The prompt for the day was “when I turned the corner.” Miriam Helbok looked around with a smile, asked each member of her Kingsbridge Library writing circle to jot down whatever came to mind.
For a half hour, only the sound of pen scribbling frantically on paper could be heard. At the end, pens dropped, and stories were told.
Of course, this particular gathering was before the coronavirus pandemic shut down anything that would bring any group of people together. But at the time, many of the longtime writers who populate the circle found courage through the group not only to put their thoughts to paper, but to share it with others as well. Ron Marc Thomson, who moderates the Bronx Art and Fun Hub — and a more recent addition to the group — looks to Helbok as a moderator.
“We have no teachers,” Thomson said. “We’re a group, and it’s thanks to Miriam. She keeps us focused. If it wasn’t for her and this group, I wouldn’t be writing.”
As each writer shared their words focused on turning corners, Helbok responded with a smile and a question, always ensuring to dig deeper into the ideas the individual writers were trying to express.
“It’s so wonderful to hear everyone’s work,” Helbok said. “Listening to one another is a gift.”
As expected, every writer has his or her own take on when they “turn the corner.” Things that seem mundane and everyday were described by carefully chosen words. The regular turned into dreamlike, into memorial, and into the confessional.
Afterward, there were discussions of city issues, with many concerns far-reaching as each members of the circle had arrived from various parts of the city. The East Bronx. The Upper West Side. The Upper East Side. And, of course, Riverdale and the surrounding neighborhoods, all coming to express their stories in words.
Judy Veder makes the short trip from Inwood every Thursday to participate.
“We’re such an intimate group,” she said. “I don’t understand how anyone would miss this.”
Several members were included in three books published by the Bronx Memoir Project, an anthology created by a series of workshops intent on publishing writers in the borough. Some already were published authors, like Anneros Valensi, a highly respected member of the group.
Thomson held her in especially high regard. “I got so out of my shell with this. Anneros and Ted were great examples. I want to publish my books now thanks to them.”
Ted is actually Ted Mieszczanski, author of “Star Crossed,” a 2017 historical drama he followed up a short time later with “Growing Up BX, Tevye’s Story.” And then there’s Pauline Binder, author of “Doin’ Hair,” who like Mieszczanski, has been writing her whole life, but only found the energy and care to compile and publish her story after being part of the writing circle.
Rabecca McDonald is the group’s organizer. As the senior librarian at the Kingsbridge branch, she realized there was a lack of artistic engagement within the community.
“We used to do memoir and poetry classes,” McDonald said. “It was attached with the Bronx Memoir Project as one of their workshops. But when that ended, there were still people that wanted a group meeting to write. It runs itself.”
Helbok’s writing circle isn’t the only such group at the library. The other, however, is geared toward teenagers in the community who otherwise lack an outlet for their creativity.
“This is a monthly club for anyone aged 12 to 18,” said Andrea Lipinski, the senior young adult librarian at the Kingsbridge branch, who oversees this particular group.
“It doesn’t matter where they come from. There was a girl who came all the way from Brooklyn just for one club meeting because there wasn’t anything like this where she was.”
Outlets for youth, especially writing, seem to take place mostly in a classroom setting, Lipinski said. But a space of their own outside of a school structure is really what teenagers want.
“We offer this to a niche that needs it,” Lipinski said. “We have it. It’s right here. But we don’t currently have enough resources to make it weekly.”
Lipinski finds other ways to bring in young people as well, like with her teen advisory group, a weekly meeting of community-minded youths exploring the library’s inner workings, including what books are ordered and what programs are considered for the next year. Members also contribute to the library’s social media, like Tumblr, where they write reviews and find a wealth of other book recommendations.
With both programs, the library has opened itself up to a wide variety of writers, old and new. The years of interaction at the library has fostered a weekly tradition for local writers to expand their creative output and help keep people like Mieszczanski focused.
“It’s not like I’m getting any younger, Might as well put out as many stories as I can, the author said.
“I really feel everyone’s love of writing in this group. It’s very nice.”