By: Dr. Noelle Sterne
Too Much Caffeine and Content?
“Do each day all that can be done that day. You don’t need to overwork or to rush blindly into your work trying to do the greatest possible number of things in the shortest possible time.” ~Earl Nightingale
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 over ten years ago that the stock fell alarmingly (Lisa Baertlein, “Starbucks Cautious on 2008, Sees Recession Likely,”
Why? Because of the sheer volume of things, the company was selling. In addition to the ever-proliferating coffee concoctions, my moderate-sized mall store alone sold, all with the familiar logo, CDs, books, mugs, thermoses, coffee presses, coffee grinders, prepackaged coffees, desserts, packaged snacks, salads, lunch wraps, and breakfast sandwiches.
Starbucks Are Us
Standing in line at Starbuck, where I succumbed and bought something to go with my coffee, I realized that Starbucks and writers are similar.
Our wares—multiple projects—are strewn around our desks, floors, and dining room tables, each in its own state of unfinishedness. 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. Maybe the first Starbucks sign showed up when regulars complained that the smell of heating breakfast sandwiches overshadowed the heady and comforting coffee aroma. After a long stint of groundbreaking triumphs, major competitors revved their own coffee wagons as Starbucks sales and stock plunged.
Competition is Fierce
McDonald’s added espresso drinks to 800 locations, and Dunkin’ Donuts spread out a doughnut tray of flavored brews, like Mocha Almond Hot Latté! (Nichola Groom, “McDonald’s Sees $1 Billion in Sales from New Drinks,” Reuters, January 7, 2008. Or Dunkin’ Donuts Starbucks clone drinks, complete with a declaration of coffee sustainability.
Watching profits drip away, Starbucks Chairman Howard Schultz stepped in as CEO to resume his reign of the beans. With all those extra goodies, he knew that Starbucks had lost sight of its mission: its “commitment to the highest quality coffee in the world”.
To counteract the bad taste, in his ground(s)breaking “Transformation Agenda,” Schultz closed over 7,000 U.S. Starbucks shops to remind and retrain employees in “the Art of Espresso.” This unprecedented move was designed to “energize partners [employees] and transform the customer experience”.
Schultz decreed that stores would again freshly grind the beans so customers could breathe in the coffee, that some non-coffee products would be excised, and that even more tantalizing and innovative coffee potions would be developed, and that sweeping changes were coming to all Starbucks.
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 jolt us to ask similar and challenging questions.
- What are we doing in our work – and not doing?
- What’s our mission?
- Do we need shake-up reminders?
- Are there immediate and bold changes we need to make to our writing or habits?
Not All Words are Writing
Whether you’re a novelist, poet, essayist, or short story creator, watch out for the equivalents of Starbucks’ CDs, mugs, and sandwich wraps.
- Your faithful, regular contributions to critique groups, message boards, chatrooms, and forums?
- Creating long, thoughtful comments in online newsletters and articles?
- Your daily exchanges of chummy emails with writing friends?
- Your incessant texts with fellow writers (“I did twenty-four words today!”).
Diversity is Distracting
Watch out. These activities can fool you into thinking you’re writing when they only produce the illusion of writing. At the end of the day, despite small satisfactions and colleagues’ back-patting accolades, you know that you’ve been prancing along the beach instead of plunging into the sea of your actual writing.
As Schultz recognized, are you diversifying too much? 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 various self-help books, nascent stories, not to mention the file drawerful of notes for several novels.
Too Many Choices
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 starting. 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 create only a huge, depressive headache. Maybe I congratulate myself on my creative fertility, but I know I’m flitting, not focusing.
Sometimes we find ourselves succumbing to another temptation that further dilutes our mission. In the midst of our major project (the four-generation historical novel, the essay collection starting in fifth grade, the twenty-five-year memoir), we feel the irresistible urge to drop the entire thing, as writer Dori Klieber says, 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 Klieber 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”
Dori makes a point for at least starting a relationship with the new idea, even for a little while. Still, I see a significant danger: We may be sucked into continuing the new project and abandoning the current one 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? We’re writers who want to get our WIP(s) completed and then decide about publishing.
Concrete Plans Focus Your Efforts
“How would your life be different if…you had a plan of action towards your goals? Let today be the day…You stop allowing your days to be stolen by busy nothingness and take calculated steps towards your goals.”―
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 reeducation. I force myself to choose only three or four (or five or six) “current” projects and make a small list—a current column, two queries, the short story needing revision. The checklist sits on my desk, always in reminding view.
Next, I make another list so I won’t lose sight of the other projects I could easily veer off into at the expense of my actual priority.
This one is for more long-term projects—new essay ideas, half-started queries, three more story synopses, and approximate time targets for each. When a project on the immediate list gets completed, another from the long-term list replaces it.
Our Writer’s Retraining
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 constantly tastes coffee. We all live and breathe our writing.
Like Schultz’s employee retraining, meant to energize and transform, my list of writing projects aims to restore your enthusiasm and reclaim your sense of order, priority, and control. The list channels your creativity back to the writing itself and leads to the delight of completed projects.
Remember, You’re Sending 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 writer’s how-to publication I found and every fiction journal in Writer’s Market. All I did was mail, email, and keep records of it. The more I sent, the more depressed I got. Of course, I wasn’t writing anything new (and getting very few acceptances).
Then I remembered another Starbucks headline: the announcement that Starbucks was closing a record number of stores in the United States: Allison Lynn’s “Starbucks to Close 600 Stores in the U.S.” This article spurred my private “Transformation Agenda,” following Schultz’s principle of paring down to concentrate more fully on what mattered.
Grounds for the Lesson
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. Common sense, yes, but that advice freed me. So I made another list 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.
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 feel overwhelmed and frustrated with all your writing projects, declare and define your own transformation. Make a plan, weed your projects, and adapt any ideas here. Especially if you feel you’re losing the passion and delight of your writing, it’s time to sit back, sip a little caramel macchiato nonfat no-whip, and remember, you’re selling coffee.
Dr. Noelle Sterne is an author, editor, writing coach, writing and meditation workshop leader, spiritual counselor, and gentle nag. Noelle has published over 700 writing craft articles, spiritual pieces, essays, short stories, and occasional poems and is published in:
Pieces have appeared in various anthologies as well as individual publications such as Author Magazine, Chicken Soup for the Soul (sixth story November 2021), Journal of Expressive Writing, Life and Everything After, Live Write Thrive, MindBodySpirit, Mused, Pen & Prosper, Romance Writers Report, Ruminate, Sasee, Thesis Whisperer, Transformation Coaching (bimonthly), Unity Daily Word, Unity Magazine, WE Magazine for Women, Women in Higher Education, Women on Writing, Writing and Wellness, The Writer, Writers Digest.
Monthly Contributor for:
Textbook and Academic Authors Association
Two Drops of Ink Blog
In July and August 2018, Noelle was one of six webinar presenters forTAA’s “Writing Gym.”Her topic: “Get Started, Continue Your Draft, and Finish”, which continues to be offered. She is also one of several coaches in TAA’s program of free one-hour academic coaching to members.
Noelle 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,” which continues to be offered.
Swallowing her own advice (hard as it may be), Noelle is completing her third novel.
Services Provided by Dr. Noelle Sterne
I serve writers in all genres through individual, private, customized sessions. I offer coaching, guidance, idea generation, structuring, critiquing, line and developmental editing, and gentle and uncompromising critiques, helping you create and complete your unique work.
Wherever you are stuck—idea stage, molasses beginning, desert-dry middle, deflated end, agonizing final editing—I help you dig out and move forward.
Services include time management; block-conquering; emotional, psychological, and spiritual support; and specific suggestions and examples for continuing and finishing your draft. I am honored to help you complete your work to the highest standards, develop your talents, and reach your dreams.
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