Recently I have been teaching Lawrence Weschler’s delightful 1995 book Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder: Pronged Ants, Horned Humans, Mice on Toast, and Other Marvels of Jurassic Technology in one of my first-year composition sections, centered on the theme “Truth and Fiction.” In the book, Weschler documents his fascination with a small Los Angeles establishment called the Museum of Jurassic Technology, an odd collection of exhibits that includes horns grown from human heads, a bat encased in lead, and micro-miniatures carved into the eyes of needles. As Weschler surveys the museum and becomes acquainted with the owner, David Wilson, he grows suspicious of the exhibits. Through extensive research, he concludes that the museum mixes truth with fiction, offering an endearing display reminiscent of the Early Modern cabinets of wonder or curiosity that preceded today’s museums. Cabinets of curiosity combined both natural and mechanical specimens in dazzling displays that sought to evoke in viewers a sense of wonder and mystery.
I seek to do the same with my own cabinet of curiosity, a collection that I have been curating since 2009 called “scrap writing.” Scrap writing describes bits of paper, usually adorned with handwritten notes or drawings, that I have stumbled upon in my daily comings and goings (see examples in Figure 1). I use the term “scrap writing” over “found writing” to convey that these scraps are small pieces of larger wholes. Each one was created by an author in a rhetorical situation that has faded from view as the scrap has recirculated, whether due to disposal, sharing, or accidental loss. I frequently find scraps on the campus of Wake Forest University, where I teach, but I also encounter them in and around grocery stores, in used books, and in libraries, thrift shops, and garage sales. A slight thrill accompanies each find, as I excitedly anticipate what the scrap might say; a balled-up piece of paper is not trash, but a potential treasure. (Sometimes it is just trash, though: recently I spied a crumpled page on the floor of the library stacks. I eagerly unraveled it, only to discover an entirely blank page.)
Once I find a scrap, I snap a picture with my phone and share it on Facebook, usually with some description of where and when I located the scrap. Often the location in which a scrap is found offers some clue to its meaning. A recent note found in my classroom (Figure 2, below) listed a series of assignments sorted according to subject, such as COM, ENG, and ENV; had it not been found on a college campus, these abbreviations might have appeared more foreign and indecipherable.
Recently, a friend remarked on Facebook, “I am enjoying this ongoing series of enigmatic found notes.” And that’s precisely what these scraps are—enigmatic. They are perplexing and mysterious; they provide viewers with a puzzle to ponder. Often when I post a scrap, a conversation results, in which my friends and I discuss what the scrap might mean, what the grocery-shopper might be cooking with his or her list, and what we appreciate about the handwriting. Scraps invoke wonder, just like the specimens in a cabinet of curiosity. And like the Museum of Jurassic Technology, my collection, my mini-museum, blends truth with fiction: scraps inspire scenarios, stories, imaginings, both true and false. Reading a scrap is a very rhetorical enterprise, as viewers question, “Why was this note written?” “To whom was it being written?” and “Where was it circulated?” For instance, a recent note with some birthdates and the instruction “Get city of dad’s birth” (Figures 3 and 4, below) prompted one viewer to deduce that the writer was completing a passport application.
You can start your own cabinet of curiosity by collecting the scraps you find in your everyday life—in the classroom, the writing center, the grocery store, the post office, or the mall. Share them with your students and inspire wonder, appreciation, and interpretation. Observe with them the variety of handwriting you can collect, the stains and wrinkles that each scrap endures, and the strange content that everyday writing often involves. Appreciate with them the joy of everyday, mundane writing—the kind of writing that we too often discard or ignore but that holds clues to other people’s lives and mysteries that are just plain fun to explore.