Shonda Rhimes has got game. Her successes as an idea woman, a creator, and a writer in the world of TV are monstrous and worthy of note. In “Year of Yes: How to Dance It Out, Stand In the Sun and Be Your Own Person” (I had to get that full subtitle in there, obviously) Rhimes does something very different, something that takes courage, gumption, ovaries; she tells the reader about herself, her inner thoughts, and her struggles to be her best self. Her writing is conversational, witty, sassy, and on point. Does her writing fulfill her early ambition to be Toni Morrison? Well, no. It can’t. It shouldn’t. And it doesn’t try to. Instead, Rhimes’s writing is illustrative of her point – trust yourself, take chances, and believe in your talents and you can create something true and genuine and worthwhile.
At several times throughout this book, Shonda (and I feel I SHOULD call her Shonda after spending such personal time together, though she doesn’t know I exist) speaks her mind in a way that feels like a good friend articulating what you have struggled to say yourself. Of the unnerving experience of sharing your writing, baring yourself, she is dead on:
“A lady never shows her soul outside the boudoir. Showing you a bit of full-frontal me makes me nervous and twitchy, like I have a rash in an unfortunate place. It makes me breathe really hard in a weird panicked dog-sounding way. I makes me laugh inappropriately in public places whenever I think about people reading it.”
As someone who struggles with depression and anxiety myself, I was so grateful to read her internal battle and guilt around even having those feelings in the face of so much positive. “It’s pretty shameful of me to sit around saying I’m miserable when there are no bullets in my face and no one’s kidnapped me or killed me or left me alone to treat all the lepers,” she writes early in her book. She comes to realize, as many of us do over and over again, that having a good life does not guarantee mental health, peace, or happiness. And once she embraces this idea, she is able to embark on her Year of Yes, through which she feels herself transformed into the best and happiest version of herself, someone she had closeted away underneath pressures, anxieties, and doubt.
Despite all of her successes and the strength of her network of support, Shonda Rhimes shows us that she is not immune to the transformative force that becoming a mother has on…everything. She voices with pith and precision this impact in a way that, for me, also speaks to the constant challenge of being an individual in your own right AND being a mother.
“Being a mother isn’t a job. It’s who someone is. It’s who I am. You can quit a job. I can’t quit being a mother. I’m a mother forever. Mothers are never off the clock, mothers are never on vacation. Being a mother redefines us, reinvents us, destroys and rebuilds us. Being a mother brings us face-to-face with ourselves as children, with our mothers as human beings, with our darkest fears of who we really are. Being a mother requires us to get it together or risk messing up another person forever. Being a mother yanks our hearts out of our bodies and attaches them to our tiny humans and sends them out into the world, forever hostages.”
Perhaps most of all, and certainly most in tune with this Year of Reading Women, Shonda is a strong black woman and feminist. She beautifully dismisses one of the recurrent questions she gets as a black woman in a white man’s industry. “I hate being asked the Diversity Question -‘Why is diversity so important?’ (which ranks me as one of the dumbest questions on the face of the earth, right up there with ‘Why do people need food and air?’ and ‘Why should women be feminists?’).” She notes and rejects the chauvinistic measures by which women are often judged; “I don’t think it ever occurred to me before how much and how often women are praised for displaying traits that basically render them invisible.” Conversely, she is hilariously outraged when she finds herself getting more praise for “A dude. Versus three children; an entire night of television; a Peabody Award; a Golden Globe; lifetime achievement awards from the DGA, the WGA and GLAAD; fourteen NAACP Image Awards; three AFI Awards; a Harvard medal; and being inducted into the Broadcasting Hall of Fame […] He’s a great guy. One of the best. Clooney wishes. But since I am not Dr. Frankenstein and thus had no hand in his creation, I would prefer no to be celebrated for his presence. It’s oogey. Like my street value went up because a guy wanted me.”
Shonda Rhimes seems to know who she is and who she is not. She speaks with candor and humor, with pride and also humility. She is fully aware of the work she has put in to get where she is, while acknowledging those who came before and whose work raised the tide, climbed over barricades, and removed society’s blinders, making her chances to succeed all the greater. I will end with an outtake from a speech she gave in which she applies her voice and cadence to celebrating and thanking those who lay the groundwork for the rest of us.
All the women, white or black or brown, who woke up like this, who came before me in this town.
Think of them.
Heads up, eyes on the target.
Running. Full speed. Gravity be damned.
Toward that thick layer of glass that is the ceiling.
Running, full speed, and crashing.
Crashing into that ceiling and falling back.
Crashing into it and falling back.
Into it and falling back.
Woman after woman.
Each one running and each one crashing.
And everyone falling.
How many women had to hit that glass before the first crack appeared?
How many cuts did they get, how many bruises? How hard did they have to hit the ceiling? How many women had to hit that glass to ripple it, to send out a thousand hairline fractures?
How many women had to hit that glass before the pressure of their effort caused it to evolve from a thick pane of glass into just a thin sheet of splintered ice?
So that when it was my turn to run, it didn’t even look like a ceiling anymore.
I mean, the wind was already whistling through—I could always feel it on my face. And there were all these holes giving me a perfect view to the other side. I didn’t even notice the gravity, I think it had already worn itself away. So I didn’t have to fight as hard. I had time to study the cracks. I had time to decide where the air felt the rarest, where the wind was the coolest, where the view was the most soaring. I picked my spot in the glass and I called it my target.
And I ran.
And when I finally hit that ceiling, it just exploded into dust.
My sisters who went before me had already handled it.
No cuts. No bruises. No bleeding.
Making it through the glass ceiling to the other side was simply a matter of running on a path created by every other woman’s footprints.
I just hit at exactly the right time in exactly the right spot.