How to Choose the Right Path When There are SO MANY POSSIBILITIES
Photo courtesy of Luis Hernandez.

How to Choose the Right Path When There are SO MANY POSSIBILITIES

Written by Neil Hughes

Topics: Creativity

To my great surprise, I’ve written two books.

The first was non-fiction, and I spent the entire process worrying about making factual errors. I checked and rechecked (and rechecked) everything obsessively. At the very least, I wanted to be able to honestly say that I’d done my best to make sure any information I was sharing was reasonably accurate.

As a means of handling this anxiety, occasionally I mixed in a chapter of flash fiction. This was such a relief! These random chapters about wizards and aliens and talking flowers didn’t have the same obligation to be correct – in fiction, I could make up anything I liked.

Idly, I dreamed of someday writing an entire novel… a whole project free from this pressure, a project where there were no rules.

Be Careful What You Wish For

Of course, it turned out that having no rules was also horrible… just differently horrible.

I’d never anticipated what this complete freedom would feel like when I experienced it for real. It was dizzying. The absence of rules suddenly felt vertiginous, and terrifying.

Should this character go to this place, or that other one? Should they fight, or should they make up? What if the magical shop got burned down? Or trampled by a robot army? Or what if an eloquent snake turned up and played the trumpet?!

“PLEASE, SOMEONE, HELP ME! GIVE ME RULES, I CRAVE STRUCTURE!”

Unfortunately, nobody could give me that structure, mainly because it doesn’t exist. Unlike with non-fiction, there’s no “right answer” to what a story should be. Changes may make a story better or worse, but – in theory – even a radical genre shift and a sudden talking snake could be made to work.

(That example came to me randomly, but I’ve just realised that the bestselling book of all time actually begins with a talking snake, so it’s certainly not automatically a bad idea…!)

The point is that there’s no one story I could write. There’s an infinite series of possibilities, even within one, particular story.

Irritatingly, I found myself missing my old frustration of being pressured to find the ‘correct’ answer. At least there usually was one, and I could generally be sure when I’d found it.

Opposite Problems, Differing Solutions

It’s typical that I managed to get frustrated by two opposite problems. While both problems could be solved by simply “not writing a book”, let me share the solutions I found assuming you (foolishly) wanted to do such a thing.

The pressure of non-fiction has an obvious solution: patiently plodding on, and being thorough.

The vertigo of fiction also has an obvious solution, but I found it harder: CHOOSE.

The infinite possibility of the blank page is terrifying. So you have to choose something to put in it. A character, a scene, a place, a plot idea… as long as it’s something. This is your initial fixed point. From this, you can define everything else. Who else is near this character, or in this place? What happens after that plot point?

A story can’t exist without fixed points – at the very least, the hero must start out somewhere, and she must end up somewhere else. Once I fixed some ideas in place, I could be as creative as I liked with the parts in between.

These fixed points aren’t “right answers” in the non-fiction sense, but I could treat them as if they were. They made up the essence of the story I was trying to tell.

And this is the crucial difference: unlike non-fiction, fiction isn’t universal. War & Peace is no more the “right answer” than Harry Potter.

There Are No Fixed Points in Life Either

This fear of choosing what happened in my book mirrors the feelings I sometimes have about life.

Should I study this, or that? Live here, or there? Date this person, or another? The possibilities multiply outwards at a frightening rate. And, just like when writing a story, nobody can give us a “right answer.”

It’s not the right answer to move to New York. It’s not the right answer not to. Either choice is just a fixed point on the story we’re trying to tell.

Our life would certainly be different if we changed jobs, started a business, studied something else, moved abroad, got married, or any of the other possibilities which lie before us each day.

We can never know for sure which path is the best. There’s just the path we choose to take, and the many, many paths which we don’t. Whenever I forget this, I become paralysed.

But, hopefully, now I’ve done this through fiction, I’ll be better at doing it for real.

Your Turn

Do you ever look for a ‘right answer’ in life? What are the fixed points on your story? Share with the community in the comments.

neil_2017_2Neil Hughes is the author of Walking on Custard & the Meaning of Life, a comical and useful guide to life with anxiety. Along with writing more books, he puts his time into standup comedy, computer programming, public speaking and other things from music to video games to languages. He struggles to answer the question “so, what do you do?” and is worried that the honest answer is probably “procrastinate.” He would like it if you found him at walkingoncustard.com and on Twitter as @enhughesiasm.

31 Comments

  1. Maryske says:

    Being an avid fiction writer myself, I love this post! Although I don’t think I’ve ever been really paralysed by the posssibilities in my fictional worlds. No matter how crazy they get, I seem to have little problems with the choices (and the characters’ choices) there.

    Real life, now that is a vastly different story… But it seems like useful advice to treat real life as if it were one of my stories. Perhaps that will make the endless choices there a bit easier!

    • Neil Hughes says:

      Thanks Maryske! That’s a good reminder to me that everybody has different struggles. I guess it makes sense that you have no problem choosing when writing – compared to real life the consequences seem much less! But I like the idea of explicitly imagining “what if this was a story, what would I choose?” – not that I’d have to do the same thing as my characters (who usually make terrible, terrible choices!), but just to get a fresh perspective :)

      • Maryske says:

        LOL I guess you could even turn it into a game of, “What would X do?” With X being all the main or interesting or whatever characters in your stories. Now that would give you some fresh perspective!

        Though I think I’d rather try and and treat my life as the story about me.

        As quoted from A Little Princess:

        “Everything is a story. You are a story. I am a story.”

  2. Nathan says:

    Wow, Neil, I really needed to know I wasn’t the only person to feel that way about writing fiction and non-fiction!
    Just a couple of hours ago I’ve bought a new notebook (the paper kind, I prefer that to the digital options), It’s really pretty and makes me feel inspired, it’s got everything I love: hexagons, a cat wearing a Sherlock Holmes inspired costume, and it’s purple! Hopefully with it I can finally start writing. :)
    I’ve got two diferent stories in mind, the non-fictional one is about human interactions, and the fictional one is just an idea I want to explore in a comic book format (it used to be a TV script, but for story telling purposes I changed it).
    I don’t know all the answers, or the “right path”, but I really hope it will lead me to a happy ending, in fiction and in life itself. :D

  3. Nathan says:

    I’m a professional technical writer. Taking a fiction writing class was one of the most uncomfortable things I’ve ever done because–as you describe in this post–it forced me to confront my weaknesses both as a writer and as a human being.

    I’m currently at a place in my life where I have more freedom and options than ever, and I’ve found the whole experience incredibly stressful and paralyzing. You are right–you will never know for sure whether you are on the best path. Heck, you may never even be able to define what ‘best path’ would mean, anyway; ‘best’ can by a highly subjective quality.

    Thanks for the reminder that I’m not alone in my battle to decide what to do with my precious time!

    • Neil Hughes says:

      I really like your comments, Nathan – who isn’t a fan of hexagons?! And I’m glad the post helped with your writing. You’re definitely not alone with that, nor with being paralysed by all this freedom. And I also have to keep reminding myself that the “best path” isn’t a thing that even EXISTS! Hope the writing is going well :)

  4. Elise says:

    Wow! If there ever were an article that hit my sweet spot, this is it. Neil, thank you for articulating what is my most frequent thought process. But to quote Dr. Phil, “there is no right choice, but it is up to you to make your choice “right.”

    As a trained visual artist I know filling up the blank canvas is the only way to start. Then I can begin to see how, of if, the pieces begin to work together. I know for example, that color is largely perceived by its context, the colors that surround it. This is also true in life. Recently I realized that for every action, there is an equally powerful opposing force. So this explains my ambivalence but making a choice, the best choice the facts and my willingness to “go for it,” makes sense. Then I follow that path and take the next step. Reassess and rechoose. I know I will know whether I want to continue. Often you don’t know until you act. That action gives you valuable information.
    Ces

    • Neil Hughes says:

      Ohh, I really love this! “Filling up the blank canvas is the only way to start” is a perfect way to put it. As you say, nothing makes sense without its context, so you HAVE to begin somewhere, and change as you go – whether in life or in stories. Thanks so much for sharing this :)

  5. Daniel says:

    I have choice paralysis around most decisions with multiple options. Right now, I’ve been trying to decide on what project I should be working on. It took me weeks to decide, and I was tired of getting nothing done, so I picked the one that would take the least amount of time. I figure, if I can complete it I’ll have some forward momentum, but I know as soon as its done, I’ll be back to the same place.

    I shouldn’t be surprised. I have the same problem in the toothpaste and salad dressing sections in stores.

    • Neil Hughes says:

      This sounds very familiar. I try to keep reminding myself that doing nothing is ALSO a choice, and that if I’m endlessly agonising over options, then the option I’ve chosen is to endlessly agonise. And that reminds me that basically ANY option is better! (Usually I’m choosing between two good options; it’s rare that I’m choosing between a good/bad option – as that’s an easy choice!)

  6. Elise says:

    Thank you Neil for articulating what seems to be my daily struggle.

    Trained as a visual artist I know that even color is perceived in context with the colors that surround it. I make decisions and mark my canvas. Then I work to see the best result. Nothing happens until I fill the canvas. The steps begin to form a pattern and I can refine or reject it. Dr. Phil said it best when he advised to “make a decision and then make it the decision “right.”
    Luckily most choices are not irreparable or fixed.

    Recently I realized that life follows the rule “for every force there is an equal and opposite opposing force. This explains why I often feel conflicted about making a choice. What is also true is that, by making a choice, taking an action will elucidate the next step or choice.

  7. Melissa Bettcher says:

    I love the term “fixed point” reminds me of Doctor Who. What a great way to think about your decisions and what a great way to relieve the stress of making the “right” one. As an indecisive person a lot of the time, I end up with extreme anxiety at times when I am faced with decision making. Now I have another coping tool! Thanks Neil

    • Neil Hughes says:

      Haha, I wondered about making a Doctor Who reference here but figured it wouldn’t actually help with the overall point! But I’m glad you caught the resonance ;)

      I’m really happy you’ve picked up another tool, I hope it helps next time you have to make a decision :)

  8. Sarah Kelly says:

    I’m actually opposite. I’m a very “fly by the seat of my pants” woman and most times the not knowing and uncomfort of it all makes
    me extremely excited. Like you said there is now rightor wrong, there are just choices and then we are left to deal with what happens afterwards. Sure I try to make the best choices but I actually spend very little time contemplating and go with my gut.

    On those rare occasions I do overthink I get like you do, I’m paralyzed.

    • Neil Hughes says:

      Absolutely, Sarah, we’re all different, and some of us are more prone to fall into overthinking than others. I hope to learn from your example and trust my gut a little more :)

  9. I loved this! Like Melissa above, I also thought of Doctor Who and all the fixed points in time.

    As a multipod with anxiety and a desire to write fiction…this felt really pertinent. I struggle with writing on many levels; the ideation of a project, the plotting of it, the actual writing…it seems like at every step there’s the potential to get hopelessly overwhelmed by choice. But as I’m discovering, just choosing is the best way to go. And for fiction, at least, if you find that the direction you’re going in isn’t the one you want, you can go back and change it. There’s great freedom for me in knowing that.

    Life, on the other hand…well, I’m still working on that one. Great post!

    • Neil Hughes says:

      “Life… I’m still working on it…” – that pretty much sums it up for me, too! :D

      Thanks Audra, really pleased you liked the post. Do let me know about your writing when you’re ready to share it with the world :)

  10. Love this. At times I definitely look for the ‘best answer’ with the different paths and decisions that come up in life. When I was a kid, I loved “choose your own adventure” books. This is how I read them: I would pick the adventure I wanted at each juncture and read the story through. But then I would go back and read all the other options and paths!!! Just in case I missed a really great one. Lol. I’m a bit more inclined to just choose and act on it these days though.

    • Neil Hughes says:

      I did exactly the same with CYOA! After I finished I’d read it through like a normal book, just seeing how every possible outcome could have turned out. I often wished life was more like that..!

    • Maryske says:

      I recently came across two CYOA books for adults btw. Well, I guess aimed at females: Pretty Little Mistakes, and A Million Little Mistakes. I read all the possible adventures in them!

  11. J'aime says:

    whoa!

    I really struggle with this in fiction writing, and I never made the connection to real life. What a great insight!

    The way I handle this in real life is to try to remember that I can choose something different later (for most things in life, except stuff like having a baby!)

    Similarly, you can always write another story later, with the ideas you didn’t use in the last one…

    • Neil Hughes says:

      Exactly! Sometimes I think my fear of choosing a particular path when writing is sublimated anxiety from real life decisions I’m putting off. (And then I think “I’m probably overthinking this again” and try to stop..!)

  12. lulu says:

    Thank you for this post. I’ve been going through a “crisis” of trying to decide which avenue of art to follow for a long time, because I enjoy so many different media but feel like I’m spinning my wheels all the time. I hate to choose one over the other, as if that will be the final decision and set my course in stone (even though I know that’s not true). I may have come across something of a solution in those 100 day challenges: maybe I’ll pick ONE and do it for 100 days (or 30 days), and do the same with the next mode, then the next, and see how it feels.

    Yikes. Scary.

    • Neil Hughes says:

      I totally get this! I find it helpful to think in terms of really small commitments. I can’t commit a year to writing a book, but I could spend an hour working on one. And then I keep making those small commitments, and eventually I’ve written a book! It’s the only way I can prevent myself from spinning my wheels, just like you say :)

    • Hi lulu
      I too am training to be a visual artist and I have the same problem. There’s far too much art media out there that I like.
      However I have made some decisions through contrary thinking.
      Instead asking what media and style you like, think in negative terms instead. What styles and media you don’t like.
      Over time as you try things you cast aside what you don’t like and don’t desire. So gradually you focus in on what you do like.

  13. Katherine says:

    This is such a refreshing perspective and I connect with it so deeply. I’ve made so many decisions in my life that did not lead me to where I thought they would, which invites so much anxiety and self-doubt and can make a person feel like a total failure and truly paralyzed by what to do next. I’m currently at another crossroads where I have to decide what my next step is and I’ve been agonizing over it for 3 months now. However, this time around my approach has been entirely different. I’m being thoughtful and patient and documenting my ideas on a daily basis which has led me to some great, and also startling revelations. But I’m feeling really good about how I’m narrowing down my choices and know that when I arrive at one, it will be the right one. My boyfriend always says to me, “we are where we are supposed to be.”

    • Neil Hughes says:

      Thanks for sharing this, Katherine – I’m in a similar place of life transition at the moment, and it is difficult when previous decisions didn’t turn out as expected. Good to know I’m not alone! I really like your patient approach… it’s not something that comes naturally to me, but I’m getting better at it slowly. Good luck, and I’m glad this post resonated with you so much :)

  14. Ryan says:

    So simple and straightforward yet complex and rich. I find myself asking “what if” a lot lately. I recently made a move to a city I never thought I’d move to for a new job. It’s been an adjustment and think that I’ll move again within the next 6 to 18 months. Would I make the current move again? YES!
    The greatest courage we have is the courage to change. Without change we don’t grow.

    • Neil Hughes says:

      “Without change we don’t grow” – funnily enough, this is a big part of the plot of the novel I finished, too! :D You’re exactly right, Ryan, and I love that you’re making these interesting life decisions. I hope they take you to all kinds of good places :)

  15. Annie says:

    Yes!! I have to continue bringing myself back to “What’s the next right step for me?”, otherwise it’s very easy for me to get overwhelmed by all the possibilities. By continuing to focus on what feels right or inspiring for the next situation/decision and listening to my internal compass, I’m trusting that I’ll end up where I need to be. Trusting is scary and difficult, but no one knows what my life should look like better than me!

    I can think of so many moments where small, seemingly inconsequential choices could have taken me in a completely different direction. When I take a moment to look back at the trail I’ve blazed so far, I wouldn’t change a thing, even though the self-doubt was strong when I was deciding on the next steps!

  16. Sienna says:

    Ah, Neil, I wondered when we’d get around to a post examining your novel in the context of The Rest Of Your Life. ;)

    Having also written a lengthy fictional work about choices and change and trying (and failing and trying) to embrace the unknown, I get where you’re coming from. Having also pulled about 95% of that material from my own struggles with choice and change and the unknown in my own life, I get it even MORE. I think (re)teaching ourselves lessons through storytelling and fiction is really important. As humans, we seem to process and store information differently when it’s given to us packaged in story form; I retain lessons better when they’re enfolded in a story than when I get the information from something more lecture-style.

    (Also, there’s less chance of the dreaded “don’t tell me what to do” backlash–which might just be a personal reaction, haha!)

    Thanks for the reminder to let go of the concept of the ‘right’ choice and just to start doing fun and interesting things! :)

Leave a Comment