Monday, July 19, 2010

A Road Not Taken

A poem that always leaves me puzzled is Robert Frost's The Road Not Taken.  Most people know it by its most famous line "I took the road less traveled by".  When I first heard the poem in high school, my English teacher said it was about a celebration of individualism, of going your own way, forging your own path, etc etc. But I never bought into that explanation.
The poem seems simple enough. The first stanza puts us right in the middle of the woods with a hiker who comes to a fork in the path. A decision has to be made about which road to take. That part I understand.
But what I don't get is the narrator's voice. I never know exactly what tone to take when I read it (which makes reciting it out loud very difficult). It starts out factual, but then it runs the range of emotions. Sometimes the voice seems gloomy. Other times it’s optimistic. Other times it seems cagey and sly. Every time I read it, I get another feeling.
And then there’s that last stanza which talks about a future regret. What do you do with the line "I shall be telling this with a sigh somewhere ages and ages hence…?" Go ahead. Place the back of your hand on your forehead and say that line out loud.  It's almost melodramatic, and Mr. Frost is not known for melodrama.
A few months ago, I did a little research. Here's what I found.  When someone asked Robert Frost about this poem, he said, "You have to be careful of that one. It's a tricky poem. Very tricky." 
Some scholars believe Frost wrote this poem in the persona of his friend Edward Thomas. Frost and Thomas took frequent walks in the woods and Thomas would always wonder about the other paths. Now the voice starts to make a little bit of sense. Instead of it being Robert Frost’s typical voice, he’s writing in a way that gently pokes fun of his wistful friend. BTW, I can totally relate to Edward Thomas when it comes to wondering about those other roads. Playing the "what if" game is one of my favorite pastimes.
Okay, let's get back to that path.  The narrator looks down one road but then takes the other “because it was grassy and wanted wear” so we assume he took that road less traveled.  But then in the very next line he claims that when it comes to travelers the paths are pretty much equal: “Though as for that, the passing there/Had worn them really about the same”.
Some scholars suggest that in those lines Frost is talking about his own decision to become a poet.  Maybe he’s saying the world is filled with poets.  Writers like to think that their decision to write is unique but anyone whose ever been acquainted with a slush pile will tell you that there are a lot of us out there.
So he’s taking a path that’s well worn. Then why does he sigh?  And why does he know he’s going to sigh?  For me, this poem always comes back to those last lines and the sigh that the narrator has planned for the future.  Is it one of regret?  Of satisfaction? Or is he still making fun of his friend?
I can’t decide.
There’s a reason I’m thinking about this poem. I’m at a point where I have to make some decisions for the characters in my w.i.p.  And I’m having a hard time.
I know. I know. Writers are supposed to write and eventually our characters will let us know how to shape the story. But honestly, sometimes I have to step in and make a few decisions.  First person vs. third?  Where and how the story begins. Right now, my main character is telling me every detail of his life including his earliest memories. At some point I’m going to have to say to him, “Dude, that’s not going into this story”.
So when you’re writing and you come to that proverbial fork in the road, how do you make your decisions?  How do you know it’s the right path?  Heck, how do you know you're making the right decisions in your non-writing life too?

BOOK GIVE AWAY: I’m so thrilled to be a guest blogger on Ellen Potter’s and Anne Mazer’s creativity blog this week.  Their book SPILLING INK is one of my new favorite books on writing. SPILLING INK is written for kids, and children will love it. But it’s a great book for writers too. Both Ellen and Anne are very forthcoming about their own writing process. I love this book for its great practical advice and for its honesty.
 Hop on over and make a comment on the blog post, and you’re automatically entered into the contest to win a copy of SPILLING INK.


Anonymous said...

I'm an outliner, but sometimes I get stuck with it. I encounter forks. I let the outline sit for a long time, and then I arrive at the right decision (or at least I hope I do). Thanks for the contest linkage.

nanmarino said...

Thanks for your comment, Medeia. Forks in the road are always hard for me. I always wonder.. I saw you commented on the SPILLING INK blog. SPILLING INK is an amazing book. It's a great book for writers of any age. Good luck with the giveaway!

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Nan.

Andrea Vlahakis said...

Nan, go take a look at my blog—I've got an award for you!

Anonymous said...

Hi Nan!

I came up with an idea for the next novel to write, got excited about it, got started. A few days later, I had a dream about a totally different book idea that left me out of breath with excitement. For the next week or so I tortured myself with Robert Frost's question: which path shall I take -- which idea is better? Each seemed so different, and yet so inviting. What helped pull me through was a realization that either choice would probably be fine. In writing, as in life, we agonize so much about which way to go, forgetting that sometimes there is more than one way to get to where we want to go. Sometimes, the important thing is just to keep on walking.


nanmarino said...

Very wise words, Katia. Thanks for your comment.

Anonymous said...


Let us know about the "Spilling Ink" book giveaway. Holding my breath to see who the lucky winner is. I got this book from the library (upon your recommendation!) and would love to own it. But if someone else already does, then CONGRATULATIONS to that person! (sniff, sniff!)

Anonymous said...

I'm constantly taking the "other" path/road as I like to see what's around the next bend and see where I will end up.

I never know whether it's the right path when I take it and don't really care, as I have come to trust my gut over the many years that I have hung a left right in mid-stream.

I have had some interesting encounters along the way both in my writing life, and in my real life.

nanmarino said...

Katia, I don't know who the lucky winner is, but I believe that the contest happens every time there's a blog post so check out their blog And enter again :) I love SPILLING INK. I love reading about Ellen and Anne's writing process.
SA, Yes, trusting your gut will lead to interesting encounters. My problem is sometimes my gut is not very communicative.