A Journal of Rhetoric, Writing, and Culture

Scrap Writing in the Digital Age: The Inventive Potential of Texts on the Loose

Danielle Koupf, Wake Forest University

(Published February 7, 2019)

What happens when everyday writing is discarded, forgotten, lost, or even stolen?[i] Consider the Post-it left in a library book, the grocery list forgotten on a store shelf, the letter dropped among the grass. Let loose into the world, these texts embark on untold, unpredictable journeys. Once rediscovered, they pass through new hands and new contexts, undergoing change and reinvention. Some of these found texts eventually appear on the web. A number of websites post scans and photographs of paper notes and signs, usually handwritten but sometimes typed and occasionally featuring drawings and images. Examples include Found Magazine, Reddit’s “r/FoundPaper” forum, and several Flickr groups such as “…found notes” and “Things Found in Books.”[ii] Contributions must be anonymous materials whose backstories are not readily available.

I call these sites scrap writing websites and the featured artifacts scraps to emphasize their decontextualized, fragmented nature. Without knowing much, if anything, about a scrap’s original context, viewers are invited to puzzle over it, to create an explanation for its existence and circulation, to imagine a narrative surrounding it. In short, viewers are prompted to engage in a distributed process of invention and reinvention. Lending the scrap so much inventive potential is its very “scrap-ness”—the fact that it’s been extracted from a larger unknown context. Scraps are so evocative that popular websites such as Found Magazine[iii] and GroceryLists.org have published books featuring scraps.

While finding, collecting, and sharing discarded texts and objects are longstanding practices, the web allows found artifacts to reach wider audiences and to occasion more inventive opportunities.[iv] Hence, this article uses the term “scrap writing in the digital age” to situate the circulation of scraps in our current moment. Affirming that scraps are always in flux and on the move (i.e., lost, found, circulated, and recirculated), this term encompasses the entire lifecycle from the scrap’s initial production to its rescue by a third party to its appearance on the web and sometimes in a book. I propose that scrap writing in the digital age exemplifies a unique ecology of writing, as individuals and other resources dispersed through time and space unknowingly work together to produce, circulate, and interact with bits of writing—both analogue and digital. As a scrap moves throughout this ecology, new occasions for invention arise. The scrap itself may undergo reinvention, or it may prompt invention for those who interact with it. We can trace these opportunities for invention using a method I introduce called scrap tracking. While distributed, posthuman, and ecological theories all acknowledge a dispersal of agency, I’m partial to the language of ecology because scrap writing is so place-based: finding a scrap requires interacting with the physical environment, and finders extract meaning from where a scrap is found.

Scrap tracking brings to light the lives of everyday texts beyond their immediate, local uses and shows how invention continues to occur once such texts are set loose upon the world. This article thus identifies and celebrates the inventive potential of reusing “old,” found, and stumbled-upon texts in new contexts. I embrace invention as a range of activities that include making, sharing, meaning-making, inquiry, and discovery. As a scrap moves throughout its lifecycle, invention shifts: initially marked by purpose, and perhaps argument, the scrap loses its context and becomes a site of inventional play and the making of new meaning when taken up by outsiders.

Attending to scrap writing in the digital age expands both our view of invention and our valuation of everyday texts. I recognize in the scrap writing enterprise an intricate network of actors, both human and nonhuman, who contribute to a distributed process of invention that adopts several guises. The scrap writing enterprise challenges any monolithic understanding of invention, as distinct modes of invention surface throughout the lifecycle of a scrap, most prominently the complementary strands of creation and discovery.

In what follows, I first situate scrap writing in relation to similar traditions involving found and remixed texts. I then theorize invention as both creation and discovery, disentangling these two terms and arguing that they work in tandem. Finally, I trace how a scrap circulates, undergoes change, and presents opportunities for invention and reinvention. Ultimately, I contend that the scrap writing ecology deserves our attention because it illuminates the multi-faceted, distributed nature of invention in the digital age.

Traditions Akin to Scrap Writing

Like scrap writing, several rhetorical and artistic traditions recirculate old materials in new contexts. In found poetry, assemblage art, zines, scrapbooks, and collages, preexisting texts and objects are combined and juxtaposed to produce a new invention. Jody Shipka’s contribution to Provocations demonstrates that importing found documents into new contexts spurs invention. Shipka acquires several boxes belonging to a deceased couple named Dorothy and Fred and finds in them fifteen scrapbooks documenting mundane events. In a combined textual and video project, Shipka explores her archive and invites viewers to “inhabit” Dorothy’s life by manipulating her images. Like scrap writing websites, Shipka’s project foregrounds invention in investigating, playing with, and making meaning of found artifacts. As Shipka states, “their partiality, their incompleteness—their silence, if you will—provides unique challenges and opportunities” (Shipka, emphasis added). Like those who analyze and comment on scrap writing, Shipka wants “to begin finding ways of giving voice, life, and new potentials for meaning to these strangers and their largely silent life materials” (Shipka).

When, like Shipka, we import found materials into a new context, we perform a kind of remix: old texts take on new, unforeseen lives. Dustin W. Edwards claims that a composition constitutes remix when it “builds upon or repurposes already existing material”; it is transformative and inventive because it gains “new rhetorical purpose” (42). In scrap writing in the digital age, an errant piece of paper shifts from informing or persuading an intended audience to provoking play and interaction for unknown Internet users. The finder discovers a scrap and then remixes it by sharing it online. Edwards explains, “As remix so clearly demonstrates, we do not create texts out of nowhere but we build them through the discovery of other texts” (43). Among the four types of remix that Edwards identifies, scrap writing might best demonstrate redistribution, which “refers to sharing or adding to an already existing text for the purpose of reaching a new audience, offering an updated message, and/or spreading a text further” (49). Scrap writing websites expand the audience for found artifacts and spread a text further. Edwards asks, “How will a new rhetor redistribute the text? What will she add to the text? How will she alter its circulatory path?” (49). When a third party intervenes in a scrap’s circulation, he or she sets it on a new path in the world.

The study of rhetorical circulation often coincides with the study of delivery (Porter; Ridolfo and DeVoss), but I shift our focus to the distributed process of invention. By following the rhetorical transformation of a scrap (which I call scrap tracking), I foreground the opportunities for invention that occur as scraps circulate and recirculate. What’s interesting to me is how invention involves multiple kinds of action as a scrap moves throughout its lifecycle: creation, discovery, sharing, making, and meaning-making. Attending to this distributed process of invention rather than delivery (or circulation) affirms how malleable the canon of invention is and informs our understanding of invention, and rhetoric itself, as a multifaceted activity.

In tracing a scrap’s lifecycle, I am especially influenced by efforts to account for complex, distributed, and mediated composing processes. I respond to Shipka’s argument in Toward a Composition Made Whole that rhetoric and composition scholars should shift our unit of analysis from a single textual artifact to the ecology contributing to it (13, 29-30, 36, 52). Shipka gains this expanded perspective by collecting detailed accounts from her students of the entire composing process that contributed to their final products. Given that scraps are anonymous and discarded, readers do not have access to their authors’ composing processes. In tracing texts’ distributed process of invention even when we don’t know their composers, I model a situation more common when studying everyday writing than Shipka’s ideal of retrieving composers’ processes. Still, I enlarge our view of scrap writing by looking beyond the final scrap posted to the web, instead tracking opportunities for invention before and after publication.

This research approach also accords with recent scholarship in the anthropology of writing. Developed largely in France, anthropological studies of writing focus on everyday writing, such as writing at work and at home, journaling, sending postcards, and composing on the web, to understand cultural and social interaction. In their introduction to The Anthropology of Writing, literacy scholars David Barton and Uta Papen write, “Written documents are constantly being reused and recontextualized and they move between physical places and social spaces. Texts therefore need to be studied in terms of what they are beyond a specific moment of use, beyond a specific ‘literacy event’ or ‘writing act’” (13). Although I do analyze individual scraps and respondents’ comments, my primary object of study is a dynamic ecology of texts, people, processes, and environments that contribute to a distributed process of invention and reinvention.

Invention: Discovery and Creation

The term invention holds multiple meanings, and studies of invention often mull over this multiplicity. As Janice Lauer notes in her overview of invention, “[T]hroughout rhetorical history as well as in the twentieth century rhetoricians have held different views of what constitutes invention” (7). Much scholarship has specifically worked to identify the relations between two prominent meanings of invention: discovery and creation. For instance, when participating in the National Developmental Project on Rhetoric in 1970, Richard McKeon, explains:

During the nineteenth century, under the influence of the dichotomy of language and wisdom, it was questioned whether invention is essentially the same as, or fundamentally different from, discovery. This is one of the dichotomies which the new architectonic rhetoric must eradicate. Invention can be joined to discovery in art which is productive of things and arts or skills rather than of words and arguments or beliefs. (54-55)

However, the Committee on the Nature of Rhetorical Invention, which was part of the National Developmental Project on Rhetoric, defines invention “as the generation of something new” (Scott et al. 229). This definition seems to favor creation, given that discovery typically involves finding something that already exists, not something new (though it is perhaps new to the finder). But it is clear that the committee sees both discovery and creation as vital parts of invention. They write, “[D]iscovery, invention, creativity are overlapping processes, or aspects of the process of generating the new” (Scott et al. 229).

More recent definitions and theories of invention also embrace the role of both discovery and creation. A quick view of the definitions supplied by the Oxford English Dictionary, for example, reveals the coexistence of discovery and creation (or “fabrication”) within the province of invention: among several definitions are included, “The action of coming upon or finding; the action of finding out; discovery (whether accidental, or the result of search and effort)” and “The action of devising, contriving, or making up; contrivance, fabrication” (“Invention, n.”). Carolyn R. Miller clarifies this coexistence with reference to the etymology of invent: “In both Latin and Greek, the verbs for ‘invent’ (heuriskein, invenire) ambiguously include what are now two senses: that of coming upon what already exists (discovery) and that of contriving something that never existed before (creation)” (130). Peter Simonson also affirms invention’s link to discovery and creation, writing that invention can be understood “as a cultivated art or ‘naturally’ occurring process that vacillates between creativity and repetition. Generation can occur through finding, creating, assembling, translating, channeling, or giving form to” (313, emphasis added).

Lauer’s definitions leave room for both discovery and creation too: she writes, “Invention provides guidance in how to begin writing, to explore for ideas and arguments, to frame insights, and to examine the writing situation” (1). To begin writing means to begin creating, while exploring for ideas and arguments and examining the writing situation both present opportunities for discovery. Lauer continues by noting opportunities both for discovery (“exploring alternatives,” “testing judgments,” “interpreting texts,” and “analyzing audiences”) and creation (“initiating discourse”) in the following statement:

The term invention has historically encompassed strategic acts that provide the discourser with direction, multiple ideas, subject matter, arguments, insights or probable judgments, and understanding of the rhetorical situation. Such acts include initiating discourse, exploring alternatives, framing and testing judgments, interpreting texts, and analyzing audiences. (2)

When Lauer moves onto identifying some of the debates in theories of invention, she also recognizes a tension between views of invention that stress discovery (or “exploration”) and those that stress creation. On the one hand, as she notes, some theories stress discovery: “In some theories, invention is restricted to exploratory activity: constructing or finding lines of argument, examining subjects, searching for material to develop texts, articulating goals, and/or researching for intertextual support for a discourse” (3). On the other hand, Lauer writes, some theories stress creation: “In other theories, invention is also conceived to include the initiation of discourse, e.g., posing questions or selecting subjects; the formation of probable judgments, focuses, insights, or theses; and the rhetorical situation: contexts, readers, and discourse communities” (3). Although such tension exists, ultimately Lauer does not favor one version of invention over the other, instead describing them as coexistent.

In the context of scrap writing, it is especially important not to privilege one theory of invention over the other. Instead, we must embrace both creation and discovery as integral processes in the scrap writing ecology—processes that work in relation to each other, not in competition. Scrap tracking, as a research method, bears this out. Using scrap tracking to examine the inventive opportunities that arise as a piece of paper circulates in the world demonstrates how creation and discovery do not compete with one another but actually complement each other—neither possible without the other.

Scrap Tracking

Scrap tracking is a method for studying scrap writing in the digital age that entails tracing, collecting, and reading scraps posted on the web alongside viewers’ comments. For the case study that follows, I traced, read, and analyzed scraps on Found Magazine’s website, Reddit’s “r/FoundPaper” forum, and the Flickr groups “…found notes” and “found shopping lists”—three online sites where prolific collections of scraps occur. I concentrated on scraps that garnered attention from viewers, as measured by comments, likes, and views. I noted the messages they sent as well as any intriguing material features, such as rips, stains, and discolorations. I also attended to the ways in which both submitters and commenters engaged with each scrap: through problem-solving and research, appreciation, interpretation, or personal reflection and creative writing. Yet a scrap’s appearance on the web is just one moment in a longer journey. I thus also investigated how the scraps traveled, changed from paper objects to digital artifacts, and prompted the invention of further text.

To gain insight into the scrap lifecycle for this particular case study, I also curated my own scrap writing collection. In 2009, I created my first scrap writing collection using Flickr. The project lay dormant for several years before I reanimated it in 2016 using Facebook. First in Wichita, Kansas, and then in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, I both looked for and stumbled upon scrap writing at school, at home, and while out and about. I also solicited finds from friends and family, broadening the reach of my collection to places such as New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Upon discovery, I snapped a photo of the find using my smartphone; I then uploaded the photo to Facebook, adding a caption that identifies where and how I located the scrap, plus any questions or comments it inspires; and finally, I waited for likes, comments, and shares. Often friends and family offered an interpretation of a scrap’s meaning, puzzled over a perplexing find, or expressed interest and appreciation.

In making this collection and observing what happened to scraps, I was able to reap the benefits of what Matt Ratto and Megan Boler call “critical making.” In their introduction to DIY Citizenship: Critical Making and Social Media, Ratto and Boler write:

Critical making […] signals the integration/simultaneity of processes and practices, the act of making “things,” and suggests that practices of “making” are potentially linked to critically-infused reflection about aspects of the process itself. Critical making invites reflection on the relationship of the maker to the thing produced, reflection on how elements (whether nuts and bolts, bits and bytes, or breath, blood, flesh, brain, and neurons) work together—in short, consideration and awareness of the mediated and direct experiences of interacting with the material world. (1-3)

Although I had gained significant insight into scrap writing as a mere observer of scrap writing websites, curating my own collection and participating in the lifecycle of a scrap deepened my understanding of how scrap writing—as a distributed, material process—actually unfolds. In the process, I disrupted the movement of texts in our world. I nailed them down (fixing them on the web), rather than letting them continue to drift, but at the same time, I redistributed them, giving them opportunities for a new audience to make meaning of them and to share them. This immersive research into how scraps wander beyond the places where they were composed, lost, discarded, and found again proved useful for understanding how scrap writing exists and unfolds in a distributed ecology involving multiple people, technologies, and spaces.

One critique of ecological models is that they are so expansive that everything becomes aligned with a nebulous sense of invention, making it difficult to pin down which factors contribute to the distributed process. In proposing that we rethink the rhetorical canons as an ecology, Collin Gifford Brooke acknowledges this problem, writing that “there is a danger of erring on the side of expansiveness, of allowing ecology to stand as a backdrop, as a synonym for ‘everything that happens’” (41). Similarly, he argues, “In considering invention as a distributed practice, our scholarship frequently runs the risk of treating that distribution as immaterial” (66); therefore, he urges scholars to attend to information technologies, to the materiality of invention. Laura R. Micciche echoes Brooke in advocating for greater attention to the nonhuman material factors implicated in any act of composition. Toward that end, my scrap tracking also entailed paying close attention to and gaining personal experience with the technologies essential to scrap writing in the digital age, such as paper, pens, pencils, and markers, scanners, cameras, computers, and Internet access, as well as unpredictable contributions to the finding of scraps, such as weather, timing, location, and personal curiosity and attentiveness. These are, as Kristopher M. Lotier suggests, the resources that temporarily connect with bodies to yield an invention, whether novel or fashioned from preexisting parts like scraps (371).

In what follows, I trace the lifecycle of a scrap and show how (re)invention gets distributed as scraps move through a rhetorical ecology and are transformed from analogue to digital artifacts. I particularly focus on invention through creation, discovery, sharing, response, and republication. 

Invention in the Lifecycle of a Scrap

0. Before the Scrap Becomes a Scrap: Invention through Creation

Scraps are decontextualized pieces of a greater whole, sometimes extracted from a larger text or set of texts and always removed from their initial contexts. Some act of composition must precede the generation of scraps. Here invention begins in the life of a scrap—before the scrap even becomes a scrap. A person or group creates a note, sign, or other text for a particular purpose, audience, and context.

Eventually lost or discarded, the text becomes a scrap, typically losing authorship and becoming anonymous. Somehow, at some point, it unpredictably ends up in someone else’s hands, often a person not initially connected to it. Unpredictability is key: there is little, if any, indication that a piece of writing will become a scrap when it is first produced. Scrap writing is not typically an intentional act. Writers do not anticipate that their everyday writing will be lost, found, and preserved by others. (However, trivial texts to which we feel less attached stand a greater chance of being lost or discarded than those we treasure.) In their work on rhetorical velocity, Jim Ridolfo and Dànielle Nicole DeVoss acknowledge that texts take on new lives when dispersed and intercepted by third parties, yet they are concerned with how writers can compose strategically with this reuse in mind. Doing so might lead a person to place a scrap where it is likely to be found, but such an act, although it probably happens, is antithetical to the mission of most scrap writing sites to preserve accidental finds. In fact, the “…found notes” Flickr group explicitly requests “no graffiti, posters, stickers, or anything intentionally placed” (“…found notes,” emphasis added). Instead of an intentional act initiating reuse, the simple occurrence of losing or disposing of a text initiates a new, open-ended, and likely unintended process of invention: invention through finding or discovery. 

1. Invention through Discovery

Invention surfaces next as discovery, when a person or group finds the text outside its initial environment—where it becomes a scrap. Recall Miller’s finding that “[i]n both Latin and Greek, the verbs for ‘invent’ (heuriskein, invenire) ambiguously include what are now two senses: that of coming upon what already exists (discovery) and that of contriving something that never existed before (creation)” (130). Invention means the discovery of things as well as arguments. Recall, too, McKeon’s notion that “[i]nvention can be joined to discovery in an art which is productive of things and arts or skills rather than of words and arguments or beliefs” (54-55, emphasis added). As Simonson notes, McKeon moved invention toward a more material understanding consistent with the theories of making that undergird my own efforts at collecting and curating scraps (306).

Finders don’t create anything; they connect with something previously unavailable. Do they find the scrap, or does the scrap find them? Discovery can be more or less deliberate, with potential repercussions for how a person views his or her find. A person seems to exert more agency when he or she embarks deliberately on a search for scrap writing and finds something. He or she may strategically visit places where scraps commonly appear, such as used bookstores, thrift shops, libraries, schools, garage sales, and grocery stores. Still, he or she cannot predict what will be found, when, and where. Conversely, when a person stumbles upon a scrap unexpectedly, he or she may feel “found” by the scrap, as it too has agency. After repeated serendipitous discoveries, he or she may be more likely to search for scraps, thereby eliminating some unpredictability. In between the deliberate and accidental is a mixed agency: people aware of scrap writing may not set out to find it, yet their awareness of its existence and of probable places to find it make them more likely to connect with it.

Scrap writing outlets promote a more deliberate approach to finding scraps and in doing so, advocate for heightened attention to the environment. The Reddit “r/FoundPaper” forum instructs members “to pay close attention to the places around you and notice the pieces of paper that cover our world. Pick them up and see what is on them. What is written on it might surprise you” (“r/FoundPaper”). Davy Rothbart, the creator of Found Magazine, echoed these guidelines in a 2003 NPR interview: “The key, I think, is not to tune out things you normally would. . . . Don’t pick up any trash, but things that look promising. Stop for a second, and give a look” (Block). Both the FoundPaper description and Rothbart’s advice suggest that we view our surroundings with curiosity, pausing to notice what we usually overlook. Yet even the most intentional hunt for scrap writing remains open-ended, as one can’t predict what will be found.

Deliberate searches can yield intriguing scraps, but stumbling upon an unexpected find can feel especially exciting and thus afford the scrap extra merit. This experience models kairos as Brooke describes it: “the opportunities that emerge to be seized in a particular situation, unrepeatable and unsystematizable” (149). When I presented this project at a conference, one respondent underscored the value of this unique, unrepeatable situation when she noted that she feels, “This was meant for me!” on such serendipitous occasions. Because the find was unanticipated, the scrap feels special, personal. Innumerable factors have aligned for that person to encounter that scrap at that moment, so he or she feels a certain attachment to it and labels it an especially “good” find. The scrap’s value derives in part from the satisfaction of accidental discovery. My own experiences collecting scraps confirm the thrill of unexpected finds. On a whim I opened the drawer in the bedside table at a hotel immediately before leaving and found a note scribbled on hotel stationery (Figure 1). The timing was perfect! Although I initially thought of the food when I read “Curry sucks,” I soon pieced together that the note is about basketball when I saw the name Kobe; “Curry” must refer to Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors and “Kobe” to Kobe Bryant, formerly of the Los Angeles Lakers. A quick Internet search reveals that “Black Mamba” is a nickname for Bryant and “GOAT” an acronym for “Greatest of All Time.” In contrast, I planned a walk near a school after the last day of classes, expecting to find student writing. Sure enough, I found worksheets, notebook paper, and a poster, but these finds felt less authentic and exciting than my more serendipitous one because I consciously looked for them.

A piece of hotel stationery reading Curry sucks. Kobe. Black Mamba. GOAT. #1. All Day Every Day.

Figure 1

Whether deliberate or more random, discovery here is an embodied activity requiring interaction with the physical environment. Bodies and physical phenomena loom large when attempting to account for the many factors contributing to a scrap find, including weather, timing, geography, sight, and interaction with the environment. The Kansas winds, for instance, made my former home of Wichita a prime location for finding scraps. Trash blows around quite a bit, so I often went for walks and studied the paper strewn across the ground, paying attention to physical features of the landscape where scraps tend to gather: along curbs, near dumpsters and trash barrels, by the river, in patches of dirt and sand. As is perhaps obvious, bodies play an essential role in rescuing scraps from oblivion—a person must physically pick up and study the scrap, before deciding whether it’s worth keeping and sharing. The body makes invention possible here: through sight and touch, it uncovers and preserves scraps, which can promote meaning-making for both the finder and others with whom the find is shared.

2. Invention through Sharing

Invention continues through sharing the scrap—showing it to others or contributing it to a scrap writing website. The scrap finder must scan or photograph the scrap and then email it to the site’s administrator. Meanwhile, he or she may keep the scrap, perhaps putting it on display or storing it in a box of keepsakes. The physical scrap endures, continuing on an unknown path, and may later be picked up by someone else. Note the scrap’s bifurcated journey: it persists in its physical form while a digital version appears on the web. Although no one owns the anonymous original, its image has an author—whoever photographs and submits it. Reprinting the photo requires permission.

Digitization may seem an easy act of replication but is nonetheless inventive. The scrap finder is offering a contribution to the site, making it possible for others to view a previously undiscovered artifact. Each submission contributes to an ongoing implicit argument: everyday writing is worth preserving and sharing. Writing is all around us and even discarded pieces have value—they can entertain, inspire, confound, or challenge viewers. Each scrap serves as evidence of this argument, giving scraps a rhetorical function; at the same time, each scrap becomes a site for play and imagination. Even if no outsiders ever comment on the scrap, the act of submission itself testifies to the scrap’s capacity to capture the attention of at least one person, the finder.

Alongside submission are further inventive opportunities, such as the addition of a title, description, and tags. The finder can provide information about where and when the scrap was found, why he or she picked it up and kept it, and what he or she thinks of it. It is the ever-present unknown in scrap writing that is so generative. Lacking information about the scrap’s context, audience, purpose, and author, finders are free to ask questions and imagine possible scenarios. For example, a love letter from Found Magazine (Figure 2) ends abruptly, perhaps never having been sent; the final line reads, “hello again. It is now several days later” (“Summer is Now Quite Past”).

A love letter on orange stationary dated 30 September 1996

Figure 2. Reprinted with permission.

The submitter has commented,

I found this love letter while I was in college and I’ve kept it for about ten years. When I found it I was already well rehearsed in love letters, having dated someone in New York for a year before moving out here from Wisconsin. We had a great time for a couple years and then moved on.

Over time, I’ve come to love the following lines for their resilience: “And the emptiness I feel in your absence hasn’t changed. I have learned not to occupy my time in dwelling on it, but it hasn’t gone away.”

Did she ever rewrite it? Was she writing for herself? Did her person visit? Who knows.

This commentary reveals the submitter’s identification with and attachment to the letter, as she connects her own experience to it, performs some analysis, and poses several questions. These are inventive acts prompted by interaction with the found text over a period of time.

Collector and cartoonist Lynda Barry encapsulated the inventive work associated with such finds when asked by Found Magazine, “What is your attraction to found stuff? What does found stuff mean to you?” She responded, “I guess because it gives me something to imagine into both while on the prowl and after I find something. [. . .] Mainly I like the story that smokes up from certain found things” (Barry qtd. in Rothbart 157). Barry highlights the imaginative element in finding. Invention evolves from being more purposeful and context-driven to more playful and open-ended as the scrap drifts beyond its initial context.

3. Invention through Response

Invention continues as outsiders ponder the scrap’s possible meanings and engage in inquiry, response, and discussion. I view posted comments on a scrap as evidence of its inventive potential; they demonstrate that the scrap provokes meaning-making, inquiry, and writing for those who encounter it.

Responses from viewers may emerge from the scrap itself or from the submitter’s commentary, which becomes a prompt to invention. The scrap may be inventive or creative on its own, due to its content or message, as well as visual and material elements, such as handwriting, paper choice and condition, and pen and color choices. The scrap’s de-contextualized nature contributes to any inventive aspects on its surface by creating mystery and generating inquiry. In fact, commenters often characterize scraps as “mysterious” and “intriguing.” Viewers engage in collaboration and collective inquiry as they toss around possible interpretations, share reactions, ask questions, and work together to answer them.

In surveying posts and comments on scrap writing websites, I’ve uncovered common strategies for making meaning of scraps and several types of responses to them. The former indicate what people find interesting about scraps and how they grapple with a foreign artifact. The latter help to characterize the kinds of invention that scraps prompt. To make meaning of a scrap, viewers tend to pay attention to: the location in which it was found, which can provide clues about a context, purpose, writer, and recipient; the tools with which it was written (paper and writing utensils); noteworthy material features, such as handwriting and paper quality; organization and juxtaposition of content; and word choice, grammar, and (mis)spelling. Any of these features might surface in responses to scraps, which I’ve sorted into the following types: problem-solving and research; appreciation; interpretation; and personal reflection and creative writing. These categories can overlap, and often more than one type of response is evident in the comments on a single scrap.

Problem-solving and research. In one case of problem-solving, respondents notice that the scrap provides the call number for a library book and then locate the book (Lolmoqz). In another case, a handwritten piece of music prompts a respondent to research and identify it (“Do Re Mi”). These examples characterize scraps as puzzles to solve: they prompt questions that viewers can answer definitively through Internet research.

When a scrap contains concrete information such as a name or location, viewers often perform research to locate individuals. In contrast to the previous two examples, another involves delving into other people’s lives and trying to connect with them, rather than gathering hard facts like the identity of some music or a book (broostenq). A Reddit user found a handwritten letter from 1971 tucked inside a framed picture purchased at a thrift shop; the letter, from a young woman (“Elena”) to her parents, details a trip across Europe and also contains a note from someone who appears to be her boyfriend (“Ken”). The original poster concludes, “No treasure maps or family secrets but it’s a fascinating and unexpected window into a life and time very different than my own,” and a respondent encourages him to do some digging: “See if there are any unique identifiers that you could find to possibly link to a person on facebook.” The detective work begins as the finder estimates how old the writer may have been, considers the Massachusetts town where the thrift store is, and locates “an obituary for Elena who was born in 1946 and was married to a Kenneth.” He continues, “The timing matches up and I was able to find a son on Facebook! I friended him and have my fingers crossed I can get in touch.” Although the Reddit thread indicates that the case went cold (the finder never heard from the son), it highlights both the curiosity and the depth of research that a single scrap can provoke.

Appreciation. Responses that show appreciation for a scrap seem to approach it more as an aesthetic object than as a puzzle. One photo adorned with thick black writing (Figure 3) delights its viewers, yielding responses on Reddit such as, “Love it. So many factors of weirdness going on here,” “Oh wow this [is] amazing. This would be on my wall if I found it,” and “My interest has been thoroughly piqued” (breakingboundaries). Of course once one’s interest is piqued, initial appreciation and enjoyment may give way to inquiry and interpretation.

A colorful photograph of a cat on a staircase with thick, black writing

Figure 3. Reprinted with permission.

Interpretation. Interpreting a scrap can involve analysis as well as play. Viewers scrutinize content to make sense of a cryptic message, but they also play with multiple possibilities for interpretation. One especially cryptic scrap comes with the title “I Can No Longer Fix Your Errors,” which is the last line after a list of number and letter combinations (Krause). Respondents try to make sense of the scrap and propose that the repeated abbreviation “BT” might signify something to do with betting. Although they don’t settle on a definitive meaning, the commenters enjoy dwelling in uncertainty, writing, “Boy that sounds cryptic and fishy… I like it!! A mystery!” “I have no idea what this is about, but it sounds quite serious. Cool find!” and “such a wonderful found object.” The uncertainty associated with each scrap stimulates invention, as it allows viewers to play with meaning and to imagine the scenarios that prompted writing, with no right or wrong answer (Krause).

Personal reflection and creative writing. It is this malleability, the potential to inspire different interactions, that makes scrap writing a reliable prompt for personal reflection and creative writing. Viewers often comment that a particular scrap would make for a great story and will sometimes respond with a personal story or remembrance. A Post-it referencing the importance of labeling axes on a graph (Figure 4) has prompted one respondent to recount an anecdote about a former teacher: “I went to a Catholic school a couple years back where, after almost the entire class failed to label their axes, the instructor went to Lowe’s on his lunch break, returned with a fire axe and hung it up on the wall at the front of the room. It was a pretty effective visual cue and I haven't forgotten since” (MA34). The moderator of “r/FoundPaper” even encouraged users to begin posting narratives in response to scraps: “Find any post you loved and write a story in the comments section! It’ll be fun to read through all of the backstories you come up with and adds a cool aspect to the sub” (J0j2). Although it doesn’t appear that any users have publicly taken up this invitation, it acknowledges a major motivation for attending to found writing.

A yellow Post-it with red writing lamenting that students didn't label their axes

Figure 4. Reprinted with permission.

Scraps clearly provoke different kinds of response and can therefore prompt a variety of writing. Yet some scraps are more generative than others, so what makes for a “good” scrap? The amount of response a scrap generates provides some indication of whether the scrap is a “good” find. Scraps that garner a lot of attention might be those that have the greatest potential for spurring invention, or their content itself might be inventive. (For example, a popular letter “breaking up” with Bank of America reflects common frustrations with financial institutions [slithy-toves].) Some commonalities emerged when I searched for highly viewed, liked, or commented-on scraps: they require deciphering or translating (due to unclear handwriting, a code, or a foreign language); they evoke strong feelings due to emotional content; they are historical materials; or they have humorous or crude content. Overall, scraps with more mystery—whose purposes, meanings, and genres are not readily apparent—will attract more attention because they are likely to prompt questions, imaginings, and narratives.

Scrap writing websites and the investigative activities they promote provoke questions about the ethics of appropriating found materials. As examples like the love letter above (Figure 2) demonstrate, scrap writing can be deeply personal, and interacting with it involves intervening in strangers’ lives. Scrap writing can lead to especially voyeuristic activity when viewers seek out those whose scraps they’ve found, as occurred with the letter from Elena shared on Reddit. Gesa E. Kirsch articulates concerns of privacy and appropriation in a reflection following Shipka’s piece on Dorothy and Fred’s scrapbooks:

How and when do we draw a line between archival research and prying into other people’s lives? What are our ethical obligations for preserving the privacy, dignity, and integrity of historical subjects? How do we best handle materials that reveal deeply personal moments, such as a love letter and a cancer diagnosis? I realize that the objects of Shipka’s research are orphaned artifacts that, most likely, would have been discarded if not sold at a yard sale. Still, I am not convinced that easy access automatically gives us permission to appropriate and use mementos of other people’s life histories. (Kirsch)

I appreciate Kirsch’s concerns and advocate raising them in online discussions to enhance our understanding of scrap writing as a unique archive.

One best practice might be to comment generously and thoughtfully on the scraps we find, approaching them without judgment, because we typically aren’t privy to their original contexts. Yet commenters on the Internet often approach artifacts with keen interest, which leads them to the voyeurism that Kirsch questions. Scrap writing websites might encourage more appreciative and interpretive responses to these artifacts, as well as discourage activity that can intrude upon individuals’ privacy. They might also limit contributions of scraps that contain clues to a person’s identity. On my own scrap writing Facebook page, I have refrained from posting scraps whose authors can be easily identified. Yet the impulse to investigate authors and circumstances seems a natural outgrowth of scrap writing websites, as the flotsam and jetsam of our everyday writing lives provokes so many rich questions and inventive opportunities. 

4. Invention through Republication

The most provocative scraps may achieve some permanence when republished in a book. Books born from websites provide a compelling example of how invention can accompany the recirculation of unoriginal content. Creating a book from a website like Found Magazine, for instance, entails more than heaping together the best finds; rather than a “greatest hits” album, the Found book is a new invention born of old materials. Numerous decisions offer opportunities for invention: choosing which scraps to include; combining and juxtaposing them in interesting ways; organizing the book into chapters and sections; adding paratextual materials and further content, such as an introduction, headlines, and interviews with finders; and formatting pages to resemble a scrapbook. Arrangement becomes a more active endeavor with greater inventive potential in a scrap writing book than on the web. On the websites, finds usually appear chronologically, based on when they were posted. A book allows editors to organize materials according to common themes and content and to emphasize relationships among scraps. Thus, the additional decision-making and scaffolding that go into the book can channel viewers’ invention in certain directions, whereas the websites are less systematically arranged, leaving invention more open-ended.

As scraps move into books, the scrap writing enterprise undergoes a shift in ethos. It becomes a less collaborative, vernacular endeavor. Although the books, like the websites, display everyday materials authored by multiple unknown individuals, they are commodities controlled by authors, editors, and publishers. Republication is the only point in the ecology that excludes the general public from participation. In contrast, anyone can produce writing that becomes a scrap, and anyone can find scraps, submit them online, and comment on them. The inventive opportunities outlined above frame invention as an everyday activity in which anyone can participate, while republication reframes invention as a more specialized activity.  

Conclusion: Scrap Writing in the Digital Age as a Rhetorical Invention

When I step back and consider the scrap writing enterprise as a whole, the prevailing mode of invention is distributed and curatorial, centered on finding, collecting, storing, and sharing. These are the kinds of unoriginal, collaborative activities that writing scholars have increasingly showcased in theorizing distributed, materialist, and ecological models of writing. Scrap writing clarifies, however, that even when writing means recirculating and reusing preexisting texts, some initial text still must be generated. As an ecology, scrap writing requires input in analogue form—there is no scrap writing in the digital age without the creation of a starting paper text. Thus, these varieties of invention work together, creation and discovery complementing each other.

We can also view scrap writing in the digital age as itself a rhetorical invention, promoting arguments about writing, finding, materiality, and invention. All the interlocutors in a scrap’s circulation (maker, finder, respondents) contribute to the wider visibility of everyday writing (especially handwritten documents), lending significance to ephemeral materials. In drawing attention to scrap writing, I argue for the value of vernacular literacy practices and the continued relevance, prominence, and utility of handwritten texts. Scrap writing websites and books promote the circulation of vernacular texts beyond the local and immediate, making them available for others to appreciate and puzzle over; in doing so, these sites and books support David Barton’s suggestion that vernacular texts can be “a source of creativity, invention and originality” (110). As online commentary reveals, viewers interact with such texts and generate inquiry, response, and creative expression. In fact, being “a source of creativity, invention and originality,” scraps help sustain the scrap writing enterprise: intrigued and entertained by what they see, those who visit the sites may leave them more likely to find scraps and contribute to the ongoing practice of scrap writing in the digital age. They may come to see that prompts to invention, and opportunities for invention, are all around us, in both our physical and digital environments.

While invention must occur through initial creation for the scrap writing lifecycle to begin, I want to close by suggesting that invention is of greatest intensity upon interception of a scrap. In fact, a scrap cannot be found without invention taking place. Invention occurs at this moment via discovery, but also through immediate interpretation. A scrap that elicits no interpretation upon discovery, such as the receipts or valet tickets that I have found but discarded, does not undergo the lifecycle that I have outlined and is therefore not included in the scrap writing enterprise. (That’s not to say that others might not wish to keep and interact with such scraps themselves.) Yet in cases when scraps do undergo a distributed lifecycle, this moment of discovery-giving-way-to-interpretation triggers another wave of invention, as the individual or group of individuals interacting with the scrap doubles back and questions their interpretation, leading to greater analysis of both the content and materiality of the scrap. This process models textual analysis more broadly: readers form an impression of a text, then analyze how they formed that impression, as a result generating evidence in support of that impression. In a sense, all texts are found texts, awaiting discovery, sharing, and commentary.

[i] Acknowledgements: I would like to thank Laurie Gries, Dahliani Reynolds, Steve Carr, Annette Vee, Peter Moe, and two anonymous reviewers for their helpful feedback on previous drafts of this article.

[ii] The Museum of Everyday Writing likewise showcases mundane, ephemeral writing such as receipts and notes. However, it lacks the sense of community that scrap writing sites share as viewers cannot comment on the artifacts presented.

[iii] Found began as a print magazine in June 2001, with the website and books coming later (“Who We Are”).

[iv] Collecting, commonplacing, and scrapbooking predate scrap writing websites. Found Magazine acknowledges that while it hasn’t established the appeal of found things, it has expanded access to them. The website explains, “We certainly didn’t invent the idea of found stuff being cool. Every time we visit our friends in other towns, someone’s always got some kind of unbelievable discovered note or photo on their fridge. We decided to make a bunch of projects so that everyone can check out all the strange, hilarious and heartbreaking things people have picked up and passed our way” (“Who We Are”).

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