I believe in writing things down. Writing my novel Running Away (1) allowed me to make sense of dark periods in my life and the act of writing served as a catalyst for my creativity. So I am very interested in people who also have written things down and therefore made a difference to the world.
We’re kind of muddled up about writing as we are about a lot of things nowadays. We think if we write it’s got to be for an external purpose, to be famous, to achieve things, to show our smarts. But I believe in the transformative power of writing. So I was intrigued to discover William Petty.
William Petty is probably best known as the father of taxation and a good friend of Samuel Pepys. What fascinated me was his mapping of Ireland in the 17th century. Ireland was a bit of a problem, because Oliver Cromwell needed to carve it up to pay his Protestant soldiers and there was no map available other than one drawn by monks, a map that looked more like a pictogram with lines of trees on it.
What William Petty did was to get the soldiers to write down everything they saw while they were walking about. So how does William Petty fit with Mindful Writing? Let me quote him: “I would sooner live upon Herb Pottage all the dais of my life than not to study truth.” A complex personality, he had a compulsion to write his thoughts down and the British Library is a testament to that with its Petty papers.
I believe he used ‘writing down’ as a way to develop his ideas and organise his thoughts. The compulsion of ‘writing down’ was so strong in Petty that when he was tired he employed amanuenses to capture everything. He wrote because he simply had to, even in 1679 he wrote to his wife telling her that a “wolf’s tooth under the pillow is a certain cure for gum swelling.”
One can see a struggle in Petty to find his truth, a shifting away from the external world to introspection. Anything that occurred to Petty, whether verifiable or purely superstitious, he gave value to by writing it down. Petty is a prime example of just having to keep on writing, if this means that in the middle of all the muddy dross a few specks of gold shine through.
(1) Beier, A. (2009) Running Away, www.counsellingkit.com