Be warned: if you haven’t seen Orson Welles’ classic 1941 film Citizen Kane, spoilers follow! This post takes for granted knowledge of the mystery at the heart of the film, the “last word” that gives Citizen Kane its narrative drive, a mystery revealed only in its final frames. If you haven’t seen the film, leave now and come back after viewing, or read on and take your chances.
“Rosebud”: Charles Foster Kane’s last word; discovering its meaning is the film’s putative objective. Not until the movie’s final shot do we discover that “Rosebud” is the name printed on Kane’s childhood sled—it’s tossed into a furnace as workmen in a vast storeroom sort through the thousands of material possessions the great man accumulated during his lifetime. Just a sled— but important enough as a symbol of lost innocence to be the final, private word an important public figure leaves behind. The sled burns in a furnace, the irony dramatic as the audience learns what the seekers in the film never do. A close-up on the sled, “Rosebud”: its lacquer bubbles, it blackens, it’s gone, nothing more than smoke pouring from a chimney into the night sky. If we can’t know this great, public figure, who can we know? Who will know us?
In a culture consumed by the new, we too often consider nostalgia to be an indulgence, but don’t we all depend on our own “Rosebuds”? As a writer willing to go to virtually any length to unmask myself to myself, I find that I return again and again to a practice I call “Rosebudding.” Rosebudding is an active process of physical or mental investigation: its elements are rediscovery, intense reflection, recovery, and, ultimately, reconfiguration—the creation of something new out of something old. Through Rosebudding we can work from a physical item or an experience and its associations, eventually loosening the object or memory from itself to get to its essence, which is the living breathing, malleable core of inspiration all writers seek.
Moving—sorting through junk—the detritus of an actual attic or one of the mind: “Rosebud,” again and again. A memory of a moment or a new insight, or Rosebuds in juxtaposition: flint and steel, a spark—a flame rises, and we toss an old sled into the fire. But maybe as we watch the sled burn, we find something new.
A while back, my wife framed my father’s WWII medals with a photograph of him in uniform. This tribute had actually been displayed for a few years before I noticed that mixed in with my father’s purple hearts, campaign ribbons and service medals was an odd pin that portrayed a musical note: somehow included in this honor to my father’s service was a badge awarded to either my son or my daughter for exceptional performance at a New York State Music Association competition—approximately sixty years after the end of WWII. Rosebud on my father’s purple heart—the grenade that exploded behind him in a French foxhole leaving him flat on his belly in a hospital in Europe for half a year, a chunk of shrapnel fused to his backbone; Rosebud on the scar from this wound, freshly exposed every summer to my brothers and me and the rest of the world on crowded Long Island beaches; Rosebud on the letters my parents shared while my father recuperated in Europe and the picture of my mother he tucked into his helmet; Rosebud on my daughter’s trombone playing and my son’s oboe playing and the way their hours of lessons, rehearsals, concerts and competitions helped shape our family’s weekly life for a decade and a half.
Rosebud on Purple Hearts and high school music awards being pinned to the same piece of felt within the same wooden frame under the same pane of glass. Finally, Rosebud on the storage unit where the display sits in a box because there’s no room for it in our present apartment.
Rosebudding. Writers are miners—we pry the ore from deep underground, and process out the precious metals, ever mindful that the dross may be of equal or greater value. Rosebud.
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