Some of my writer friends and I are about to lose a wonderful friend. Harriette Austin is now in hospice care in Athens, Georgia. She has aggressive pancreatic cancer. She is in her middle 90s.
Harriette was our teacher in a continuing-ed class called Murder and Mayhem for Money, until she retired for the last time a few years ago.
I met her in 1995, after Richard and I moved to Athens. A friend at UGA knew that I was interested in writing and sent me an announcement for a writing class. I mentioned it to Richard, who said, "Why would you not do this?" so I immediately registered for the class.
Harriette's method for conducting the class was to have members read excerpts of what they had written. Almost anything goes, she told us, except for two things: 1) don't have the bad guy kill an animal in your story (it's a cheap way to make the bad guy seem evil); kill all the humans you want to, blood and gore and everything, if you feel like it; and 2) don't read any graphic sex scenes; write all the sex scenes you want, just don't read them in class.
Her other rules included 1) pay attention to the person reading, particularly don't chat with another class member; 2) when you criticize, do it in a positive way; 3) don't clip your nails or floss your teeth; and 4) don't eat noisy food while others are reading. All of these rules boil down to common courtesy.
I spent the first four weeks of class just listening, and not saying much. When I did finally read something, my hands were shaking and my voice was trembling, but I got through it. When I finished, I told the class I'd rather cook for my mother-in-law than read aloud. Harriette and the class were very complimentary and encouraging (one long-time member said if I cooked as well as I wrote, he and his wife (also a class member, now published) would be over for dinner..
Like most of the other members, I took the class every quarter for the whole six years we lived in Athens. We "old timers" were not required to show up to the first class each quarter until about 20 minutes after the start time. That gave Harriette an opportunity to explain the dynamic of the class to new students.
Our class loved to party! Near the end of every quarter, Harriette would call for a volunteer to host the class party, and we'd set a date. Every party was a true potluck: the food was not planned. Harriette said even if we all showed up with just a dessert, it was all right. That never happened, dammit, but every meal at these events was fabulous! (Not only could we write, we could cook.)
I'll probably be heading to Athens in the not-to-distant future, for one of the worst days of my life. Harriette always referred to herself as "Mother," and she considered us all her children.
It's an honor to be so considered and to be in such good company: Charles and Beverly; Genie; Judy and Takis; Diane; Paige and Mike; Patricia; Alan; Lin; Dac; Larry; Donna; Gleam; Jackie; Betty R; Dawson; Billie; and any other of the regulars I missed.