Shonda Rhimes will be the first to admit she didn't expect to be famous. Hollywood is notoriously uncharitable to writers, but the success of her company ShondaLand — the force behind the ABC top-rated dramas Grey's Anatomy, Scandal and How to Get Away with Murder — has made her a household name.
In her new memoir, Year of Yes, Rhimes explains how she tried to balance her ambition with her life behind the scenes and how she treated her friends, family and (most importantly) herself. She tells NPR's Audie Cornish that her sister helped spark her "year of yes."
"My oldest sister said to me, 'You never say yes to anything.' And by that she meant I never accept any invitations," Rhimes says. "I never go anywhere. I never do anything. All I did was go to work and come home. And she was right. My life had gotten really small. Once I sort of realized that she was right, I was going to say yes to all the things that scared me, that made me nervous, that freaked me out, that made me think I'm going to look foolish doing it. Anything that took me out of my comfort zone I was going to do it, if asked to do it."
On what she means when she says her life had gotten "small"
I've always been an introverted person. And I think ... the experience of the explosion of those shows and the notoriety or the fame that came with it was very daunting for me. And you sort of curl in on yourself a little bit, and your world becomes a little bit smaller and tighter.
I was not a person who was going to be out at Hollywood parties. I was not a person that was living some ... glamorous life. And my time really was spent going to work ... and coming home and spending time with my family because that was what was important to me. And that was it.
On saying "yes" to her children
I was kind of a workaholic. I was someone who spent a lot of time working and I was getting really good at it, and I was really enjoying it. I was really enjoying it. And the idea that I was prioritizing work over home was clear and obvious and happening, only I wasn't seeing it.
And one day my daughter basically said to me, like, "Do you want to play?" And I was on my way out the door and I suddenly realized that I was going to miss so much stuff if I just didn't stop and actually play with my kids. And I started to prioritize playing with my kids, make it as important as going to work. ...
I decided that if they ever asked me if I wanted to play I would say yes. My answer would always be, yes. ... They only really ever want to play with you for about 15 minutes at a time. ... So it made it very simple because you play with them for a while and then they take off and they'd be thrilled and I would be 10 times more relaxed and happier and go off to the office in a much better place.
On being open about how she hires people to help care for her three daughters
I think a lot of successful women don't talk about the fact that they have help because it feels shameful. I mean we are all supposed to be doing this all ourselves, which is crazy, because we work. If you're working, how else are you doing it? You are not a magic person. You can't split yourself in two. You're not Hermione Granger with a Time-Turner. You have to have somebody help you. And there's no shame in that. As a matter of fact, I think there's something wonderful about the fact that you are employing another woman — feminist work — to help you in this endeavor. I think that's kind of great.
On the positive feedback she receives when she is seen as being in a relationship
I have never gotten so much approval and accolades and warmth and congratulations as when I had a guy on my arm that people thought I was going to marry. It was amazing. I mean nobody congratulated me that hard when I had my three children. Nobody congratulated me that hard when I won a Golden Globe or a Peabody or my 14 NAACP Image Awards. But when I had a guy on my arm that people thought I was going to marry, people lost their minds like Oprah was giving away cars. It was unbelievable. ... I was fascinated by it because I thought, like, I am not Dr. Frankenstein, I didn't make this guy — he just is there. Everything else I actually had something to do with.
On how she used to answer interview questions with what she calls "athlete talk"
Athlete talk is that stuff you'd always hear a professional athlete give after any game or match or any sporting event where ... their answers are just vague and sort of plastic. ... They actually never said anything of substance. ... It's actually very useful when you're terrified and don't want to answer any questions and you're afraid of saying the wrong thing or you're panicking. You could just say, "I'm glad to be writing television. I'm happy to be working for the network. I'm excited to be here." And you can answer almost anything with it.
On writing female characters who make unorthodox decisions
Part of what's been great for me in getting to write these characters and getting to have these shows is getting to explore these issues with these women. I really wanted to have characters who were living these lives that we're all living; trying to do things [in unconventional] ways, because I know that we're all wanting to or attempting to. And what really happens when you do? ...
Saying I don't want to get married, or I don't want to have kids are two of the biggest taboos for women to admit in our culture. And it's fascinating to me how many women I know who don't want to have kids who sort of keep it under wraps, like it's their secret. ... I have a friend who's got a theory that if she just waits everybody out, people will start to think she's infertile and people will think it's too rude to ask. ...
On how her characters reflect where she is in her own life
There's a reason that Meredith Grey was an intern starting out on her first day of work on a job that she had no idea what she was doing — because my first day on television, I had no idea what I was doing and that was Grey's Anatomy. And there's a reason that [Scandal's] Olivia Pope is a boss who runs a whole bunch of people's lives and doesn't really have anyone to talk to on the level of a co-worker or a peer — everybody works for her and she takes care of everybody. There's a difference between being a leader and then being a newbie. And so you've grown in that sense when you've grown for 12 years.
On whether she's working on any new characters
There are no new characters. I am purposely, definitely, defiantly not making any new characters right now. ... I'm having a really good time. Grey's [Anatomy] is in this amazing place of resurgence and Meredith Grey is having this special thing happen to her where as a widow she's become a really interesting character. I've been writing this novel for 12 years and I want to see where it goes. And that's really special for me.
And Olivia Pope is evolving in a way that I had never dreamed and I cannot wait to see what happens. And so I'm very invested in those things right now and I'm not ready to focus on anything else at the moment, other than the things that I am producing with other writers.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Shonda Rhimes is a TV show runner for the top-rated ABC programs "Gray's Anatomy" and "Scandal." And in the typical celebrity profile, I would ask her how she manages all that an raises three daughters - you know, the how-does-she-do-it-type interview. But in her new memoir called "Year Of Yes," you won't find the typical celebrity answer. Rhimes describes how she taught herself to say yes, yes to accepting that she needed help raising those kids, yes to admitting she was overweight. It all started back in Thanksgiving 2013 when her older sister was actually kind of picking on her.
SHONDA RHIMES: The actual year itself, or more-than-a-year itself, happened because my oldest sister said to me, you never say yes to anything. And by that, she meant, I never accept any invitations. I never go anywhere. I never do anything. And she was right. My life had gotten really small.
CORNISH: What's crazy to me is she's saying this to you at a moment when you are at the top of your game - I mean, when your shows are doing well, ShondaLand is up and running. It somehow didn't compute.
RHIMES: The explosion of those shows and the fame that came with it was very daunting for me, and I was not a person who was going to be out at Hollywood parties living some glamorous life. And my time really was spent going to work and coming home and spending time with my family 'cause that was what was important to me, and that was it.
CORNISH: One of the ways you talk about this is, like, your health and your relationship with food and trying to lose weight. We all tell ourselves certain narratives - right? - to kind of justify how we're living at any given time. And it's interesting how you identify yours. And I think one of them was something like, my body is a container for my brain...
CORNISH: ...Which seems good at first 'cause basically you're saying, hey, it's me, my work, my brain.
RHIMES: It was my very feminist statement of, don't just look at how a person looks. You're body is really just the thing that you carry your brain around in. That's absolutely not true. You are a whole person for a reason.
CORNISH: And what kind of changes did you make as a result? I'm reading here you lost upwards of a hundred pounds in the first year alone.
RHIMES: I did. And really, it was about just realizing that it was work, that I was never going to enjoy it.
CORNISH: It's nice to hear someone say that (laughter).
RHIMES: Yeah. I'm never going to be that person. And I really always resented hearing people say, like, you know, you just learn to love it or it gets easier. It doesn't. It sucks. I'm always going to want to eat the fried chicken. That's never going to change. And sort of accepting that and accepting that it was going to be as much work as succeeding at my job or being a parent made it so much simpler to deal with.
CORNISH: Another area you write about is parenting. And you have three daughters, I think, I guess, toddler to tween, right?
RHIMES: Yeah. I have a 13-year-old, a 3-year-old and a 2-year-old.
CORNISH: And in the book, you do something striking, I think, for a celebrity, which is to admit that you have paid help taking care of them.
CORNISH: What's the deal with successful women, especially celebrities, like, basically hiding that fact?
RHIMES: I think a lot of successful women don't talk about the fact that they had help because it feels shameful. I mean, we're all supposed to be doing this all ourselves, which is crazy because we work. If you're working, how else are you doing it? You're not a magic person. You can't split yourself in two. You're not Hermione Granger with a time-turner.
RHIMES: You have to have somebody help you. And there's no shame in that. As a matter of fact, I think there's something wonderful about the fact that you are employing another woman - feminist work - to help you in this endeavor. Like, I think that's kind of great.
CORNISH: So much of what you're talking about isn't - sometimes didn't seem so much as saying yes but, like, beating back judgment - right? - like, judgment of yourself, judgment from other people, other parents. I mean, is that part of this?
RHIMES: Honestly, I think it's really beating back - all the judgments are coming from yourself. It's all the standards you think you're supposed to be living up to that aren't real.
CORNISH: It also meant opening up your life, I think, in some ways to scrutiny. And in fact, you talk about how you almost got married and how that engagement...
CORNISH: ...fell apart. What happened?
RHIMES: That was sort of coming to the realization or being able to say out loud the concept that I don't want to get married, which is a real taboo in our society for some reason. You know, I just think that people feel you're unhappy. Like, marriage and children is their definition of happiness. That's the fairytale. And if you don't have those things, how could you possibly be happy?
CORNISH: And you're also trying to, I guess, walk the line of not insulting people who do value those things.
RHIMES: Well - and I don't think it has anything to do with them. That's what I think is fascinating, is that my parents have been married forever. They're the most beautiful, happy, most in-love couple I've ever seen in my entire life. They make me believe in true love. That doesn't mean that I belittle their marriage by not wanting to get married.
CORNISH: There's also that weird pressure for women, I think, in Hollywood or any other place where it's like, where's your man, right? Like, I think you've been public about adopting your first two daughters and using a surrogate for your last. And do - was there also this sense of, like, why is she doing this by herself?
RHIMES: Oh, definitely. I think those questions always get asked. What I found fascinating for me was, I've never gotten so much approval and accolades and warmth and congratulations as when I had a guy on my arm that people thought I was going to marry. It was amazing. I mean, nobody congratulated me that hard when I had my three children. Nobody congratulated me that hard when I won a Golden Globe or Peabody or my 14 NAACP Image Awards. But when I had a guy on my arm that people thought I was going to marry...
RHIMES: ...People lost their minds. Like, Oprah was giving away cars. It was unbelievable.
CORNISH: You've arrived, right?
CORNISH: Like, all that other stuff was just preamble (laughter).
RHIMES: I was fascinated by it because I thought, like, I'm not Dr. Frankenstein. I didn't make this guy. He just is there. Like, everything else I actually had something to do with.
CORNISH: I feel like you've spent much of your career trying not to talk about these things. And it's something that was always very admirable - right? - like, that you, like - I always though, oh, Shonda Rhimes, she's not going to sit around and talk about, like, the kids and whether there's a man or not. And did you have to, like, overcome that yourself?
RHIMES: I think I reached a point where, for a while, my characters were simply just speaking for me. But I think there was a time when I kind of realized that it wasn't even about that. It was about the fact that somehow I didn't think that I had anything to say for myself and that anything I had to say wasn't worth anybody hearing. And so writing it down was this discovery of feeling like, oh, this is what it is.
CORNISH: Looking forward, is there any character you can tell us about, a new character on the horizon that you feel some kinship to?
RHIMES: There are no new characters. I'm purposely, definitely, defiantly making myself not have any new characters right now.
CORNISH: Really? I feel like Twitter's going to explode somehow. Like, this is a spoiler - no new friends, as Drake would say.
RHIMES: I'm having a really good time. "Gray's" is in this amazing place of resurgence, and Meredith Grey is having this special thing happen to her where, as a widow, she's become a really interesting character. I've been writing this novel for 12 years, and I want to see where it goes. And Olivia Pope is evolving in a way that I had never dreamed, and I cannot wait to see what happens. And so I'm very invested in those things right now, and I'm not ready to focus on anything else at the moment.
CORNISH: Well, Shonda Rhimes, thank you so much for saying yes to us.
RHIMES: Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF WASHED OUT SONG, "IT ALL FEELS RIGHT")
CORNISH: The new memoir by Shonda Rhimes is called "Year Of Yes." It's out tomorrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.