By Chéri Vausé
The other day I sat with my hubby and dogs and watched that great old John Ford classic, Stagecoach. Not only is there one of the greatest stunts of all time performed in the film, but I suddenly realised, with my author eyes, that the film isn't about preparing for a battle with the native population, but one of second chances, of letting go of the past, of believing what you're about to do is right even if the law is after you. But it really is about not compromising what you know is right. When you watch the film, you see people taking hard-lines everywhere, from the very beginning when Claire Trevor is ostracised and exiled by the women of the town for her questionable moral behaviour (it's suggested but never fully explained), to the Sheriff bound by the law to bring in John Wayne for his breaking out of jail to kill a man. The Sheriff doesn't want to do it. He's rather loathe about it, but feels he must stand firm in the law. From the first moment when you see John Wayne standing beside the road waiting for the stagecoach, you know you're in for one helluva ride. And it does not disappoint. There have been several remakes, but none hold a candle to John Ford's classic. It is one of the most beautifully filmed of Ford's classics.
The subject of taking a hard-line, or holding true to your position, is very much in every realm from politics to religion to my profession of writing. As much as compromise has found a solid home in our western culture these days, and usually lauded as the only means of getting things done, it's not always the best means of settling anything. Compromise has become king, and anyone who takes a hard-line is deemed intractable, difficult, among other awful terms. But nothing could be further from the truth. Sometimes we need to stand up and say, "No!", or "This is the right way", in spite of what people may call you. Once upon a time, and within my lifetime, people who had strong values, believed fervently in their faith, their political persuasion, or in an ideal, used to be called "principled individuals" or "people who know their own mind" or "faithful". They usually knew what true difficulty was. Many sacrificed their lives for their belief in freedom. Their lives were forever altered. They knew what it was like to experience difficulty, to know what it felt like to be the only one in a room who sees clearly, who will stand against what others want you to do.
Recently, I went through something with my publisher I didn't want to happen, but I had to stand firm. When an author has written a story and turns it over to their editor, there is a point that may be reached when the author should defer to the edits suggested to make the language better or the story clearer, or defining a character better. Sometimes the editor finds things that the author has missed. Blindness toward your own writing is a common malady among us, and I'm certainly no exception. But, there are times that you might compromise too much. Then, you lose a sense of yourself, of your original idea, of the purity in your idea behind your story. I didn't think it would ever happen to me, but it did. I listened, I altered, I changed, I travelled down the path the editor wanted me to go. I compromised, and compromised, and compromised.
Realise, of course, that I'm the sort of person who listens to everything, then quietly goes along because I believe that the experts know what their talking about. And I'm not temperamental type, plus, I take criticism rather well. I've always felt that I can learn something new about myself, about my work. And I'm always open to improvement.
So, we travelled down that road until the last edit, which settled on or around the fifth one, and likely to have several more if I put in my editor's edits. It was a hydra. One change gave birth to two or more changes. Then, something inside me snapped. I realised, as I began to read my editor's comments, that I'd lost my story quite a few edits ago, that I'd allowed myself to become too distracted with the minutia of train schedules and stations, and titles, and professions, and scene changes, and this character should be a Methodist rather than a Catholic, and on and on. It was supposedly to make it historically accurate, that my story became less horror tinged and more in tune with my editor's drive to de-religious the story. I had originally written a Gothic horror story, of ghosts, spiritualism, and seances, but my editor was trying to turn it into an historical fiction with all her changes, to remove the Catholic aspects of the plot, even though it was essential to the story.
My idea, my work lost something in the translation between its original simplicity of pure fiction in a mythical place, and became a sterile piece accurate only to history. Instead of the futility of having no belief (the idea behind my story), of my hero coming to the realisation that there was more in the universe than dreamed of in his philosophy, I had some watered down action yarn, where people seemed to spend more time on trains than in the countryside encountering the ghosts and demons. We had excised the overtly religious practices of the folk and the Roman Catholic priest. I then put an end to it, and will not return to it until I feel that I can return the story to its simple form.
The same is true for our lives. I learned something valuable in the process. I realised that it's not always right to compromise, that making changes to an original idea to appease an opposing side does not mean that you've created something good, it means you've created something mediocre, something the other side wants to see happen and not you. Compromise then becomes giving-in to the other side, it means sacrificing your values, your faith, your belief in what is right.
For all the hard-lines taken by the characters in the film Stagecoach, even the Sheriff, who was bound and determined to take in John Wayne because it was his job, learned something valuable: Justice is sometimes a terrible thing, but must be exercised outside the accepted norm. John Wayne was the wielder of that justice, and he would be undeterred in his quest. He had to kill the evil man so he wouldn't kill any more innocents. Yes, it was an act of revenge, but Wayne knew in his heart, he had the right to stop that evil from continuing to hurt others, and he was the only man capable of doing it. Anything less than that was just wrong. And the Sheriff then let John Wayne go, because it was the right thing to do. He chose to not follow the law, but follow the path of justice, which is more noble and a greater calling. The Sheriff saved two lives; that of Claire Trevor and John Wayne. He let them ride off toward a life together, where two wounded souls could love each other and make a future. There was no compromise. These were hard choices, but right ones.
When I watched the film, I felt that sense of knowing that I must end the struggle, that I had to kill the book. None of it felt right, so it had to end. The battle for the story had reached a point that it needed to die, to have a just end.
How many of us reach those moments where we know we must hold fast, draw the line in the sand, stand up against everyone around you, but can be too easily bullied into a compromise? I use to think that the person who never had to experience such adversity must be fortunate. Now, I think that it's the opposite, that Nietzsche was right. In those moments, when you know that you must take a stand, even though you are humiliated by those around you, and you are told that you must go along to get along, don't. We must take a stand against the bullies, to go the distance, and go to war, if necessary.
There are such things that we must hold fast and never sacrifice to the god of compromise. Although I think of that year of wasted effort too often, all that hard work sitting in a file on my desktop, I still know I was right. I had to take a stand. My work had been compromised into non-existence. It wasn't my story any longer. It was my editor's story.
What will I do with it? My plan is to move it to a different place, like Maine, at an earlier time, and take out all the changes that made it so distracting and frustrating for me. It will become a new book, a better one, in keeping with my original idea. And in life... Well, I'll compromise when it doesn't matter that much to me, but from now on that line is not moveable. It's fixed no matter what. So, I say to all of you out there, thinking that compromise is a nobler pursuit, it's not true. However hard it may be for us to accept, sometimes we must fight for what we believe to be true.
Biography of Chéri Vausé
Chéri Vausé spent more than twenty-five years teaching theology and volunteering her time at a Crisis Pregnancy Center. She decided late in life to change careers, and began to write mysteries, but with a noir atmosphere, and psychological terrors. With all her children grown, she turned her dining room table into a desk and research center, and now she serves up murder on an icy platter, and psychological thrills rather than meals.
She lives on a small ranch in Central Texas with her husband and two dogs; Scully and Mulder. Scully is a Coydog (half-beagle and half coyote). Mulder is a Great Pyrenees. And three ducks; Samantha, Fowley, and Krycek.
The Touch of a Shadow Blurb:
Esther Charlemagne and Aiden “Mac” McManus have just settled into their brownstone in Manhattan when the FBI comes knocking on their door, sending them back to a case they worked in 1959 while on the elite homicide squad of the NYPD. After the US Attorney Fitzgerald secures a very pregnant Esther in a safe house, and others involved in the case, Mac returns to New York to find the killer that has threatened his beloved Esther.
Set in the sixties, this noir thriller is not your usual mystery or thriller. In its genre twisting, The Touch of Shadow continues the story of Esther and Mac (from the first in the Shadow series: The Night Shadow) as they traverse the trials and tribulations of being brilliant FBI consultants and former NYPD superstars.
To buy The Touch of a Shadow: http://www.amazon.com/Touch-Shadow-Ch%C3%A9ri-Vaus%C3%A9/dp/1910603023/ref=sr_1_27?ie=UTF8&qid=1442256146&sr=8-27&keywords=the+touch+of+a+shadow