Vita Sackville-West is famous for many things. She was the daughter of Lionel Edward Sackville-West, 3rd Baron Sackville, and his wife, Victoria Sackville-West. She was married to Harold Nicolson, a diplomat, journalist, broadcaster, Member of Parliament and author. She lived in Sissinghurst Castle, Kent, and created the beautiful gardens now opened to the public by the National Trust. And she and her husband, both bisexual and proponents of the open marriage, engaged in extra-marital affairs, the most remarked upon of which was Vita’s relationship with Virginia Woolf.
But above all, Vita was a writer, standing on the fringes of the Bloomsbury Group – the influential British writers working together in Bloomsbury, London, at the start of the twentieth century whose members included great minds such as John Maynard Keynes, E. M. Forster and Lytton Strachey and at whose core were Virginia Woolf, her husband, her sister and her brothers and her lovers.
The following quote, for me, really captures the essence of Vita’s understanding of what it is to be a writer:
‘It is necessary to write, if the days are not to slip emptily by. How else, indeed, to clap the net over the butterfly of the moment? For the moment passes, it is forgotten; the mood is gone; life itself is gone. That is where the writer scores over his fellows: he catches the changes of his mind on the hop.’
Oh, the exhaustion and agony of being a writer! To always have to write, for fear of losing a thought or a moment or a flash of inspiration. It’s no good having an idea and thinking you’ll jot it down later – there is no later; the mind, by then, is on to the next idea. The only solution, I have found, is to keep a notebook handy at all times. On the table beside you as you chat to friends or watch television or daydream. In your handbag while out shopping or travelling. In your pocket while out walking the dog. On your bedside table for middle-of-the-night ideas.
Perhaps that is why we writers can have a reputation for being aloof, hermit-like, distracted. We are living half in the moment, and half in our imaginations – desperate not to let a butterfly take flight and slip away from our grasp before we’ve established its beauty. Perhaps one day some clever soul shall invent a contraption that allows the writer to quickly place the idea in a safe place, ready to be accessed at a later stage, without requiring the frustratingly slow action of scribbling onto paper – something along the lines of Dumbledore’s pensieve. But then we would be deprived of the scratch of the pen and the smell of the ink and the cramp of the hand and the wonderful sense of words – words! – flowing out. No, to be a writer, I think, must be to catch the butterfly, and if the price we pay is notebooks strewn all over full of ramblings, so be it.