In this poignant, hilarious, and deeply intimate call to arms, Hollywood’s most powerful woman, the mega-talented creator of Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal and executive producer of How to Get Away with Murder reveals how saying YES changed her life—and how it can change yours too.
She’s the creator and producer of some of the most groundbreaking and audacious shows on television today: Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, How to Get Away with Murder. Her iconic characters—Meredith Grey, Cristina Yang, Olivia Pope, Annalise Keating—live boldly and speak their minds. So who would suspect that Shonda Rhimes, the mega talent who owns Thursday night television (#TGIT), is an introvert? That she hired a publicist so she could avoid public appearances? That she hugged walls at splashy parties and suffered panic attacks before media interviews so severe she remembered nothing afterward?
Before her Year of Yes, Shonda Rhimes was an expert at declining invitations others would leap to accept. With three children at home and three hit television shows on TV, it was easy to say that she was simply too busy. But in truth, she was also afraid. Afraid of cocktail party faux pas like chucking a chicken bone across a room; petrified of live television appearances where Shonda Rhimes could trip and fall and bleed out right there in front of a live studio audience; terrified of the difficult conversations that came so easily to her characters on-screen. In the before, Shonda’s introvert life revolved around burying herself in work, snuggling her children, and comforting herself with food.
And then, on Thanksgiving 2013, Shonda’s sister muttered something that was both a wake up and a call to arms: You never say yes to anything.
The comment sat like a grenade, until it detonated. Then Shonda, the youngest of six children from a supremely competitive family, knew she had to embrace the challenge: for one year, she would say YES to everything that scared her.
This poignant, intimate, and hilarious memoir explores Shonda’s life before her Year of Yes—from her nerdy, book-loving childhood creating imaginary friends to her devotion to creating television characters who reflected the world she saw around her (like Cristina Yang, whose ultimate goal wasn’t marriage, and Cyrus Beene, who is a Republican and gay). And it chronicles her life after her Year of Yes had begun—when Shonda forced herself out of the house and onto the stage, appearing on Jimmy Kimmel Live, and giving the Dartmouth Commencement speech; when she learned to say yes to her health, yes to play and she stepped out of the shadows and into the sun; when she learned to explore, empower, applaud, and love her truest self. Yes.
This wildly candid and compulsively readable book reveals how the mega talented Shonda Rhimes, an unexpected introvert, achieved badassery worthy of a Shondaland character. And how you can, too.
That’s the beginning. That’s the origin of it all. My sister Delorse said six startling words and changed everything. She said six words and now, as I write this, I have become a different person.
“You never say yes to anything.”
She didn’t even say the six startling words. She muttered them, really. Her lips barely moving, her eyes fixed intently on the large knife in her hands as she was dicing vegetables at a furious pace, trying to beat the clock.
It’s November 28, 2013.
Thanksgiving Day morning. So obviously, the stakes are high.
Thanksgiving and Christmas have always been my mother’s domain. She has ruled our family holidays with flawless perfection. Food always delicious, flowers always fresh, colors coordinated. Everything perfect.
Last year, my mother announced that she was tired of doing all the work. Yes, she made it look effortless—that did not mean it was effortless. So, still reigning supreme, my mother declared she was abdicating her throne.
Now, this morning, is Delorse’s first time stepping up to wear the crown.
This has made my sister intense and dangerous.
She doesn’t even bother glancing up at me when she mutters the words. There is no time. Hungry family and friends will bear down on us in less than three hours. We have not even reached the turkey-basting segment of the cooking process. So unless my sister can kill me, cook me and serve me with stuffing, gravy and cranberry sauce, I am not getting her full attention right now.
“You never say yes to anything.”
Delorse is the eldest child in our family. I am the youngest. Twelve years separate us; that age gap is filled by our brothers and sisters—Elnora, James, Tony and Sandie. With so many siblings between us, growing up, it was easy to feel as though the two of us existed in the same solar system but never visited each other’s planets. After all, Delorse was heading off to college as I was entering kindergarten. I have vague childhood memories of her—Delorse cornrowing my hair way too tightly, giving me a braid headache; Delorse teaching my older brothers and sisters how to do a brand-new dance called The Bump; Delorse walking down the aisle at her wedding, my sister Sandie and me behind her holding up the train of her gown, our father at her side. As a child, she was the role model of the kind of woman I was supposed to grow up to be. As an adult, she’s one of my best friends. Most of the important memories of my grown-up life include her. So I suppose it is fitting that she is here now, muttering these words at me. It is fitting that right now she’s the one both telling me who I am supposed to grow up to be and standing at the center of what will become one of the most important memories of my life.
And this moment is important.
She doesn’t know it. I don’t know it. Not right now. Right now this moment doesn’t feel important at all. Right now, this feels like Thanksgiving morning and she’s tired.
She got up before dawn to call and remind me to take the twenty-one-pound turkey out of the refrigerator to settle. Then she drove the four blocks from her house to mine in order to do all the cooking for our big family dinner. It’s not quite eleven a.m. but she’s already been at it for hours. Chopping, stirring, seasoning. She’s working really hard.
And I have been watching her.
It’s not as bad as it sounds.
I’m not doing nothing.
I’m not useless.
I’ve been handing her things when she asks. Also, I have my three-month-old daughter strapped to my chest in a baby sling and my one-and-a-half-year-old daughter on my hip. I’ve combed my eleven-year-old’s hair, turned off the TV show she was watching and forced a book into the child’s hands.
And we’re talking. My sister and I. We’re talking. Catching up on all the things we have missed since, well . . . yesterday or maybe the day before.
Okay. Fine. I’m talking.
I’m talking. She’s cooking. I’m talking and talking and talking. I have a lot to tell her. I’m listing for her all of the invitations that I’ve received in the last week or so. Someone wants me to speak at this conference and someone invited me to go to that fancy party and I’ve been asked to travel to such-and-such country to meet that king or to be on a certain talk show. I list ten or eleven invitations I received. I tell her about all of them in detail.
I will admit to you right now that I toss in a few extra juicy bits, spin a few tales, lay some track. I’m purposely boasting a little bit—I am trying to get a reaction out of my big sister. I want her to be impressed. I want her to think I’m cool.
Look, I was raised in a great family. My parents and siblings have many wonderful qualities. They are universally pretty and smart. And like I said, they all look like fetuses. But the members of my immediate family all share one hugely disgusting criminal flaw.
They do not give a crap about my job.
None of ’em.
Not a one.
They are frankly disturbed that anyone would be impressed by me. For any reason. People behaving toward me as though I might be vaguely interesting bewilders them deeply. They stare at one another, baffled, whenever someone treats me as anything other than what they know me to be—their deeply dorky, overly verbal, baby sister.
Hollywood is a bizarre place. It’s easy to lose touch with reality here. But nothing keeps a person grounded like a host of siblings who, when someone requests your autograph, ask in a truly horrified tone, “Her? Shonda’s autograph? Are you sure? Shonda? No wait, really, Shonda? Shonda RHIMES? Why?”
It’s super rude. And yet . . . think of how many bloated egos would be saved if everyone had five older brothers and sisters. They love me. A lot. But they are not gonna stand for any celebrity VIP crap from the kid in Coke-bottle glasses they all saw throw up alphabet soup all over the back porch and then slip face-first in the vomit chunks.
Which is why right now I’m verbally tap-dancing around the room, shaking it like I’m competing for a mirror-ball trophy. I’m trying to get my sister to show any sign of being impressed, a glimmer that she might think I’m remotely cool. Trying to get a reaction from these people I’m related to, well, it has almost become a game for me. A game I believe that one day I will win.
But not today. My sister doesn’t even bother to blink in my direction. Instead, impatient, possibly tired and likely sick of the sound of my voice going on and on about my list of fancy invitations, she cuts me off.
“Are you going to do any of these things?”
I pause. A little taken aback.
“Huh?” That’s what I say. “Huh?”
“These events. These parties, conferences, talk shows. Did you say yes to any of them?”
I stand there for a moment. Silent. Confused.
What is she talking about? Say yes?
“Well. No, I mean . . . no,” I stammer, “I can’t say . . . obviously I said no. I mean, I’m busy.”
Delorse keeps her head down. Keeps chopping.
Later, when I think about it, I will realize she was probably not even listening to me. She was probably thinking about whether or not she had enough cheddar grated for the mac and cheese she had to make next. Or deciding how many pies to bake. Or wondering how she was going to get out of cooking Thanksgiving dinner next year. But in the moment, I don’t get that. In the moment, my sister keeping her head down? It MEANS something. In the moment, my sister keeping her head down feels purposeful.
I have to defend myself. How do I defend myself? What do I—
At that exact moment (and this is so fortuitous I decide the universe loves me), Beckett, the sunny three-month-old baby strapped to my chest, decides to spit up a geyser of milk that runs down the front of my shirt in a creepy warm waterfall. On my hip, my prudish one-and-a-half-year-old, the moon to Beckett’s sun, wrinkles her nose.
“I smell something, honey,” she tells me. Emerson calls everyone “honey.” As I nod at her and dab at the smelly hot milk stain, I pause. Take in the mess in my arms.
And I have my defense.
“Beckett! Emerson! I have babies!! And Harper! I have a tween! Tweens are delicate flowers! I can’t just go places and do things!!! I have children to take care of!”
I holler this across the counter in my sister’s general direction.
Wait. Speaking of taking care of stuff . . . I also have to take care of a little something called Thursday nights. Ha! I do a victory shimmy across the kitchen and point at her. Gloating.
“I also have a job! Two jobs! Grey’s Anatomy AND Scandal! Three children and two jobs! I’m . . . busy! I am a mother! I’m a writer! I run shows!”
I feel totally triumphant. I’m a mother. A mother, damn it. I have children. THREE children. And I’m running two television shows at one time. I have more than six hundred crew members depending on me for work. I’m a mother who works. I’m a working mother.
Like . . . Beyoncé.
Exactly like Beyoncé.
I am bringing home the bacon AND frying it up in the pan. It’s not an excuse. It’s a fact. No one can argue with that. No one can argue with Beyoncé.
But I forgot that this is Delorse.
Delorse can argue with anyone.
Delorse puts down her knife. She actually stops cooking and puts down her knife. Then she raises her head to look up at me. My sister, the biggest winner in our family’s genetic Powerball, is in her fifties. Late fifties. Her sons are grown men with degrees and careers. She has grandchildren. And yet I am often asked if my fifty-seven-year-old sister is my child.
The horror of it is sometimes too much.
So when she raises her head to look at me, she looks more like a saucy fourteen-year-old than she does my eldest sibling. Her saucy-fourteen-year-old face eyes me.
That’s all she says. But it’s said with such confidence . . .
So I blurt out—
“A single mother.”
Now, that is shameless. You and I both know it. Because while the technical definition of “single mother” fits me—I am a mother, I am single—its cultural and colloquial meaning does not. Trying to appropriate that term as if I am a struggling mom doing my best to put food on the table makes me an ass. I know it. You know it. And unfortunately? Delorse also knows it.
I need to put an end to the conversation. I raise an eyebrow and make my bossy face. The one I make at the office when I need everyone to stop arguing with me.
My sister does not give a crap about my bossy face. But she picks up her knife again, goes back to chopping.
“Wash the celery,” she tells me.
So I wash celery. Somehow the smell of fresh celery, the motion of the washing, Emerson’s joy as she splashes the water over the counter, it all lulls me into a false sense of security.
Which is why I am not prepared.
I turn. Hand her the wet, clean celery. And I’m surprised when, still chopping, Delorse begins to speak.
“You are a single mother but you are not a single mother. I live four blocks away. Sandie lives four blocks away. Your parents live forty minutes away and would love to stay with the kids. You have literally the best nanny in the world. You have three amazing best friends who would step in and help at any time. You are surrounded by family and friends who love you, people who want you to be happy. You are your own boss—your job is only as busy as you make it. But you never do anything but work. You never have any fun. You used to have so much fun. Now, all of these amazing opportunities are coming your way—once-in-a-lifetime opportunities—and you aren’t taking advantage of any of them. Why?”
I shift, uncomfortable. For some reason, I do not like this. I don’t like anything about this conversation at all. My life is fine. My life is great. I mean, look around!
I’m . . . happy.
Mind your own business, Delorse. You are annoying, Delorse. People aren’t supposed to Benjamin Button so your face is clearly the result of a pact with Satan, Delorse! You know what, Delorse? You smell like poop.
But I don’t say any of that. Instead I stand there for a long time. Watching her chop. And finally, I answer. Putting just the right amount of casual arrogance in my voice.
And then I turn away, hoping to indicate that the conversation is over. I head over to the sitting area, where I gently settle an already napping Beckett into the bassinet. I place Emerson on the changing table for a fresh diaper. In a moment, I’ll go upstairs and try to find a spit-up-free shirt to wear for dinner. The fresh diaper is on. I put Emerson on my hip, lay her head on my shoulder, and we swing back around to face my sister as I head for the stairs. That’s when she says it. The six words.
Mutters them. Almost under her breath.
As she finishes chopping the onions.
Six startling words.
“You never say yes to anything.”
For a single beat, time stops. Becomes a clear, frozen moment I’ll never forget. One of the paintings that will never be taken from my mental wall. My sister, in a brown hoodie, her hair in a neat knot at the nape of her neck, standing there with that knife in her hand, head down, the little pile of white onion pieces on the cutting board before her.
She tosses the words out there.
“You never say yes to anything.”
Tosses the words out there like a grenade.
You never say yes to anything.
Then my sister slides the onions over and begins chopping the celery. I head upstairs to change my shirt. Family and friends arrive. The turkey cooks perfectly. Dinner is delicious.
The grenade lies there in the middle of everything. Quiet. Camouflaged. I don’t think about it.
This reading group guide for Year of Yes includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
With three hit shows on television and three children at home, the uber-talented Shonda Rhimes had lots of good reasons to say NO when an unexpected invitation arrived. Hollywood party? No. Speaking engagement? No. Media appearances? No.
And there was the side benefit of saying No for an introvert like Shonda: nothing new to fear.
Then Shonda’s sister dropped a grenade on Shonda’s seemingly safe, happy life: “You never say yes to anything.” These words stuck in Shonda’s brain and prompted her to challenge herself: for one year, say yes to everything. Say YES to the unexpected invitations that come your way. Say YES to the things that scare you. Shonda reluctantly set out―and the results of her hard-won, yearlong journey are nothing short of transformative. In Year of Yes, Shonda Rhimes chronicles the powerful impact saying yes had on every aspect of her life―and how we can all change our lives with the power of YES.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Shonda Rhimes has spent her entire life “making stuff up” and was lucky enough to make a career doing something she loves that comes naturally to her: writing fiction. Why, then, do you think it is such a challenge for Shonda to write this book and to tell the truth about herself?
2. Why does Shonda decide to spend a year saying yes to things that scare her? Do you think she makes the right choice? If you were in her place, would you have committed to a Year of Yes? Why or why not?
3. Compare Shonda’s previous experiences with publicity and media appearances, such as the TCA panels or the Oprah interview when she was “a walking panic attack” (40) to her publicity experiences as the Year of Yes progresses. How does the Dartmouth commencement speech act as a turning point?
4. How does Shonda’s sense of humor affect her experiences throughout the Year of Yes? Does it help her along the way, or does she use it as a shield?
5. Early on in the Year of Yes, publicist Chris calls Shonda out to prove that it’s not just big talk and to hold her accountable to saying yes to publicity opportunities. Why is having a strong support network so important? How does it affect Shonda’s success and motivation?
6. What does Shonda learn from her own characters, such as Christina Yang on Grey’s Anatomy?
7. How does motherhood change Shonda’s priorities? How does it change her relationships with and perspective on working mothers?
8. Saying yes began to take Shonda away from home too often, away from her children, and from sleep. How does saying yes to saying no allow the pendulum swing back to moderation? How does Shonda’s family help ground her?
9. Shonda writes about the importance of uninterrupted time for yes, for love, for what makes us happy; with no cell phones, laundry, or growing to-do lists to get in the way. What can you do in your own life to be more present, to give your uninterrupted attention to your loved ones?
10. How was Shonda’s relationship with food and her own body changed by saying yes?
11. Shonda is often recognized as a trailblazer for the way she portrays diversity in her shows (which she calls just plain normal), and the stakes are often very high for Shonda as F.O.D. (First. Only. Different.) How does the pressure affect her and her pursuit of yes? Do you think she embraces her role as “trailblazer”? Why or why not?
12. Consider this passage as Shonda reflects on the difficulty many women have with accepting a compliment: “When you negate someone’s compliment, you are telling them they are wrong. You’re telling them they wasted their time. You are questioning their taste and judgment” (193). How does saying yes change the way Shonda thinks about giving and receiving compliments? How does this affect her overall confidence?
13. While it was difficult (okay, maybe excruciating), what does Shonda learn from her realization that she doesn’t want to get married? What would you have done in her situation? Why?
14. Shonda writes that when she does something, she really does it and throws herself into it 100 percent. What would you do if you weren’t restricted by fear?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Watch Shonda's Dartmouth speech at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EuHQ6TH60_I. Watch for the moment when she exhales out her fear, then exhale out your own fear and share your best graduate-ready wisdom with your book club.
2. Dance it out. Prepare a playlist of your favorite songs that you can’t help but dance to, and have a dance party at the end of your book club meeting. Share your favorite songs, your favorite dance moves, and dance it out together!
3. Watch your favorite Shondaland shows with your book club. Go back to the beginning with Grey’s Anatomy, Private Practice, Scandal, or How to Get Away with Murder.
Shonda Rhimes is the critically acclaimed and award-winning creator and executive producer of the hit television series Grey’s Anatomy, Private Practice, and Scandal and the executive producer of How to Get Away With Murder. Her writing credits also include Princess Diaries 2: A Royal Engagement, Crossroads, and Introducing Dorothy Dandridge. Rhimes holds a BA from Dartmouth College in English Literature with Creative Writing and received her MFA from the USC School of Cinema-Television, where she was awarded the prestigious Gary Rosenberg Writing Fellowship. Rhimes was born and raised outside of Chicago, Illinois, and now runs her production company, Shondaland, from Los Angeles, where she lives with her three daughters. She is the author of Year of Yes and The Year of Yes Journal.
“Rhimes is, unsurprisingly, a fantastic memoirist: Her writing is conversational and witty and lyrical, inflected with the supple human breathiness you might expect from a person who spends her days writing dialogue. It features lots of great punchlines…It features occasional, chatty, second-person asides…[It] is also in many ways a side-door self-help book…[with] pieces of advice that concern not just Rhimes’s readers, but everyone. …Year of Yes is a book about the shifts taking place in Hollywood right now,and in the world right now, in the guise of a friendly memoir. It is, like Shondaland itself, making a statement. It is insisting that it is time for the people who used to be invisible to come forward and be seen.” —Atlantic.com
“Revealing and delightful.” — New York Daily News
“There’s real value in the experiences Rhimes shares… When, for example, she discusses learning to take better care of herself, the memoir feels honest, raw and revelatory.” — The Washington Post
“A sincere and inspiring account of saying yes to life…Rhimes tells us all about it in the speedy, smart style of her much-loved TV shows. She's warm, eminently relatable, and funny… Like a cashmere shawl you pack just in case, Year of Yes is well worth the purse space, and it would make an equally great gift. Rhimes said "yes" to sharing her insights . Following her may not land you on the cover of a magazine, but you'll be glad you did.” —Kirkus
“If you enjoy the rapid-fire dialogue of her characters, reading this book will feel like home. Rhimes opens up, and inspires, discussing her personal experiences as a sister, daughter, mother, friend and boss tempered with biting insights on societal expectations of women…[a] blend of biography and badassery.” — Ebony.com
“Rhimes guides the reader through her transformative yearlong experiment, each chapter dealing with a different personal challenge for herself, and she lets us deep inside her brain, carefully laying out all of her fears and self-doubt…candid and friendly, almost as if the two of you were catching up over drinks.” — Slate.com
“A mix of humor and conversational real talk…written with dashes of Oprah-esque inspiration but the no-B.S. frankness of, say, Dr. Cristina Yang from Grey's Anatomy…Even if Rhimes's fame and career don't make her an everywoman, she writes with an everywomanly sensibility…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.” —TVInsider.com
“Rhimes' familiar,conversational writing style makes the book a more accessible Lean In,a self-help book and personal journal all rolled into one.” —TVGuide.com
“Small, charmingly odd, inspirational stories…Quite simply, it's a book about how she learned to take care of herself, and how you might be able to as well. Welcome your new life coach, Shonda Rhimes.” — Vulture
“A self-help book dressed in casual clothes, lessons for living a better life told through relatable personal essays from the woman who set out to, in the course of a year, make her own better… There’s an uncanny familiarity to the journey Rhimes goes on… Never do you feel preached at while reading Rhimes’s book. This woman of huge fame and fortune is speaking directly to you, and she’s doing it with familiarity, humor, and earned wisdom…Year of Yes is an awakening as much as it is a reckoning. Recognize the power of what you’ve been doing. Do more of it.” — Daily Beast
"It’s like having a mini-Shonda in your head, encouraging you to go for it. And say ‘it’s handled.’" — The Skimm (Skimm Reads pick)
“Shamelessly entertaining…an antic, funny and surprisingly funky portrait of what it’s like to be one of the most fascinating forces in contemporary network television.” — Buffalo News (Editor's Choice Review)
“This memoir/call to arms from the one-woman force behind Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, and How to Get Away With Murder is basically a New Year’s resolution between two covers. Wherever you’re going, bring it with you.” — Bloomberg Businessweek
“Amazing…The title alone is giving us heart eyes… Life is full of opportunities and chances that we’ve can’t even imagine. That’s the core message of empowerment in Shonda’s new book, and we’re behind it one-hundred percent. ALL OF THE YES to Year of Yes.” —HelloGiggles
“Instead of writing passionate narratives for her TV characters, Rhimes adopted their pluck and bold attitudes and attacked life with a new sense of purpose…Who knew that such a small word could have such a life-changing impact? By saying “yes,” she learned to dance it out and stand in the sun. Dr. Cristina Yang would be soproud.” —Associated Press
“Year of Yes is as fun to read as Rhimes' TV series are to watch. Her authorial voice is fresh and strong." —Los Angeles Times
“Can help motivate even the most determined homebody to get out and try something new in the New Year.” —Chicago Tribune
“A book that is fun, dishy and inspirational all at the same time…a powerful book, a great gift for a friend or yourself, whether you’re a fan of the Shondaland lineup or not.” —Motherlode/NYTimes.com
“Brilliant…a peek into Rhimes' wise, funny, surprisingly candid brain, which contains opinions on everything from accepting compliments and balancing showrunning with single motherhood to, yes, the recent weight loss that's been (unfairly) making the most headlines. By the end of journey in The Year of Yes, you'll feel like you've gained a new best friend.” —Women & Hollywood/ Indiewire.com
“You’ll want to standup and cheer when she takes control, remakes her life, and learns to loveherself.” —Buzzfeed.com