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Rethinking and Overthinking "The Road Not Taken"

Just the other day, I had occasion to revisit Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken," and I was very much surprised to realize it's not at all what I imagined in my junior high years (an old man's boast that he's succeeded because he'd chosen so wisely) but more a melancholy realization that you can never really tell what would have come of if you'd taken a different direction in life. There's no going back for a do-over.

Naturally, this got me to thinking about the decision trees that take us through our writing lives. Should I stay the course, or abandon this story to pursue an exciting new glimmer? Am I really writing in the genre that best suits my talents, or should I jump to a more commercial niche? Should I sign with this agent or that one? Stay with my publisher or move on? Stick with traditional presses or branch out into indy publishing?

These myriad choices are enough to paralyze a person, especially when you weigh the potential risks and rewards. And as in Frost's poem (see below) there's no way to be certain ahead of time which path is right, but that's no reason to waste your life dithering--or trying to imagine what would have happened if you'd chosen differently.

Instead, recognize that the art of making these decisions is just that, an art and not a science, with a healthy dose of luck thrown in. Allow that mistakes are bound to be made, just as there will sometimes be unforeseen rewards. Go with your gut and, even on those occasions when you do look back on a choice with deep regret, be forgiving of your former self--and remind yourself that you may not yet know the decision's final outcome. I can think of several occasions where I've kicked myself for months over a choice that, in the end, did pay off in surprising ways.

What writing/career decisions have you most angsted over? Did beating yourself up serve you as a warning, or was it just a demoralizing waste of time?

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim
Because it was grassy and wanted wear,
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I marked the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

--Robert Frost


Suzan Harden said…
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