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Shonda Rhimes' 'Year of Yes' puts positive spin on simplistic self-help solution

Shonda Rhimes' 'Year of Yes' puts positive spin on simplistic self-help solution
Shonda Rhimes (Richard Shotwell / Invision / AP)

Founder of her own production company, creator, head writer, executive producer and showrunner of some of the most popular shows on television, including "Grey's Anatomy," "Private Practice" and "Scandal": This is the phenomenon that is Shonda Rhimes.

The recipient of three Emmy nominations, a Golden Globe and awards from the Writer's Guild, Producer's Guild and Director's Guild, Rhimes was named one of Time magazine's 100 People Who Help Shape the World in 2007. Depending on your perspective, Rhimes has won her popular and critical acclaim either because of or despite her groundbreaking approach.

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At a time when the country in general and the entertainment industry in particular are rightly under fire for gender and racial inequities, she creates and casts characters in flagrant opposition to stereotypes and underrepresentation. In controversial plots, Rhimes explores issues like abortion without the usual saccharine breast-beating; powerhouse characters Cristina Yang ("Grey's Anatomy") and Olivia Pope ("Scandal") both ended pregnancies unapologetically, simply because they didn't want children.

The cover of "Year of Yes: How to Dance it Out, Stand in the Sun and Be Your Own Person" by Shonda Rhimes.
The cover of "Year of Yes: How to Dance it Out, Stand in the Sun and Be Your Own Person" by Shonda Rhimes. (Simon & Schuster / AP)

It's surprising, then, to read in "Year of Yes" that the woman who "owns Thursday night television" (hashtag #TGIT) was once a fearful introvert who said no to everything that triggered her social anxieties — basically, anything that required her to leave her house. Speech-making was her worst nightmare. "There was mumbling, there was sweating, there was shaking," Rhimes writes. "I never ever spoke without two glasses of wine in my system. Nature's beta blocker."

All of this changed on Thanksgiving Day 2013, when Rhimes' sister commented, "You never say yes to anything."

"BOOM," Rhimes writes. "Grenade. When the dust settles and everything is clear, I am left with one thought rattling through my head. I'm miserable."

Rhimes' self-help prescription? She'd spend the next year saying yes to everything that scared her. "The Year of Yes was … a binding contract between me and my greatest competitor and judge — me," she writes. "Something had to change. Because … this could not possibly be what having it all was supposed to feel like."

Rhimes did indeed have a lot: three hit shows, three daughters — a single mother, she adopted the first two and had the third via gestational surrogacy — and an $8.8-million 8,000-square-foot gated estate in Hancock Park. "I would look ahead, take a deep breath and … believe that there was more."

How not surprising: There is more. A mere mortal with the stay-at-home blues might push herself to invite a friend over to watch TV; Rhimes pushes herself to appear on TV. She says yes to Jimmy Kimmel and to Mindy Kaling.

She makes a rule — "more than a rule, a law. Canon" — to always say "yes" when any of her children asked her to play. "I feel no remorse dumping my purse and coat on the floor just as I'm walking out the door to head to the office when I hear those two magic words — wanna play?"

High on "yes,"' Rhimes commits to slaying her fiercest demon: Her weight. She put herself on a rigid of diet and exercise regimen and lost 117 pounds. In light of that, Rhimes' other challenges become more manageable. She says "yes" to being Dartmouth's commencement speaker. She enjoys giving a speech to a roomful of Hollywood heavy hitters. She practices "badassery" in all things. "If someone had told me on that Thanksgiving morning in 2013 that I would be an entirely different person today," Rhimes writes, "I would have laughed in their face. And yet … here I am."

Unfortunately, Rhimes downplays the challenges of having become who she is in favor of promoting her recipe for success. "I said yes to losing weight on March 8, 2014. When I stepped back on the scale on March 1, 2015, I had lost almost one hundred pounds," she writes. "Saying yes is a powerful thing."

Well, yes. But also, no.

Spoiler alert: This kind of reveling in simplistic solutions that stretch credulity pervades the book. The genius that Shonda Rhimes brings to the screen — her biting, contextual social commentary; the revelations and relationships of her complex, contradictory, often unlikable but always fascinating characters, the unexpected plot twists that glue millions of viewers to our couches on Thursday nights — doesn't translate to the page. "Year of Yes" is as fun to read as Rhimes' TV series are to watch. Her authorial voice is fresh and strong. But the book is more self-hype than self-help, promotional interview than memoir. Most disappointingly and most surprisingly, once the book has delivered the news of Rhimes' introversion, it's predictable.

To know Shonda Rhimes, TV innovator, is to love her. "Year of Yes" allows us to know and love Rhimes a bit more. But does the book stimulate, provoke and engage the reader the way Shondaland shows do? Sadly, no.

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Year of Yes

By Shonda Rhimes
Simon & Schuster: 336 pp., $24.99

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Maran's next book, "Why We Write About Ourselves," will be published in January.

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