How I Didn’t Spend My Summer

Kate’s on vacation this week, so her spot is being ably filled by Chris Roerden, author of the brilliant book about editing your manuscript, Don’t Murder Your Mystery:

And Miss Reardon Drinks A Little is a dark comedy that came to Broadway in February 1971. That year on the Portland campus of USM — which us old-timers knew as UMP, then UMPG — the sobriquet “Drinks a Little” attached itself to my spelled-differently but pronounced-the-same last name.

This distinction came about because the UMPG Graduate Student Association, which I’d founded the year before, had to repeatedly petition the undergraduate student council for permission to serve wine in the student union annex.

By adding wine to our modest offering of crackers and cheese, I hoped to entice members of the graduate faculty to spend an evening a month chatting informally with their adult students.

Having to repeatedly ask undergrads permission to serve 10 percent alcohol made me feel like a teen wanting the car keys, but contemplating the alternative felt equally juvenile: offering our faculty unspiked Kool-Aid with their cheddar and chips.

Behind my Manischewitz-inspired motive lay the odious requirement that M.A. candidates on Portland’s commuter campus spend a summer residency in Orono. Not only did UMP students lead off-campus lives, but many at the graduate level also had families and jobs.

Even four years earlier when I’d enrolled as a freshman, my full-time job was mother to two preschoolers. No way could I leave them to live somewhere else, especially while their daddy — a peripatetic field engineer — covered four New England states.

By the time I learned of the residency rule, I was well into my first year as an M.A. candidate — and I’d added a new job. In my senior year as an undergrad my Lit professors encouraged me to enroll in grad school and they offered me a position as instructor of writing.

Though I’d been an editor in my native New York for nine years before moving to Maine, I possessed zero credentials for teaching. But with my youngest about to enter first grade, I acquired a new and valuable credential: availability. You see, for an English Dept. made up of specialists in fine literature, they avoided teaching writing only by finding someone else to do so.

One day in Orono

My colleagues joked that the purpose of summer residency was to keep Orono’s empty dorms occupied. But I wanted to be told the official purpose. Maybe I could fulfill it in some other way.

So I made an appointment to see the dean of the graduate school. I packed the family into our station wagon with the fake wood on the side and embarked on my first and only visit to Orono. While the Roerden males took in the campus sights, I had a delightful chat with the dean.

I was relieved to learn that the onerous rule had nothing to do with the quality of our local faculty. (Actually, most had originally transferred to Portland from Orono.) Still, I kept probing for the reason. Eventually the dean told me that the Portland campus lacked “a graduate environment.”

When I pressed for clarification the dean said, “Orono gives the graduate student intellectual intercourse with the faculty.” (I’m not making this up.)

I asked for an example. On learning what qualified as this kind of intercourse for Orono, I had an idea. “Would it serve the purpose,” I asked, “if I held similar wine and cheese receptions in Portland for the graduate students and their faculty?” The dean said it would. I thanked him, gathered my family for the journey home, and promptly announced the first graduate student association for UMPG.

A strategy was born

In addition to starting a grad student “newspaper” (for which I wrote both pages and literally cranked them out by hand on the student union’s primitive mimeo machine), I initiated our primary activity: hosting regular intellectual intercourse affairs. (Maybe affairs isn’t the best word.)

We also paired with the committee that had a budget for bringing speakers on campus, and we arranged to host receptions for them following their evening presentations. That a speaker might be desperate for real food at that hour never occurred to me.

The most memorable of our visitors was Alex Haley, then known as author of The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Not for another five years would Roots be published; its TV miniseries, the year after that.

I think Rollo May was another visitor. (Okay, so cheap zinfandel wasn’t our only draw.) Regrettably, I remember none of our other celebrity speakers, nor what intellectual enlightenment I might have gained, though I do recall refilling lots of Fritos and vino.

But my strategy succeeded!

In 1971 the University of Maine awarded three Master of Arts degrees in English for work done entirely on the Portland campus — a first! We were Steve Romanoff, now a professor at USM (who met with his thesis advisor in Orono); Prudence Grant, who later gained the distinction of having taught Stephen King when he attended Lisbon H.S.; and me. Prudence and I each had a thesis advisor in Portland, and when my students learned about my orals, they packed the room to observe and lend support for an event that usually drew only faculty. But that’s another story.

As for my notoriety as a tipler, the reason the student council had to be repeatedly petitioned is that it granted permission one event at a time. My suggestion that a seat on the undergraduate council be set aside for a grad student was laughingly rejected.

Secretly, though, I was flattered that I had been given a distinctive nickname, even if totally unmerited.


Chris Roerden has edited authors published by St. Martin’s, Berkley Prime Crime, Midnight Ink, Forge, Harlequin, Viking, Walker & Co., and more. Among the 11 nonfiction books and a game she’s written (5 as ghost), Don’t Murder Your Mystery won the Agatha and was nominated for the Anthony and Macavity. Its all-genre version, Don’t Sabotage Your Submission, received the 21st annual Benjamin Franklin Award, Florida Writers best of show, and ForeWord Review‘s bronze for Writing Book of the Year.

Her first title was the 1965 pictorial commemorative Collections from Cape Elizabeth, Maine, the research for which convinced her she needed to go to college despite how long she’d been out of school. To her surprise, her B.A. in English from UMP was awarded summa cum laude.

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14 Responses to How I Didn’t Spend My Summer

  1. E. B. Davis says:

    Necessity is the mother of invention, but then in your case, perhaps, mother is the necessity of invention. You couldn’t have plotted a better outcome. Great post, Chris, more stories please!

  2. Donan Berg says:

    Magna cum laude article. Could be a Lou Gehrig story. When the starting first baseman couldn’t play, Lou was inserted into the lineup and never came out.

    • I’m an athletic wimp, Donan, but this small taste of power turned me on to a life of activism, for better or worse. Thank you for your gem of an anecdote!
      Best wishes,

  3. Ramona says:

    Always knew you were a party animal, Chris!

  4. Kaye George says:

    What a fun post! I’m very happy to learn your whole name, Chris. I never would have guessed. 🙂 This tale is told with such style! I enjoyed every word.

  5. Rhonda Lane says:

    Thank you for this fun window into academic life, Chris.

  6. John Clark says:

    Loved this entry. How times have changed. I got my MLIS from the University of South Carolina. While I shared classes with students from West Virginia, Georgia, and South Carolina, I never set foot in the Palmetto State.

    • Interesting, John. I understand that USM was empowered to issue its own MAs in English, independently of Orono. Too bad you didn’t go to UNC or I could include you in our NC SinC Chapter’s bibliography of all NC mystery writers. I look forward to reading the merged YA novel (when it’s done) that’s set in part in the Tarheel State.
      Good wishes,

  7. Carol-Lynn Rössel says:

    And Miss Reardon Drinks A Little! I haven’t thought of that play in some time. It was written by my chemistry teacher at Tottenville high school, Paul Zindel (the guy who wrote in my high school yearbook “You will one day be a famous writer.” I still have that item. Anyhow, it was a very faintly disguised portrait of the school’s vice principal, and did not make really such a positive impression on her. He used to do that rather a lot. He’d have off-Broadway openings of his plays and the faculty would grump in to Manhattan to see which of them he ‘captured’ this time. After he wrote that play that won him a Pulitzer (Marigolds, also about Tottenville High) he stopped teaching there. I can close my eyes and see that woman now. Her name wasn’t Reardon. It was Ryan. Me, I’d have changed it to, oh, something non-Irish that didn’t star with an R.

    • How interesting Carol-Lynn! Especially the prediction that you’d one day be a famous writer. That’s even better than a nickname!
      Speaking of names, I find it interesting that you use the umlaut – something I rarely come across. My married name, so I was told, evolved from the Norwegian Rörden, with the “e” stuck in following the “o” to adjust for the loss of the umlaut. I’ve often heard that the folks who processed arrivals at Ellis Island became quite creative in their spelling of what they thought they heard a heavily accented non-English-speaking head-of-household say. Over the years as I moved around and met new people, the only thing I wished I’d changed in using the name professionally is not having established its pronunciation to rhyme with Gordon, instead of with my in-laws’ preference, Reardon. But then I wouldn’t have earned the sobriquet “drinks a little.”
      Regards, Chris

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