scolding or ego; it reinforces one of the book’s primary points.

There are other themes, metaphors, and phrases that she injects with regularity — in part as a matter of rhythm — as well.

Writing is “laying track,” and cast, crew, and shooting deadlines are “the train” rumbling her way. Alcohol in general and wine in specific are recurring images. “We’re in this book together, my friend,” Rhimes instructs near the beginning, “So let she who is without wine cast the first stone.”

“A core part of what she traces, throughout the Year of Yes, however, is how she learned to stop judging herself.”

Even some of the formatting adds a kind of musicality — the feeling of refrains repeated and reinforced. The section-breaks, for example are formed not with asterisks or lines but with an evocative: yesyesyes.

Out of the Pantry and Into the Light

The book deftly braids together a number of genres: memoir, artistic and cultural history, “how to get ahead.” But it is also a story of a kind of spiritual (and physical) rebirth.

If her brash and sometimes casual tone often makes her seem carefree and strong, part of what Rhimes is open about is how vexed and weak she has often felt. Writers are often a contradictory amalgam of introversion and extroversion: We want the warm attention and reassurance of the limelight; we want to hide under our desks and be left alone.

In childhood, Rhimes’ “desk” was her mother’s pantry. “Man, that pantry was fun,” she confides early on. “You see the problem. Did you read the problem? Man, that pantry was fun. That just came out of my mouth. I actually said it aloud WHILE I typed it. And I said it without any irony. I said it with a big dorky wistful grin on my face. I had a wonderful childhood, but I lived so deep in my imagination that I was happier and more at home in that pantry with the canned goods than I ever was with people. I felt safer in the pantry. Freer in that pantry. True when I was three years old. And somehow even more true at 43.”

Is it an irony — or just logical — that a writer who has encouraged LGBTQ people to “come out of the closet” has her own, just about lifelong, ambivalence about …”coming out of the pantry”?

If childhood memories of setting up worlds in which the canned corn made war on the canned peas remain comforting, however, one of the more difficult things Rhimes wrestles with in the Year of Yes is her relationship with food.

“I [had] settled in at what seemed like a not too heavy but not skinny weight,” she writes. “Plus-size. Juicy. Curvy. Definitely cute. Great booty. I was healthy. I was working out. I wasn’t thinking too much about my body anyway. And then … I lost control of the wheel. Don’t ask me exactly when. I’m not sure. But I know it coincided with my slowly closing all the doors of my life. Saying no to things. Shutting down.”

It is a little shocking when she concretizes the magnitude of the problem, near the end of the book, revealing that she lost 127 pounds, during and after the Year of Yes.

Ride or Die

In addition to shedding weight Rhimes shed “friends.” And the word should be bracketed in quotation marks because a better way to put it might be: she learned who her friends really were — for better and for worse.

“The formatting adds a kind of musicality — the feeling of refrains repeated and reinforced. The section-breaks, for example are formed not with asterisks or lines but with an evocative: yesyesyes.”

Her true core of confidantes? Her “Ride or Die” crew — a Bonnie & Clyde reference revived by the hip hop generation — the people who are always ready to ride with her or die for her — and for whom she would do the same. It’s a dauntingly high standard but, beginning to end, that cast never changes.

Friends? That’s a little more complicated. One of Rhimes’ primary insights has to do with “writing people” versus “seeing people,” which she applies with greatest vigor to herself. What she realizes, retrospectively, is that she had fallen into the trap of “writing herself as a character,” conditioning what she did or did not do on how she wanted to see herself and how she wanted to be seen by others. The consequent inability to be genuinely herself, of course, exacted a terrible cost.

Flipping the same lens, and looking outward, Rhimes realized that she had been “writing her friends,” as well. She wasn’t seeing them as they were; she was seeing them as the characters she needed them to be. With clarity came something of a cull.

We need “our people,” she stresses — as do her characters, and stand-ins, Cristina Yang and Meredith Grey — that tribe of stalwarts who really understand us and accept us for who we are.

But first? We have to “be our own people,” seeing, loving, and accepting ourselves.

Even before the prologue, Rhimes opens with a section tagged: “Hello: I’m Old and I Like to Lie (A Disclaimer of Sorts).”

Rhimes is demonstrably a good liar — she makes things up fluidly and credibly; she owns ABC’s Thursday primetime schedule — but she tells a lot of truths as well.

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