The story of the princess
The girl's finger retraces the letters, each one an inch high and a stranger to perpendicular. "Wuntsapron a tim they was a prinsess.
The three lines underneath the hastily drawn picture in her Primary 2 writing book are full and I can tell that this is the most that she has ever written in the whole of her short, academic career.
"I really like your writing ..." If I had a pin with me I would drop it just to see if anyone could hear it. "I really like your writing ... but what kind of a time was it? Where was the princess?
"Was it a happy, sad, bad or a good time? Was she in a forest, by a river, in a town by the side of the silvery ..."
My bombardment of adjectives is stopped as she turns to look at me. This school on the north-east coast of Scotland is a long way from Damascus, but we're now on the first step on the road.
"It was a bad time, by the side of the forest."
She seems pleased but I am not going to give up that easily. "Why was it a bad time and what did the forest look like and who was the princess?"
Apart from free parking, irritating children into thinking is one of the main pleasures of teaching. "Nobody had anything to eat. That's why it was bad and it was a spooky forest and she was mean."
I can tell that the idea of having to write all of this fills her with dread. "Can I write that into your story?" This is the 10,000th time I have acted as a scribe but the thrill never leaves me.
My writing looks minuscule beside hers and I am not going to be stopped.
"What could she be eating? Why did she have something and nobody else did and ..."
My persistence is paying off as she realises that her ideas can be a story and not just something to stop a page being white. Together we answer the readers' questions of who? where? what? why? and when? With an equal share of the writing and a lot of value given to her spoken ideas, we've got a pretty good story.
"Wuntz apon a bad time in a spooky forist there was a bad princess eating a witch's strawberry jam sandwich. It was full of wriggly wurms. The old wich loved worms but the princess didn't."
It isn't the end and she knows she has more to write but there will always be help at hand with spellings and grammar. She knows now that you can't short-change readers and they deserve more than "Once upon a time" and "They all lived happily ever after" just to fill the space.
It isn't Shakespeare but it doesn't have to be. As I watch her draw an intricate picture of a half-eaten worm in a horrified princess's mouth I feel satisfied that I have teased a gem of a story from her and for once the phrase "describing words" means something to her.
Ask anyone to write a story now and the majority would feel a little apprehensive to say the least. Yet we ask children to write on a daily basis and often get frustrated when they cannot produce a cogent piece of writing with a beginning, middle and most important of all an end.
It is not surprising that children find it difficult to write a complete story; after all, their basic fare is a mixture of convoluted, scene- and mood-shifting television soap operas which, by their very nature, never finish.
We are all storytellers, we couldn't have got this far without a story or two, it's just that we don't recognise it in ourselves. What we did last night and why something happened in the news are all valid stories. If we can remember those, then we must expose children to a broad spectrum of tales, fables and stories where there is a linear, beginning, middle and end. We can nurture them to form an oral plot line and transfer that ability to making a complete, tri-part story.
Constant, sequential, persistent questioning and thinking about the readers' needs focuses the ideas and generates at least a part of an original story. This can be built upon and developed into a pearl of a story. Trust me I'm a storyteller.
Tony Wilson is a freelance storyteller, writer and musician. He will give a seminar on Stories from Nothing and Nowhere on November 20, 10.30amHis CDDVD A sense of place, on how to write settings for stories, will be released in Januarywww.tonywilson.co.uk