Home Again After All These Years

| Photograph by Mary Alice McLoughlin and used by permission

I've been back home since January. That's not to say that I strayed from the house where I was born or the town in which I still live. It's not a building that I've had to return to but to the home I imagined almost 20 years ago, when I began writing "Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir."

I went back because I'd been asked to draft a screenplay that would, I suppose, translate the experience of reading "Holy Land" into something like a film. I didn't expect the writing assignment to be such a troubling return.

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I've had the privilege of reading from "Holy Land" and discussing it with audiences of all sorts since the book was published in 1995. Third-grade students at the school down the block and graduate students from Vermont have heard me tell what my boyhood was like and what aquifers are and why ordinary places like mine matter. Every audience has taken my performance at face value, and they've asked good questions (mostly the same ones).

But it's been a performance. I play the part of the man who wrote that book, only an actor who can read its oblique lines with feeling and get a laugh with the jokes. But the author of "Holy Land" isn't me. He's become a character, although I play him very well.

That inauthenticity doesn't distress me. The book is hardly mine anymore, but the property of anyone who might read it imaginatively. I'm acquainted with the author, but he's like someone whom I knew in school. He's familiar and so are his quirks, but I haven't spent much time with in years.

Until recently, that is. Turning his text into narration and the occasional enacted scene turned me back to my home of thirty years ago and into "Holy Land." I became that long-ago interpreter of myself again and as near to him as artificially possible.

It wasn't easy or particularly satisfying, but I did learn some things.

What angered him, it turns out, still angers me: the way in which ordinariness is held in contempt by some of us. What he loved then I find that I love even more now. (And I'm grateful.) His griefs, also thankfully, are less to me, but it was still painful to see him sorrowing and more painful, as a result of adapting to film, to find other means to show his grieving.

His remedy for his life then was his book. It was his argument, too, and his apology for what he thought by most measures had been a badly spent life. My life is still badly spent, but I've become much more simple-minded since then, partly by way of having written this book. And that's been his consolation to me.

I really can't imagine what the production company will do with my screenplay. It's far odder than the author's memoir. I wonder what he would think of it, if he knew how I have plagiarized his story.

D. J. Waldie, author, historian, and as the New York Times said in 2007, "a gorgeous distiller of architectural and social history," writes about Los Angeles on KCET's SoCal Focus and 1st and Spring blogs.

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