By all accounts, Shonda Rhimes is an impressive, amazingly successful person. She is a showrunner who has cornered her own entire evening on ABC’s Thursday nights, running three shows that feature strong women in the leads. Kerry Washington and Viola Davis are heading the first dramas starring women of color since 1974’s Get Christie Love. Davis has already won an Emmy for her efforts. Rhimes cites herself as an “F.O.D.,” a “first, only, different person” who has blazed a new trail for women of color in television production.
What Rhimes crafts are entire worlds—a hospital, a private practice, a political consultant firm—full of drama and intrigue and not a little romance. It’s not for nothing that her logo is a giant heart surrounded by a roller coaster, in a world she calls Shondaland. In her first memoir, Rhimes reveals that she started creating Shondalands as a child, as the youngest of six children in Park Forest, Illinois, where she used the cans in her mother’s cupboards to create her own worlds that would be the precursors of Grey Sloan Hospital and Olivia Pope & Associates.
If you watch any of Rhimes’ shows, you know that her characters have a certain way of speaking, which is indicative on any of her many series. There are monologues. There are diatribes. There is a lot of clunky repetition, and lists that almost have audible bullet points. Not that you would have any question on where these verbal quirks come from, but you would have even less so after reading Rhimes’ new book, which basically is a 280-page Meredith Grey monologue. Repetition, some off-topic leaping, some efforts to wrangle everything back to the subject matter at hand: This is Rhimes’ language. This is how she operates. Only in this memoir, she’s working without the buffer of other writers in her writers’ room, and seemingly without a very strong-handed editor, because this is the Shonda show:
This is who I am.
More comfortable with books than with new situations.
Content to live within my imagination.
This Rhimes-esque language takes some getting used to if you’re really planning on buckling down with this book for an afternoon. After a bumpy start, however, things fortunately seem to smooth out a bit. In an intro bound to make anyone feel better about themselves who doesn’t have three shows from ABC to run, Shonda Rhimes is depressed. She has three kids, three shows, she’s exhausted, and, as mentioned above, kind of an introvert. So Rhimes decides, after some prodding from her older sister, to spend a whole year saying “Yes” to everything. It turns into an impressive year. She appears on television in front of the camera, on Jimmy Kimmel and The Mindy Project. She loses 100 pounds. She breaks up with her fiancé after realizing that like many of her heroines, she doesn’t want to get married.
Rhimes is so self-deprecatingly winning that it’s hard not to get caught up in her efforts. But at times, she just makes it so difficult. Her book includes three speeches that she had to say yes to during her year of yes, one being the Dartmouth commencement speech. She is only the third Dartmouth alumni to make such a speech, after Fred Rogers and Robert Frost. Frost, however, likely did not lead with the phrase “poop your pants,” with the word “poop” appearing seven times by the end of the speech.
The book, unfortunately, highlights what we already know: Rhimes is not the greatest writer in the world. Even her most famous dialogue speeches—like “Pick me. Choose me.”—have the ring of a folded-up note in a high-school locker. What she does have is relatability, a quality that makes you root for her, for Meredith and Cristina, for Olivia and Annalise. She has brought gay couples and same-sex sex scenes to the forefront of television. She just graphically depicted a woman utilizing her right to have an abortion in prime time. She has ousted cast members who got too grandiose or performed heinous acts off-set without a single look back. Refreshingly, she straight-up admits in this book that people who ask her how she does it all as a single mother miss the fact that she doesn’t do it all: If she’s at a staff meeting, she’s probably missing a science fair. If she’s at a ballet recital, she’s missing a networking event. Those of us who grapple with parenting on a much smaller scale than hers can only be grateful.
So Rhimes’ prose, like her dialogue, takes some getting used to, but like her shows, it has a tendency to grow on you. If you like Meredith’s “Choose me” speech, you’ll probably appreciate a narrative that addresses the reader directly and calls you a close friend. (“Did I just see you give me a look? Was that… did you just judge me? No. You are not about to come up into this book and judge me.”) A firmer editing hand might have made for a better read, but then it wouldn’t have been a Rhimes creation. And if you watch her shows or read her book, you know that is one thing she cannot abide.