There’s a familiar cadence to the writing of Shonda Rhimes, one instantly recognizable to anyone who has watched a couple of episodes of “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Private Practice” or “Scandal.”
In Shondaland dialogue — especially that of “Scandal” — belaboring the point is the point.
The same can be said for Rhimes’s new book, “Year of Yes,” which comes out Nov. 10. In it, Rhimes details how her life changed when she realized that despite all her success as ABC’s resident hitmaker, she was miserable. Fueled by anxiety and self-doubt, Rhimes walled herself off however she could to the point that her eldest sister told her during a 2013 Thanksgiving conversation, “You never say yes to anything.”
That revelation slowly ate away at Rhimes, and she decided to make 2014 the year she said yes to doing all of the things that scared her, such as agreeing to deliver the commencement address at Dartmouth College, her alma mater. In the process, she became a much happier, more enlightened person.
There’s real value in the experiences that Rhimes shares, even the ones that stem from common writerly neuroses, such as wanting to hide behind your words because you’re uncomfortable being the center of attention.
She reveals that she suffered from social anxiety so crippling that it kept her from enjoying crucial moments of her life — such as when she met Oprah Winfrey, who has interviewed her three times. Her fear that she would make a mistake was so severe that it prevented her from remembering much of what actually took place.
So terrible was Rhimes’s anxiety that if she had been asked rather than told that she would be sharing the president’s box with the Obamas for the Kennedy Center Honors, she would have declined. As it was, Rhimes found herself wondering whether she could lick the dust from a 12-year-old bottle of Xanax to get through the night. She ultimately elected not to.
Unfortunately, many of the details of “Year of Yes” are obscured beneath layers of extraneous, repetitive prose and unnecessary metaphor — the sort we’ve come to expect from Olivia Pope or Meredith Grey. Perhaps in recognizing that the chief audience for “Yes” will be those most likely to respond with a chorus of “yaaaases” to whatever Shonda does, the publisher failed to give this padded book the rigorous editing it deserves.
And there’s another nettlesome problem that Rhimes’s memoir shares with her television shows: lost plot points.
In the beginning, Rhimes writes of self-medicating so frequently with red wine to cope with anxiety that it seems like foreshadowing for a disclosure of a drinking problem. She writes, “I never ever spoke in public without two glasses of wine in my system. Nature’s beta blocker.” But we’re left to wonder whether her drinking habits improved with her mental health, because she never says.
Elsewhere, Rhimes is more forthcoming. When, for example, she discusses learning to take better care of herself, the memoir seems honest, raw and revelatory. She writes:
“I don’t FEEL GOOD.
My knees hurt. My joints hurt. I discover that the reason I am so exhausted all the time is because I have sleep apnea. I am now on high blood pressure medication.
I can’t get comfortable.
I can’t touch my toes.
My toes are untouchable.
I need to eat a piece of cake to cope with this discovery.
I am a mess.”
She writes openly about making the tough transition from seeing her body as more than just a container for carrying her brain. She overcame her biggest vice — food — and has shed more than 100 pounds.
“Yes” also serves as a window into how much Rhimes has in common with her characters. She can be “dark and twisty” like Meredith, guzzle a glass of red wine like Olivia, and be self-destructive like both. She’s extremely hard on herself. Loyal fans of “Grey’s Anatomy” will immediately recognize Rhimes’s sense of hyper-competitiveness as a gift she bestowed upon Cristina Yang. (Will Rhimes’s newly-tapped self-confidence result in happier, healthier turns for Meredith and Olivia, too?)
Some of “Yes” feels unavoidable because it’s the stuff of books written by successful women in Hollywood, and that’s precisely what Rhimes is. Like Amy Poehler’s “Yes Please” and Tina Fey’s “Bossypants,”“Year of Yes” includes a chapter on mothering that explains how Rhimes couldn’t cope without her nanny. Fun fact: Her nanny’s honest-to-goodness real name is Jenny McCarthy.
A chapter about learning to accept compliments echoes Mindy Kaling’s chapter on confidence in “Why Not Me?” Both writers make important points about how to deal with the perception of immodesty, but if you are reading memoirs by high-powered Hollywood women, such insights start to sound depressingly similar. They all beat the same, tired drum: Success and happiness come only when you defy the expectations of being agreeable, pleasant, deferential and likeable at all times — the universal toll for the good fortune of being female. It’s not their fault. It’s just exhausting that this continues to be such a universal drag on female leadership. Yet another knock against patriarchy: It makes memoirs boring.
“Year of Yes” is at its best when Rhimes dials back her penchant for asides and simply tells the stories we all want to hear. In explaining how Sandra Oh was cast as Cristina on “Grey’s Anatomy,” for example, Rhimes reveals how her producing partner, Betsy Beers — along with the studio — was pushing for another actress for the part. At first, Rhimes feared telling ABC that she disagreed with their choice. Had she not spoken up, we never would have witnessed Oh make Cristina one of Shondaland’s most beloved, memorable creations. Ironically, this anecdote takes place in the one chapter of the book dedicated to the importance of saying no.
Soraya Nadia McDonald covers arts, entertainment and culture for The Washington Post with a focus on race, gender and sexuality.
By Shonda Rhimes
Simon & Schuster. 311 pp. $24.99