...I could just spit.
Inspiration. Ummm. Inspiration. For two days, I’ve been thinking about inspiration and planning on doing something about it. I invited the topic to a dance in my head, where it did its insistent little pirouette but basically went nowhere. All this time I’ve been revving up to write something inspirational about inspiration, but I just wasn’t—well, inspired.
So I log on to Harriet and discovered that the maddeningly insightful Mr. Dawes (I could just spit!) has not only tackled the broad subject of creative inspiration, he has penned the definitive treatise on inspiration. People are weeping as they read. The Pulitzer committee just held an emergency session to institute a new category for the awards—insanely lyrical Ghanaian men with the initials K.D. who write about inspiration.
[Insert testosterone-infused dramatic narrator-type voice here:]
Whatever will Patricia do?

First of all, I will congratulate myself on that sweeeet little cliffhanger that got you to click the link for the rest of this rambling.
Secondly, I will promptly serve up my thoughts on inspiration—because it’s almost 12:30 a.m., I’ve been traveling since I woke up this morning in Kentucky, and Harriet’s a hungry little beast. She craves words, and doesn’t like to be left empty.
So here goes:
Tacked above the computer in my office is a little laminated nudge, one of those pithy sayings writers often refer to for inspiration and motivation, These pointed witticisms are spouted by contemporary authors after they’ve hit it big—I mean Oprah big—or dead people so good we have to study them in school. Shakespeare, Frost, Auden, Morrison, Creeley, even Danielle Friggin’ Steele have provided me with guidance through the years. I think it’s awfully sportin’ of them, taking time to toss a few pointers back into the pits, where we mere mortals ponder plot twists or toil over trochees.
For years, my tacked-up tenet was an oldie but a goodie, a wise and simple nugget that I will first unveil in the original Latin, because my goal in life is to impress you:
Nulla dies sine linea.
Never a day without a line.

That gem was uttered (or more likely, written) by Horace, 65-8 B.C. (which is probably the last time anyone, with the exception of cocaine addicts, practiced its advice with any consistency.) It’s a rule that’s technically easy to adhere to, and just as easy to blissfully ignore, sometimes at the same time.
For instance, here are some of my more memorable lines:
--Please excuse Mikaila for being late today. Her hamster was wedged in the drain.
--Don’t forget! Tonight’s the parent/teacher conference! Wear a clean shirt.
--Egg Beaters. Bagels. Low-sodium soy sauce. Cinnamon Toast Crunch. Tampons.
--Please excuse Mikaila from school. She can only find one shoe.
So, while I was indeed penning a line a day, let’s just say that Poetry Magazine wasn’t exactly begging for the results.
The problem is this: Nulla dies sine linea is a gentle wisdom that lets life intrude. Nowadays I find myself not so much writing lines as doing things leading up to the writing of lines, or doing things that will someday eventually inspire the writing of a line. For instance, yesterday, my NY Cave Canem workshop began. And oops, there’s my MFA packet deadline. This weekend I’m headed for Cambridge for one night to layer my spoken words over the gut musings of a jazz trio. Tax time is looming, two in-school residencies are about to begin within days of each other and my husband just took off for London for 10 days, leaving me to scream into my cupped hands and write memorable lines like Where in the hell did he hide the peanut butter? This is what passes for fun in the world of me. A schedule like this doesn’t even leave much time for personal hygiene, let alone the languid inspired penning of lines.
(Somewhere in the recesses of my brain blares a warning. Don’t tell thousands of strangers that you’re husband is jetsetting and you’re going to be alone in the house with an 11-year-old who would open the door for the Marquis de Sade as long as he was carrying a pizza. A zombie or freakazoid or man with a skull for a head might break in to terrorize or murder you which, when you think of it, is great material for a new poem. The call is coming from inside the house! The call is coming from inside the house!)
But I digress. (Which is precisely the reason I’m not writing lines.)
I needed an inspirational saying with a lot more pinch. I needed a nudge that sparks numbing guilt and intense fear, something stronger than mounds of laundry, the pursuit of dust bunnies, a sudden urge to redecorate the bedroom or time-wasting, but oh-so-loverly mid-afternoon sex. I needed inspiration strong enough to pull me away from even that mightiest of distractions, the “Golden Girls” episode where Dorothy finally snags a husband, and not just any husband, but a cute one who looks a lot like Leslie Nielsen. I get weepy just thinking about it.
I needed an astute snippet of motivation that would change my life every time I look at it. And it had to be small enough to fit in my wallet.
One day, while wasting time looking for an inspirational line that could keep me from wasting time, I found it. Annie Dillard said it:
“If you want to take a year off to write a book, you have to take that year, or the year will take you by the hair and pull you toward the grave…you can take your choice. You can keep a tidy house, and when St. Peter asks you what you did with your life, you can say, ‘I kept a tidy house. I made my own cheese balls.’ ”
Wow. If that doesn’t make you drop everything and get to work, nothing will. There’s nothing like a mention of the ol’ eternal to stir those creative juices and get that keyboard to clickin’. If what I needed was a fire under my butt, “the year will take you by the hair and pull you toward the grave” pretty much does the trick.
What? Not yet? You can’t get down to work yet because….there’s one more thing you’ve got to do? You’re kidding…oh, I guess you’re not. OK, OK, if you absolutely insist, here it is:
8 ounces softened cream cheese
1/2 cup shredded cheddar cheese
8 ounces Cheese Whiz (I smell fun already)
1/4 cup chopped green onion
1 minced garlic clove
1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
1 tablespoon brandy
1 tablespoon fresh snipped parsley
1 teaspoon paprika
6 drops hot pepper sauce
1 1/2 cup finely chopped pecans
Put the cream cheese and cheddar cheese in a 2-qt dish, one that won’t blow up when you put it in the microwave. Microwave on high for 30 seconds. Add cheese spread and microwave on high for 20 to 30 more seconds. Beat until smooth. After placing onion, garlic and butter in a small bowl, microwave on high for 30-45 seconds. Combine with cheese mixture and Worcestershire sauce, brandy, parsley, paprika and red pepper sauce.
Refrigerate at least 2 hours. Shape into 48 balls. Roll in pecans. Place on a large tray covered with waxed paper. Cheese balls should not touch each other. (I really like that line. All of a sudden, the cheese balls are like kids in the back seat of the car.) Freeze until firm. Can be frozen for up to a month in advance. (That is scary, but it is true.)
To serve, remove 12 cheese balls and place in circle (why not a rectangle, a triangle?) on serving plate. Microwave at 30% power for 45 seconds to 2 minutes, or until defrosted but still cool. Rotate plate 1/2 turn every 30 seconds. Let stand 3 to 5 minutes before serving. Enjoy. Enjoy.
Now. Your life is complete. You’ve got the recipe. Make the damned cheese balls, just so you can tell St. Peter you did--but then you'll pass him a copy of your book, the kickass one you finished this year ‘cause Annie Dillard said you’d better.
C’mon. Time’s awastin’. And your grave is waiting.
(No pressure, though.)

Originally Published: March 9th, 2007

Patricia Smith has been called “a testament to the power of words to change lives.” She is the author of seven books of poetry, including Incendiary Art (2017), winner of an NAACP Image Award and the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award; Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah (2012), which won the Lenore Marshall...

  1. March 9, 2007
     Frances-Anne Solomon

    Wow! That's great. I really enjoyed that.

  2. March 9, 2007

    You are exhilarating!
    Nulla dies sine linea...I won't forget it.
    James was only heavy on the one but you're heavy on e'ry beat!

  3. July 7, 2007

    wonderful post. Thanks.
    You can listen to Horace 's poetry being read aloud on http://latinum.mypodcast.com
    All of The Odes, Book One, are there for the taking.