Pain and Possibility: Gabriele Rico on Writing the Natural Way

Gabriele Rico (photo)
Gabriele Rico (11 July 193715 March 2013)

“In the spent of the night he wrote three propositions: That nothing lasts.
That hell is the denial of the ordinary. That clean white paper waiting
under pen is the gift beyond history and hurt and heaven.” —John Ciardi

By Cat Saunders

With the quotation above, Gabriele Rico opens her book, Pain and Possibility: Writing Your Way Through Personal Crisis.

For Ricoand for thousands of students from her workshops and classesnothing is safer or more effective than writing for exploring one’s inner and outer life.  In writing, you can work through feelings and transform pain into creativity.

Author of the bestselling classic, Writing the Natural Way, Rico is the originator of many nonlinear writing techniques.  Many of these techniques have names as stimulating as their purpose, such as clustering, revisioning, the trial web, word sculptures, inner spirals, and feeling flows.

In a step-by-step, warmly personal style, Rico helps you find pattern and rhythm in the apparent chaos of feelings.  This enables you to tap the incredible creative power available to you as a human being. Pain and Possibility is also full of information about the brain and its relationship to sensory awareness, emotions, pain, memory, time, and creativity.

Gabriele Rico speaks from experience. Many of the techniques in her latest book were birthed out of the overwhelming pain of a classic midlife crisis, which included a battle with cancer and the uncovering of profound childhood grief over the traumatic death of her mother during World War II.

For many years, Dr. Rico served as a professor of English and Creative Arts at San Jose State University and special editorial advisor to the Houghton Mifflin English book series for high school students.

Having worked with Rico’s first book for many years, both personally and with counseling clients, it was a delight to discover Pain and Possibility and to interview its remarkable and richly creative author.

Cat: Would you tell the story about how you gave birth to Pain and Possibility?

Gabriele: The book actually had its genesis in the workshops I was giving. I began to realize that people who came for writing intensives were really hungry to tell their own stories and hungry to have emotional expression.

The other catalyst for the book was that I went through a very traumatic midlife crisis: I was going through a divorce, had pubescent children, had just finished a demanding Ph.D., and was diagnosed with cancer.

I came to realize that the way I had led my life was to be a person of control. My strategy was to be superwoman, to be in charge by controlling my feelings so that I could do the work I thought gave me value and worth. Of course, when you try to control things that are essentially not controllable, something finally has to give.

I began to have panic attacks. Their effects were so bad that I arranged to get away–I was still blaming outside things for interfering with my work–to spend four weeks alone in a mountain cabin. No car, no phone, no other people. Just me and my writing.

What happened was shocking; instead of 14 or 15 hours a day of productive work, I came face-to-face with my deepest self–for the first time in my life. It was a terrifying experience, the proverbial dark night of the soul.

Although I wouldn’t wish it on anyone, it was a major turnaround for me in terms of how I deal with feelings and pain. I began to learn how to confront feelings instead of denying them. When you deny feelings, they become more and more insistent until you find yourself a victim of them.

At that time, I began to write little “word sketches,” or vignettes, in order to acknowledge and explore my feelings, an act of desperation born of necessity. I was hanging on by a thread.

Cat: When you were describing your time in that mountain cabin, it sounded like it was not only fear but grief that inundated you.

Gabriele: Yes. In fact, the fear had a lot to do with grieving. The process of trying to come to grips with parts of me that I didn’t even know existed was actually triggered by my feeling out of control.

I was in such a terrible state that one day I simply sat there and said, “What has hurt you?” Then I let my mind reel backward in time. It stuck here and there along the way; it stopped at the death of my mother in Germany, three weeks before the end of World War II in a violent bombing raid.

The funny thing is, that wasn’t it. As soon as my mental movie reel stopped at her death in March of 1945, it clicked forward again to May. I hadn’t been told of my mother’s death. Whenever I asked about her, I was told she was in the hospital.

Out of the blue, a woman who was a family friend told me to get dressed. She took me down to the village; suddenly, we were standing in front of a gravestone with my mother’s name on it. That’s where my mental film had stopped. I saw this little girl with braids looking at the grave and I felt this wave, searing like hot oil, coming through her body as a child and my body as an adult.

I remember the inappropriateness of tears. The sun was shining. The flowers were blooming. I remember putting my face in this woman’s apron and swallowing and swallowing, maybe 50 or 80 times, until the grief and the tears were contained. I did not cry. How did I not cry? I learned then how to control.

I never grieved for my mother until that midlife crisis, alone in that mountain cabin, when that memory surfaced. Instead, I involuntarily cried out her name and began to weep. It was a terrible weeping, more like wailing.

All those years of not knowing I was holding that pain! It came every day, the weeping. Letting the feelings and the pain engulf me and acknowledging it–rather than tamping it down–was a pivotal experience.

In writing Pain and Possibility, I wanted to share some of the strategies I began to develop during that time in the mountain cabin, so that people would not have to go through what I went through.

If you face your griefs and your losses and your negatives, you can take your life in little steps, one at a time. You won’t be caught by unmanageable crises. It’s not a matter of what hurts us in life, it’s how we deal with what hurts us that matters. That’s what is at the heart of this book.

Cat: You candidly share your personal process in your book and I appreciate that. Was that difficult for you?

Gabriele: I spent months feeling extremely vulnerable about this book because as an academic, I thought the personal voice was inappropriate. However, the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. I realized I really didn’t have any other choice.

How can my voice be missing from anything I give shape and pattern to? It doesn’t compute. Recent scientific theory–from Einstein’s relativity to Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle to chaos science–shows that there is no “objective” person out there. We are all interconnected.

Cat: You use the term “chaos science” often in the book. Would you say more about it?

Gabriele: Chaos science is something I became aware of in 1986 with James Gleick’s book, Chaos: Making a New Science. The magic of chaos science is the mathematical discovery that apparent randomness is not random at all; it has pattern.

The more I understood it, the more I saw it as a wonderful metaphor not only for neuronal functioning–the brain works in waves and patterns–but also for the feeling dimension.

We believe feelings to be chaotic, and there is a reason for this. Feelings must be ready to shift and switch constantly because they alert us to our inner states and to our relationship to the world. If feelings were static and predictable, we would be like robots–programmed by whatever feeling states were built into us. Our feelings need to be flexible because they allow us to be alert to changes within us and outside of us.

When you look at computer-generated images of fractal equations, you begin to see that randomness has pattern. You discover that what we consider to be anarchistic isn’t so at all. Chaos is actually the point of absolute possibility. In chaos, things are fluid enough to begin to take shapes and patterns that are constructive, that we can use.

The dictionary says chaos is a point of utter anarchy. But when you follow the word to its Greek roots, it’s the point of conception. It’s the meeting point of derangement to a new arrangement, which is necessary for change to occur in our lives.

Cat: The idea of chaos as the “point of absolute possibility” makes you feel excited about it instead of scared.

Gabriele: Exactly. That’s the whole point of relearning to become vulnerable. Very small children are open to experience, vulnerable. But they learn, “Don’t cross the street. Do not cry. Don’t do this. Do not do that.”

Children have all these don’ts put in their way, partly because parents are understandably afraid. Gradually, children learn physically and emotionally not to venture beyond what is safe. Life is inherently unknown, uncertain, always. Living is risking.

Cat: Wasn’t it Einstein who said that the main questioning life is to decide whether the universe is friendly or not?

Gabriele: I think it’s much friendlier than we believe in the same way that our emotions are intended to be much more helpful than we’ve come to believe.

Cat: What is it that allows people who have been stuck for many years to make the shift toward facing their feelings and taking responsibility for their lives?

Gabriele: I think what blocks them is ordering them to. What allows them to take responsibility is to provide tools that invite them to be participants in their unfolding, that give them permission to feel afraid, which provide safety nets. I love writing because I can’t think of anything safer than a pad of paper and a little pencil.

Writing is always there for us to use for the kind of exploration that leads to discovery, recognition, and new learning about ourselves, our feelings, and the world in general. Writing is like an old friend we can always take with us through every experience.

By naming and framing our stories in words, we can face the truths of our lives in little steps which allows growth to take place organically, without devastating crises. I hope Pain and Possibility can help people to do that.

This interview was originally published by The New Times (December 1991) and updated in May 2017.

Gabriele Rico, Ph.D., is the author of Pain and Possibility: Writing Your Way Through Personal Crisis and Writing the Natural Way, both published by Jeremy P. Tarcher. For more information about Gabriele and her work, please visit

In memoriam: You can read Gabriele Rico’s obituary by clicking here.

Cat Saunders, Ph.D., is a counselor in private practice in Seattle, Washington. She is also the author of Dr. Cat’s Helping Handbook: A Compassionate Guide for Being Human (available through Amazon). Contact Cat by emailing her or by calling 206-329-0125 (24-hour voicemail).