Jim Clark used to describe a good story as one with a “trapdoor, that once discovered, leads the reader below the surface to a big room filled with a richness of stuff.” Since taking the helm of The Greensboro Review from Jim, I have been struggling—with little success—to arrive at my own description for those deceptively simple words: “a good story.” Though I know I shouldn’t admit to this (especially in print), I’m a poet and poets tend to play loose and fast with definitions—at least when it comes to things like character, plot, and setting—so it makes me more than a little nervous not to have some sort of formalized idea (or at least a checklist) in hand for our editorial deliberations. Wouldn’t life be easier if I could say, “Well, yes, the narrator does make me laugh out loud, but where are we? There’s no setting. We don’t have the vaguest sense of place; we don’t know if we’re in an apartment or house, the country or a city.”

A checklist for “a good story” might make my editorial deliberations easier, but it wouldn’t be good for my staff or for the magazine. And I’m not so sure readers really want  exact restrictions on a story, not anymore. What if a story has a memorable setting but there’s no plot, nothing happens? À la Seinfeld. Where does that leave us? There are too many intangible aspects with which to blur the lines. And yet, reading a good story for the first time, I feel, is as close as we come to magic—the discovery of Jim’s “trapdoor.”

I guess what I’m working my way around to is this: it’s not that I’m incapable of creating a checklist as that I don’t really believe, in my editorial heart of hearts, that I should. In the end, the best stories might just be the ones that do the things we think a short story writer shouldn’t attempt. But by doing them well, they win our hearts and make us shout, “This one; this is the one!” For each of these stories, at least one of us felt that way when we first read the submission—and by the time it made its way here, we all did. That’s how a good story should work. I think you’ll feel the same way.


First off, I have to say, Jim Clark would hate every last thing about this. He would hate the picture, he would hate the essay, he would hate that we “wasted” two good pages that could have been used to flesh out a story or give voice to another poet. And it was precisely this position that made Jim so well-suited to serve as Editor of The Greensboro Review for over thirty years. First and foremost, the magazine was always about the stories and poems it contained. Not the outside cover, not the authors, and certainly not the editor.

The other large part of Jim Clark’s greatness as an editor came from the way he observed, the way he paid attention. Jim was never one to flinch from the hard realities of life, and he showed this in both his own prose and his editing over the decades. As long as I knew him, Jim read deeply and widely, yet conversations with him were always accommodating and generous and honest, ranging in topics from historic chess matches to Fleer bubblegum comics, from Ralph Waldo Emerson to George W. Bush.

Jim once said that the best fiction works like this: there’s a story, and somewhere in its narrative floor is a trapdoor that, once discovered, leads the reader below the surface to a big room filled with a richness of stuff: allusive artifacts, bits and pieces of our collective history on this planet. And that’s where Jim preferred to stake his ground—below the surface, working like a wizard or mad scientist to pull together the disparate and overlooked and somehow, beyond all reason, mix everything so that the surface elements bloomed effortlessly, brilliantly. When Wordsworth speaks of finding the “greatest things from the least suggestion,” I like to think it has to do with this kind of attentiveness.

A former colleague of Jim’s recently reminded me that Jim always signed off his correspondence with “Best,” and I want to end here with that because, well, that is what Jim Clark was: the best. The best of bosses, the best of editors, the best of people.