“So maybe that’s where the power in writing comes from that I want to call magic: context.”
–Peter Elbow

Peter Elbow’s 1981 book, Writing with Power: Techniques for Mastering the Writing Process, has long presented me a conundrum. On the one hand, everything Elbow says in the book feels right–I want to cheer for it, applaud the accommodation he makes for magic and abstracted power over mechanical hyper-scrutiny and slogs through agonizing attempts to tame one’s “authentic voice” as a writer into something more acceptable and conventional. And yet, I do not know that I am even comfortable with the concept of “authentic voice” anymore. I do not believe that I can readily accept Elbow’s magical thinking–but I do not know that I cannot, either.

Elbow attempts to explain the “magic” of “authentic voice” as context–of being able to situate a selection of words within sufficient meaning to convey that “juice” that infuses powerful language. Elbow himself seems ambivalent about the reality of this “magic,” as on the one hand he staunchly adheres to his desire to follow it, while on the other he concedes that it does not exist. He attempts to bridge this gap, asserting that “The writer, then, writes well by putting magic into words just as the blind person sees well by putting herself into the cane” (368). He puts forth that “belief” may be the key, that it conveys that elusive quality of “juice.” He comes to rest on the idea that while magic may be desirable, it is better to “slog” along and “churn out” words than to try to force the magic to happen.

What Elbow leaves to be desired, for me, is a method of how to apply his ideas effectively. However, he raises many interesting notions and possibilities; it may be that “authentic voice” is like Elbow’s magic, an imaginary notion that still carries meaning. If so, then perhaps a method of constructing that “authentic voice” might be developed. Further, if we suppose that “authentic voice” does not exist except when constructed, then why not apply the idea of Sub-Creation (as Tolkien puts it forth) as a method of creating this magic? I am certain that I will reflect further on that idea in the future.


Elbow, Peter. Writing with Power: Techniques for Mastering the Writing Process. New York: Oxford U P, 1998.W. W. Print.