Guard Duty by Tomas Tranströmer
Listen: if you are writing, then you are a writer. That’s it. That’s all there really is. It took me a long time to finally embrace the truth of it, but here I am. There is no true measure to what makes one a writer; don’t let anybody else define it for you. I believe that you just have to find yourself writing, is all. Is everything.
And if you’re not writing: it is a holy task that you must appoint to yourself, to make a space for it in your life. I say holy, because it is the closest thing I can get to peace—that place where who I am and what I do can meet, where will and purpose can sit side by side and not argue about semantics. I say task, because writing is work. It’s a gargantuan amount of work that would take your whole life. You are not a special snowflake for choosing to write. It was just what you were meant to do, so do it.
Listen: writing is both a noble pursuit and a thankless job, and yet I love it unabashedly because it’s saved me even when I didn’t want to be saved. I am tethered to it the way an old tree has dug deep its roots into the earth, unto itself.
About a month ago I met someone who has dedicated the past few years purely to writing and nothing else. He has given up and shifted a lot of things in his life just to be able to do it every day. I could tell, just by looking at his face, how right that decision was. I could tell that writing will always come first over everything. I could tell because I recognise in him parts of myself, although I’m not all the way there yet. I admired his courage, perhaps even envied him. He sat across from me and inhabited another world entirely, one that he created, and how amazing was that? I know it doesn’t make me less of who I am—just that we have different paths. Yet how amazing is it that our paths would cross, perhaps entwine?
Listen: do what you have to do. You have to fight for what you love any fucking way you can, but you can also take your time. You are a writer because you are writing, and you are a writer even if you are not writing. It is allowed. Forgive yourself. This is yours, the life you make. Nobody can take it away from you.
Listen: the new year is arriving in a few hours. The past twelve months have led you to this. It was rough, but you are alive. And now you are here. I love you wholly, and fiercely, as I have never loved before.
Translated by Robert Bly
I’m ordered out to a big hump of stones
as if I were an aristocratic corpse from the Iron Age.
The rest are still back in the tent sleeping,
stretched out like spokes in a wheel.
In the tent the stove is boss: it is a big snake
that swallows a ball of fire and hisses.
But it is silent out here in the spring night
among chill stones waiting for dawn.
Out here in the cold I start to fly
like a shaman, straight to her body—
some places pale from her swimming suit.
The sun shone right on us. The moss was hot.
I brush along the side of warm moments,
but I can’t stay there long.
I’m whistled back through space—
I crawl among the stones. Back to here and now.
Task: to be where I am.
Even when I’m in this solemn and absurd
role: I am still the place
where creation works on itself.
Dawn comes, the sparse tree trunks
rake on color now, the frostbitten
forest flowers form a silent search party
after something that has disappeared in the dark.
But to be where I am…and to wait.
I am full of anxiety, obstinate, confused.
Things not yet happened are already here!
I feel that. They’re just out there:
a murmuring mass outside the barrier.
They can only slip in one by one.
They want to slip in. Why? They do
one by one. I am the turnstile.
This is from Selected Poems: 1954-1986 by Tomas Tranströmer, edited by Robert Hass, published by The Ecco Press, 1987.