Writer’s Workshop: Mistake, or Something Else?

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.

Everyone recognizes these lines, right? They’re from Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken,” a favorite of high school teachers and thus the bane of high school students. One discussion that always comes up is what the title means. I mean, it’s simple enough, right? He tells us the whole story right there: he’s out walking in the woods, he comes upon a fork in the road, and being unable to take both of them, looks down each path and chooses the one with less wear. At the end, he seems to regret it, as if he made a mistake.

He doesn’t. But at 42 (his age when he wrote this), he was prone to ask himself “what if I did this instead of that? How might my life have been different?” That’s something that he’ll never know, at least until the day time travel is perfected, and even then you have to wonder. Until then, it’s an issue of playing “what might have been.”

Playing that game is really futile. I know, because I play it a lot. Helps me get to sleep some nights, keeps me up other nights. The games don’t enter my dreams, most of which now involve using really filthy bathrooms. (Don’t ask me why, because I don’t know, and any time I get to browse through one of those “Interpret Your Dreams For Fun And Profit” books, there never seems to be a section on what using a filthy bathroom is supposed to mean.) But no matter how rosy a picture I can paint of my life had I done y instead of x, the fact is, I made a choice and now have to contend with what that decision meant. Besides, there are just too many variables: to put it in mathematical terms, if {x1, x2, … xn} is the set of alternatives and {y1, y2, … yn} is the set of consequences, one can never really know whether the mapping between both is a one-to-one or one-to-many relation. There are just too many variables involved.

So there are no real “mistakes” in life like there are in math, like 1 + 1 = 3. There are only alternatives, each of which has its own consequences. The trick is to learn to recover from what happens. Kind of like the old “adventure” games, where you say “turn right” and it tells you “you are in a forest, in front of a fork in the road.” Choosing the left fork leads you on one adventure, the right on another. Which is what Frost was probably talking about.

I’ve been interested lately in the idea of parallel universes that are just slightly different from each other. I’d be interested to know what’s happening to me there.


Mama Kat’s prompt was to write a post based on the word “mistake.” Hope you’ve enjoyed it.

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Author: John Holton

I'm a writer and blogger who writes and blogs about things that interest me.

25 thoughts on “Writer’s Workshop: Mistake, or Something Else?”

  1. Even bad choices continue to bring us new options, some of which lead to better things. I have at least one of those in my past. I don’t think I would change it, if I could.

    This is much to think about, John, but it’s fun to chart the path and consider the major forks, and what might have been. Thanks for getting my brain in gear today.

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  2. Math is overrated. So what if 1 + 1 β‰  3! Life is for the living and making mistakes and moving on. Hopefully with a cheerful heart and a renewed sense of possibility. πŸ˜‰

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    1. I used to think so, too, but an English teacher dispossessed (it’s a verb now) me of that understanding. Her question was “Then why is it called ‘The Road NOT Taken’?” I didn’t have an answer. πŸ™‚

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I was responding to last two lines you posted “I took the one less traveled by,
        And that has made all the difference.” You are right I did not focus on the title of the poem. I would say the poet may have been questioning his decision and having some regret. But we often second guess ourselves at low moments and I think it does not mean his choice was a mistake.

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  3. You wrote an interesting response to the prompt. I’m not crazy about that poem, but it’s not because anything is wrong with the poem itself. It’s because I was a grader for a university professor. His English 101 students always wrote their first essays on that poem. They were very, very bad essays that demonstrated they knew nothing about writing an essay. I got so tired of marking their essays, but being a grader for that professor, who was my mentor, wasn’t a mistake.

    Love,
    Janie

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  4. I usually find that the wrong fork turns out to be the right one in the end, but that it sometimes takes you on a difficult route. At least, this thought sustains me during the difficult parts of the route.

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    1. We have a need to see the path we’ve chosen work out, or at least not to have to reboot and start all over again. Not that there’s anything wrong with rebooting, and the chances are good we’ll end up doing that at least once in our lifetime anyway, but extenuating circumstances (family, mortgage, etc.) make that difficult. The choice of “should I stay or should I go?” will tend to be “stay,” unless things are so bad that’s not an option.

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  5. Ooh, dirty bathrooms. Feeling vulnerable in an unsafe place, can’t relax, have to carry your burdens even longer.
    Poor dear. I like Dan’s comment, I think that’s how I feel about it, too. All the bad things lead to good things, even if they don’t make us feel good, we learn stuff. Of course, that suuuuucks.
    Also, ew, numbers.

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  6. I love this poem. I’ve been writing about the growth mindset lately, so, for this week at least, all mistakes are for learning purposes. Loved your take on Mama Kat’s prompt!

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  7. Well said. I don’t I would spend that much time wondering what Mr. Frost meant. In life there’s always a fork in the road that requires a choice. Sort of like that Milton Bradley “Game of Life.”

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