The mastermind behind ABC’s “TGIT” juggernaut, Shonda Rhimes is now about to conquer yet another platform: book publishing. Her upcoming memoir, “Year of Yes,” chronicles what happened when she decided to spend a year saying “yes” to opportunities that scared her — from public speaking to live TV appearances.
But the book ultimately reveals much more about the notoriously private showrunner: She ended up changing her friendships, her relationships — and even her body, losing well over 100 lbs. Here, she tells Variety about the decision to reveal herself in print.
What do you hope people take away from your book?
I don’t know that I’ve thought about that as much as I’ve thought about getting it out there and being done. I think there’s a part of me that felt like there’s something in there about having the courage to change. I don’t think people think it’s possible to change who you are or how you see yourself or change your ways after a certain point in time. For me, that felt very surprising.
What inspired you to be so open about your personal life?
It was the last “yes,” interestingly enough. I was supposed to be writing different books for Simon & Schuster and my book editor said, you’ve been talking about this so much. Why don’t you write about this instead? A, I’ve been saying yes to everything and B, it did seem like a real challenge. Part of it was that. And part of it was not needing to be worried about what anybody else thought.
If you had to pick one, which “yes” most changed your life?
I’m not sure I could pick just one, but probably two of them: Yes to difficult conversations, which transfers over every aspect of your life. Difficult conversations at work, difficult conversations with other people. At home. With yourself. And yes to more play, less work. Because I definitely am guilty of being a workaholic. That changed the quality of my life in a lot of ways.
Which yes was the hardest yes?
Probably the first one — the idea that I was going to take this leap in the first place. In a weird way, once I started, because I am this very competitive person, because I am my own worst critic, it felt like once I started, I couldn’t stop. So it was the leaping in in the first place.
How did saying yes affect your work life as a producer?
Prior to this year, I was more of a writer than a producer in the sense of I was more comfortable behind my keyboard and in an editing room than I was on a soundstage. I always had to force myself to do it because I’m naturally shy. I’m not a standing in front of you, in your face person. I think what really changed was because I am willing to have difficult conversations, because I am willing to tackle things that felt like that they might be uncomfortable and deal with any problem, that changed. In a great way, that made for some really amazing relationships that were much closer than they had been before — and much more productive and positive.
You got rid of some toxic people in your life, too.
That I think is a revelation. The idea that you’re not allowing yourself to see that they’re toxic. Because if you see that they’re toxic, you have to deal with it. People always say to me, what obstacles have you overcome? And I would always say, “There are no obstacles. My friends are great! There are no toxic people!” It’s the same thing. I just rewrote them into people who are great. The idea is that once you see the thing, you can’t unsee it. That’s been kind of a revelation to discover who people really are.
You also walked away from your relationship. How hard was that to write about?
There’s a reason why it’s one of the last chapters! (Laughs.) I really did go back and forth on it and did not want to write it. And then it felt inauthentic to not put it in. Then I finally figured out how to put it in without actually opening up someone else’s life, because that’s the part that you just don’t want to do. Somebody else didn’t say, hey, I want to be part of this story. When I finally figured out how to put it in the book without opening up someone else’s life, then I felt OK about it. I really did spent a lot of time figuring out how to do that without making me feel like I wasn’t being exploitative and being an asshole, frankly.
You explain eloquently in the book why you love weddings — but they’re just not for you.
I do think it’s an important thing for women. Because we are all told that it’s what we’re supposed to want. It’s such a weird taboo subject in a strange way to be like I don’t want that. And I’m not interested. And men say it all the time. George Clooney was like, “I’m not going to get married.” Of course, now he is. Those things were men get to say. And when women say it, people are shocked. Are you sure? Oh my god. How can that be? It just felt like an important thing to say because it’s very true for many women I know.
But motherhood is also important to you.
That’s something I always knew I was going to be. As much as I knew I was a writer, I knew I was a mother. That felt instinctive to me. Then how to balance that with the writing was a thing I was willing to put in the work for. When you realize what you are willing to put in the work for and what you are not willing to put in the work for, it’s very easy to have your priorities laid out for you.
You’re pretty honest about making that choice — motherhood over marriage.
I felt for a long time with this book, am I about to type this? Am I about to write this down? Just being really concerned. And then just being, well, it’s true. The thing that I’ve always felt about writing the shows is, you get to hide behind your characters. I would write things all the time, and people would say, “I can’t believe that person did that” — but it was true. I felt like if it was true, somebody out there was going to relate to it. When I wrote it for a character, if it was true, somebody else out there must be feeling it, too. It can’t just be me. So I went ahead and said, “I’m just going to write it.” Some people will agree, some people won’t agree.
You mention often how much Cristina Yang meant to you as a character. Was it difficult then to lose her when Sandra Oh left “Grey’s Anatomy”?
I think I identify with a lot of my characters. I identify with Olivia Pope. I identify with Meredith Grey. I really identified with Violet (from “Private Practice”). Violet was very much a host in a lot of ways for me. But I don’t think I realized how powerfully I identified with Cristina until the character was leaving. That entire year, both Sandra and I were grieving in some way the loss of that character. Knowing it was coming, preparing ourselves for the leave taking, what it was going to mean. Struggling with it. Every moment really did feel very special. And for me, whenever anybody talked about “Grey’s,” and how can you write “Grey’s” without Patrick, I always felt, how can you write “Grey’s” without Sandra? I had no idea how I was going to be able write “Grey’s” without the other half of Meredith and Cristina. That was the love story of the show. Once I realized I could do that, then the show was just about how Meredith stands on her own two feet without Cristina. But Cristina was very important to me.
So how has life been post-Cristina?
That’s been part of the journey. Part of the journey really has been not needing to lead my existence through a character anymore. I wasn’t living my life because I had such a rich life with these people, but I was spending all my time in my imagination. I could be alone for hours, but never feel alone because I was writing. You’re living in a whole other world, and I was spending as much time if not more with them than actual people in my life. Those characters were alive. Now I don’t think that’s not as true in that sense. There’s no need to hide behind those characters.
As much as the book is about saying “yes,” you also learn the power of saying “no,” too.
I thought of this the other day, and I wish I’d put this in the book: The idea that saying no is really just saying yes to yourself. No, I don’t want to do that for you. No, I don’t want to give you that money. No, I don’t want to do that favor for you. We’re so conditioned to not want people to think that we’re mean or selfish. We bend over backwards to be a little too nice. You find yourself saying yes to things you don’t want to do. And there’s absolutely no reason for it. If you don’t want to do it, don’t do it. The worst thing that can happen is that somebody else will feel bad. That’s OK in a lot of instances. When you know you’re being manipulated, why are you doing that to yourself? Why are you treating somebody else better than you’re treating yourself?
You also chronicle your weight loss in the book. How are you feeling today? Are you still feeling good about yourself?
That has been a fascinating journey to watch other people deal with. To me it’s just the outward example of everything else. You’re still exactly the same person, but to other people, it’s this huge thing that is very big for them. But for me, it’s the same thing. Except maybe I have a ton more energy.
Are you happy with how the book turned out?
For the first time I was able to verbalize my writing process in a way that made sense. I always feel like I read something about writing process, and I’m like, that doesn’t make any sense. I was able to verbalize my writing process, and I was really proud of figuring out a way to get that down on paper.
How would you describe it?
There’s the concept of running down the long hall to the door that’s in front of you, and inside the door is your creativity. The more I do it, the faster I’m able to do it. So now I’m at this place because I have to do it so often, I can access my creativity much faster than I ever was before. For me, that thing that always stops us all from getting anything done, that long hall that you’re supposed to be running down, that’s filled with all the distractions, the thing that keeps you from getting to the door, is just about getting down the hall.