By: Noelle Sterne
“The fact is, I don’t know where my ideas come from. Nor does any writer. The only real answer is to drink way too much coffee and buy yourself a desk that doesn’t collapse from all your papers or when you beat your head against it.” ―
Coffee and Content
It’s not only the little guys who sometimes lose their way. To my constant astonishment, so do the big guys. Even Starbucks.
I remember reading Lisa Baetlein’s “Starbucks Cautious on 2008, Sees Recession Likely,” Reuters, January 30, 2008 and wondering why Starbucks was having problems.
Because of the many, many things the company was into. In addition to the ever-proliferating coffee concoctions, in my moderately-sized mall store alone, they sold:
- Breakfast Sandwiches
- Coffee Grinders
- Coffee Presses
- Lunch Wraps
- Packaged Snacks
- Prepackaged Coffees
Succumbing to the online Starbucks site, I was mesmerized by all the wares, and thought about us writers.
Our wares—multiple projects—are strewn around our desks, floors, and dining room tables, each in its own state of “unfinishedness.”
We know we’re busy, excited about our work, and dedicated. But somehow, we can’t seem to focus on any one project. Like Starbucks, our many interests and products do anything but assure our success.
Wake Up and Smell the Many Coffees
Maybe the first Starbucks sign showed up when regulars complained that the smell of breakfast sandwiches overshadowed the heady and comforting coffee aroma. After a long stint of groundbreaking triumphs, as Starbucks sales and stock plunged, major competitors revved up their own coffee wagons.
McDonald’s added espresso drinks to 800 locations and saw $1billion in sales from new drinks. Dunkin’ Donuts spread out a doughnut tray of flavored brews, like Mocha Almond Hot Latté, Snickers Coffee, and Caramel Craze, and assured us that their policy included sustainable coffee.
Starbucks Chairman Howard Schultz, watching profits dripping away, stepped in as CEO to resume his reign of the beans. With all those auxiliary goodies, he knew that Starbucks had lost sight of its mission: its “commitment to the highest quality coffee in the world.”
Let’s Become the Bean Counter
Schultz decreed that stores would again freshly grind the beans so customers could breathe in the coffee, that some products would be excised, and that even more tantalizing and innovative coffee potions would be developed.
But what does all this entrepreneurial activity and audacity have to do with writers writing?
Schultz’s unflinching and instant actions to reverse an intensifying downward spiral jolts us with similar difficult questions:
1. What are we doing or not doing with our writing?
2. What’s our mission?
3. Do we need jolting reminders?
4. Do we too need to make some immediate, bold changes?
Did We Just Become a Starbucks Writer?
Whether you’re a novelist, poet, essayist, or short story creator, watch out for the equivalents of Starbucks’ CDs, mugs, and sandwich wraps.
Has your writing fallen into these traps?
- Faithful contributions to critique groups, message boards, chat rooms, or forums?
- Long, thoughtful comments in online newsletters and articles?
- Daily exchanges of chummy emails with writing friends?
- Your incessant texts with fellow writers (“I did twenty-four words today!”).
Fine. But watch out. These activities can fool you into thinking you’re writing. They produce the illusion of writing. You know at the end of the day, despite small satisfactions and colleagues’ back-patting accolades, that you’ve been prancing along the beach instead of plunging into the sea of your real writing.
Or, as Schultz recognized, are you diversifying too much? In his ground(s)breaking “Transformation Agenda,” Schultz closed over 7,000 US Starbucks shops to remind and retrain employees in “the Art of Espresso.” This unprecedented move was meant to “energize partners [employees] and transform the customer experience.”
Diversify or Dedicate Your Writing?
Despite your avowed genre preference, what about all those simultaneous projects?
I know I have too many—three columns, four personal essays, five craft articles, chapters in different self-help books, nascent stories . . . Not to mention the file drawerfull of notes for several novels.
With too much going on at once, Starbucks lost control and market share.
What we can lose is equally valuable: time, motivation, momentum. I sit blankly staring at my mound of folders, feeling defeated before I start.
I peek at one project, do a little, inch into another, dip into it for a moment, and hobble to another.
The result? Nothing’s ever finished, and I end up with a depressive headache. Maybe I can congratulate myself on my creative fertility, but I also know I’m flitting, not focusing.
Back to Basic Black Coffee
Sometimes we find ourselves succumbing to another temptation that further dilutes our mission. Many writers experience the writer’s parallel seduction. Amid our major project (the four-generation historical novel, the essay collection starting in fifth grade, the twenty-five-year memoir), as writer Dori Kleber says, we feel the irresistible urge to drop the entire thing in favor of the new idea.
She quotes writer Matt de la Peña, who recognizes that the new idea seductively “comes calling to you wearing just a towel, out of the shower.” We can hardly stop ourselves from ravishing it.
But, as Kleber observes, “If we start working on that new idea, undoubtedly we’ll reach a point where we have problems. And then, the argument goes, we’ll get distracted by another new idea, and another, and we’ll never finish anything.”
Kleber makes a point for at least starting a relationship with the new idea, even for a little while, but I see a significant danger: We may be too tempted to abandon the current project like used coffee grounds, no matter how much we earlier savored it.
Starbucks became so enamored of the trap of wraps and seduction of salads that it lost sight of its mission. As writers, we should recognize similar self-defeating drifts, especially with the siren songs of new ideas.
Not that Starbucks can’t sell a few snacks, or we can’t nurture a few concurrent projects, but the key is to remind ourselves of our mission. Remember, said Schultz, we’re selling coffee. Our writing mission? To work consistently on our project(s) to completion.
Our Writer’s Retraining
When my mission threatens to swirl out like the dregs of my latté down the drain, and I bump up against my piles of files, I know I need a reminder lesson in prioritizing, something like Schultz’s marathon retraining.
I force myself to choose only three or four (or five or six) “now” projects and make a small list—a current column, two queries, the short story needing revision. The list sits on my desk, always in reminding view.
Next, so I won’t lose sight of the other projects I could easily veer off into, I make another list. This one is for more long-term projects—new essay ideas, half-started queries, three more story synopses, with approximate time targets for each. When a project on the immediate list gets completed, another from the long-term list replaces it.
This method isn’t unusual or inspirational, and it presupposes that you know your mission, keep it close, and want more than anything to continue acting on it. Schultz lives, breathes, and regularly tastes coffee. We all live and breathe our writing.
Like Schultz’s retraining, meant to energize and transform, the writing project list technique aims to restore your enthusiasm and reclaim your sense of order, priority, and control. The list channels your creativity in the writing itself and leads to the elation of completed projects.
Send Coffee to Those Interested in Coffee
Taking on too many writing projects is a major torpedo for losing sight of our first mission. A second is sending our work to too many places, like Starbucks’ scattershot battery of non-coffee products.
Maniacally, I used to send articles and stories to every writers’ how-to publication I searched out and every fiction journal in Writer’s Market.
All I did was mail, email, and keep records of all of it. The more I sent, the more depressed I got. Of course, I wasn’t writing anything new (and getting accepted very little).
Then I remembered another Starbucks headline: the announcement that Starbucks was closing a record number of stores in the United States. This article spurred my private “Transformation Agenda,” following Schultz’s principle of paring down to concentrate more fully on what mattered.
Following the principle, I remembered Jenna Glatzer’s advice in Make a Real Living as a Freelance Writer.
- Choose only a handful of markets.
- Focus on those you really want to break into.
- Don’t get distracted.
Common sense, yes, but that advice freed me. So I made another list, this time of only six or seven publications for different genres. This list sits snug against my immediate projects list. Together they remind me that I’m sending coffee.
Grounds for the Lesson
If the head of the capitalistic coffee giant can admit Starbucks spilled the beans and lost its way—and in full media view—can we not also look into ourselves and acknowledge the same?
If you’re feeling overwhelmed and frustrated with all your writing projects, declare and define your own transformation agenda.
1. Make a plan.
2. Weed your projects.
3. Adapt any of the ideas here to fit your schedule.
Maybe it’s time to sit back, sip a little nonfat no-whip, and remember, you’re selling coffee.
Author, editor, writing coach, writing and meditation workshop leader, spiritual counselor, Noelle has published over 600 writing craft articles, spiritual pieces, essays, short stories, and occasional poems.
Author Magazine, Black Fox Literary Magazine, Chicken Soup for the Soul, Children’s Book Insider, Coffeehouse For Writers, Funds for Writers, InnerSelf, Inside Higher Ed, Mused, New Age Journal, Pen & Prosper, Ruminate, Sasee, Story Monsters Ink, Thesis Whisperer, Transformation Coaching, The Write Place At the Write Time, Unity Magazine, Writer’s Journal, Writing in a Woman’s Voice, The Writer, and Writer’s Digest.
Academic mentor, editor and coach, with the Ph.D. from Columbia University, she helps doctoral students wrestling with their dissertations and publishes articles in several blogs for dissertation writers. Noelle has delivered requested presentations on academic writing at several universities and is a regular contributor to Abstract, the blog of the Textbook and Academic Authors Association (TAA).
She also contributes pieces to other national and international publications on dissertation issues and writing. In July and August 2018, she, was one of six webinar presenters for its “Writing Gym.” Her topic: “Get Started, Continue Your Draft, and Finish.”
Eons ago, she published a children’s book of original (groanworthy) dinosaur riddles, Tyrannosaurus Wrecks (What do you get when dinosaurs crash their cars?). Riddles from the book appear in several elementary school language arts texts, and the book was featured on PBS’s Reading Rainbow.
A Chicken Soup for the Soul podcast (May 16, 2017) featured her story “Time to Say Goodbye” from a 2013 volume: https://chickensoup.podbean.com/e/tip-tuesday-why-you-should-remove-toxic-people-from-your-life-and-how-to-do-it/_
Noelle’s book Trust Your Life: Forgive Yourself and Go After Your Dreams (Unity Books, 2011) contains examples from her practice, writing, and other aspects of life to help readers release regrets, relabel their past, and reach lifelong yearnings.
Her book Challenges in Writing Your Dissertation: Coping With the Emotional, Interpersonal, and Spiritual Struggles (Rowman & Littlefield Education, 2015) is an invaluable resource for doctoral candidates.
As part of pursuing her writing dream, Noelle’s mission is to help other writers reach theirs and create the lives they truly desire.
Taking her own advice (hard as it may be), she recently completed her first novel.