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DUCTS' Editor reflects

Editor's Tribute to Fred Hudson

By Jonathan Kravetz

Fred Hudson, the president and artistic director of the Frederick Douglass Creative Arts Center for over thirty years, died last February 13th at his apartment in Manhattan. He was 74. The cause was heart failure, according to Yvonne Hudson, his niece. The Center, founded in 1971, continues to nurture African-American writers, actors and playwrights. Fred taught screenwriting to students at the Center and at New York University and was a mentor to this webzine’s editor. For a full obituary, click here.

I finished putting the rest of the webzine together, got my schedule in order and sat down to write this tribute. Then I started reading the “New York Times” on line. And then “Salon” -- oh look, an interesting article about the Matrix in “the New Yorker” -- and soon I’d destroyed an entire afternoon. I repeated this pattern every day for a week until I stopped to think about why I was procrastinating. And then I had to face the truth: I did not want to write this tribute. The reason was simple: I didn’t want to say good-bye to my mentor.

When I got the news that Fred Hudson had died, one of my first thoughts was Who gave you permission to do that?! A terribly selfish thought. But those who knew Fred would probably forgive my indulgence: Fred always put others before himself. If you were close to him, you could easily get spoiled and I’d let myself believe that he was going to live another ten years, easy. He complained about his back, his aches and pains, but that was just Fred being Fred, I said to myself. He was active, he was still teaching, he could still get into a good argument about why one of my characters was behaving in a way that humans just didn’t behave. He wasn’t sick.

I believe now that he was probably in a lot more pain than he let on, but he just didn’t think it was his job to make a big deal about it. His job was to make sure you got your shit together. I thought about this and considered what Fred had meant to me. I have purpose in my life now, a variety of projects, friends, people I love. DUCTS, a venue for writers -- beginning artists, in particular -- to tell their most difficult personal stories is a direct result of my relationship with Fred.

I find myself writing about me, of all things, as I sit here, and maybe this is strangely appropriate: I am a reflection of Fred’s work and, in truth, only one of thousands who prospered under his guidance. It might seem odd to some: a white suburban kid studying with a man who dedicated himself to helping African Americans. But it made sense because Fred cared about the work -- the individual -- not just about race. That was, in part, the point of his vocation: to foster a world where African Americans got an even shot in the arts. When he started the Frederick Douglass Creative Arts Center over 30 years ago with Budd Schulberg, the odds were stacked against African American writers. The Center played a pivotal role in changing this and now close to one-hundred writers from the FDCAC have published books, others have written for TV and acted in movies.

I was relatively apolitical, however, when I met Fred. I was simply a confused twenty-something in need of guidance. It was that simple to my mentor. I was floating like a speck of dust in New York City, sure only of a vague notion that I might want to be a writer, but certain also that that was an insane choice to make. I was in my last semester at NYU in a graduate program in Cinema Studies that had taught me only that I was no academic. This was ten years ago. I decided to take a class in Dramatic Writing to escape the pressures of my department. It meant allowing myself to take a chance and pursue something that really did excite me. I liked the class much more than any of the courses in my own discipline: Cinema Studies seemed to be mostly about tearing down someone else’s work. I decided to take another class. I asked my teacher, Robert Honor, to recommend someone and he said, “There’s a gem in this department, most people don’t realize it. You should take Fred Hudson’s class. You’ll learn a lot.”

I sat quietly in the back as I always did, afraid even to raise my hand when I had ideas. I would approach Fred after class and ask him questions about my screenplay. He listened and then would answer in his quiet vibrato. I remember I always thought I knew exactly what he meant, though it would actually take quite a few years before I would let all of his simple instruction sink in. That was the process and maybe those less stubborn or less afraid learned faster. Fred didn’t seem to notice. He simply repeated himself. Over and over, until I got it.

After graduate school, I really had no idea what I wanted to do. I started temping, but I was still too afraid to admit that I wanted to write. The thought of showing my work to anyone terrified me: a reader could get under my skin, he would know that I was a fuck-up, pathetic, hopeless. Simply, he would know me and I didn’t want that. I think Fred saw what was going on. Many writers face this problem -- not wanting to open themselves up -- and he encouraged me to join workshops. I would call him a few times a month, tell him about my progress, he would take it all in and then say, “Sounds great. You should take a workshop, we can take that thing apart. You really have a lot of potential.” “Maybe,” I would say, and then put it out of my mind.

I like to picture myself as a frightened dog that gets stuck in a thunderstorm in the woods. A gentle man sees the dog wandering and every day leaves a little food outside his cabin. The animal approaches cautiously, crouching, and then quickly eats the food. When the man opens the door, the dog bolts. This episode repeats itself every day for a few days: food, crouching, the open door, bolting. Soon, however, the animal lets the man look at him. Just look. When the man approaches, the dog runs off. Over time, however -- many months -- the two become good friends and the dog allows the man, finally, to clean him up and care for him. It seems funny to describe myself this way: a dog. But my need for care was that primitive. Fred knew not to jump up and down and make a lot of noise.

I started taking writing workshops. At first, I would sit and listen. But Fred insisted that everyone in class offer notes to everyone else. I remember being terrified when my turn would come: scared just to pipe up. I wasn’t doing much else during my weeks, however, just playing softball, working out, so I had lots of times to prepare for classes. I would write, at times, twenty pages of printed comments for each screenplay. In class, I would carefully dissect my other classmates screenplays. Fred encouraged this. He let me learn by helping others.

I became a regular and over the course of four or five years took every class that Fred offered. He sent one of my pieces to an agent -- the first one I’d written -- but for the most part my screenplays were too esoteric, too interior looking for film. Fred would tell me that I had to write about characters that took action, that had passion. Protagonists that sat around mourning and slept a lot weren’t that interesting. Of course, my writing and my life were related and I was slowly giving up that part of myself that was terrified to explore, to pipe-up. One screenplay was about a man whose second self takes over his life and finally destroys the constantly moping protagonist. Fred encouraged me to let go more and more. “Do something crazy,” he’d say. I was scared to try and he knew that.

I sometimes wondered if we had this in common. I’m aware of how absurd this sounds -- after all, Fred created the Center and then held it together almost single-handedly -- but I wondered how he could give up his own work the way he did. He talked about it. He wouldn’t complain, but he would frequently say things like, “Man, I have to find time to get some writing done.” In the beginning I would simply tell him to make the time. I learned, though, that it wasn’t going to happen. I’d shake my head. “Right Fred, right.” He had his own fears of opening up, his own demons, to be sure. I think this brought us closer together. We would spend long afternoons working on some project or other as an excuse to chitchat, to prod each other to live more, to write better. I learned a lot about him. Those conversations still live inside me.

The one thing Fred could never give up in order to write his own stories was helping other writers. I came to see, as I got to know him, that this accomplishment filled him with a great deal of pride. He’d casually tell me what new writer in the Center had won an award or published a book. He’d grin and say, “She’s a good writer.” He knew that he’d made a difference. And I think he loved his students. We were discussing his NYU “kids” one day, I was prodding him to give up teaching there, at least that. For his health. He said, in his typical way, “Yeah, man, you’re right.” A beat and then, “damn, though, some of those kids are really smart.” He wasn’t giving it up. They needed him.

Fred’s memorial service was packed. The minister commented on it: most funerals for the elderly are attended by only a handful of people in their 70s and 80s. There were people of every age at Fred’s service, because he never stopped learning. He made sense to 20 year olds and 60 year olds. And he knew a good story when he saw one, as Kermit Frazier, his friend and colleague pointed out in his eulogy. The minister asked us to think: “What will your funeral look like?” Fred was still teaching, even in death.

Fred trained me to write simply. I’m afraid I’ve mostly failed him here, but writing about my mentor is difficult. I want to capture the complexity of the man, make him live again so I don’t have to let go. And I want others to take away from him what I have. That’s impossible and I know I’ve failed to capture his essence, his biting sense of humor, his relentless pursuit of emotional truth. Instead, I find I’ve begun to model myself after him. I’ve helped create this community -- exemplified by DUCTS and our reading series, Trumpet Fiction -- where artists can share their work, regardless of social, economic, race, gender or age differences.

To you, I can offer only that and do my best to honor him.

To him, I can finally say what I’ve been putting off since I started writing this essay many weeks ago.

Good bye Fred. I love you, man.