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Fiction and my search for meaning

Rob Drilea
Rob Drilea
4 min read
Fiction and my search for meaning

Three things happened when I was seven years old that would come to have a profound impact on how I came to understand the world.

First, I started taking "computer classes." This was the late 1990s in Romania - computers were still the future. Thinking back, I now realize what we used were old systems even for the time, running command-line driven MS-DOS without a graphical user interface. We couldn't afford one at home, and my father had an aversion to screens at home. But he also understood technology was important, and even if he wouldn't touch a computer himself, he encouraged me to learn how to use one.

"Master it, or be mastered," he would say to me.

The second thing that happened was my family started going to church a lot more than I was used to. I was raised in the Eastern Orthodox church, a believer by default, baptized as spiritual insurance of sorts.

My parents, working class people without higher education, were by now jaded with the failed promise of prosperity in a young post-communist economy. I imagine they turned to religion out of hope. Perhaps they were looking for meaning and community. If they couldn't outsmart their circumstances, they could outpray the nonbelievers.

Thirdly, I started understanding that the world was made of stories, and that I loved thinking in stories. One day, I came home with a simple grammar assignment - write several sentences incorporating each of a series of words from a short fable we read at school. I spent the twenty minute walk home thinking about what I would write. I saw a connection between the words, so I thought - what if I wrote a little story?

(In all honesty, I can't remember if I meant for the sentences to form a story, or I was just trying to cheat homework by creating a single sentence with all the words.)

I spent several hours so immersed in the task I had set out for myself that I had completely forgotten about the original assignment. But, by the end of it, I had a seven page short story - the first piece of fiction I ever wrote.

Turning it in didn't go so well. "That's a nice way to play with the homework; but next time, just stick to the task" my teacher told me.

In his book "The Storytelling Animal", Jonathan Gottschall says: “The storytelling mind is allergic to uncertainty, randomness, and coincidence. It is addicted to meaning. If the storytelling mind cannot find meaningful patterns in the world, it will try to impose them." In other words, we use stories to make the world make sense. But stories also make the world - in forcing meaning onto the world we assert control over it and can shape it to will.

At home, I was increasingly being told I had no control over the world. Becoming faithful was the way to accept that, and seek contentment in servitude. Know and follow the commandments, and you will be saved.

At school, I was being taught knowledge was the key to freedom. Armed with a rudimentary understanding of computers, I learned I could have control within set parameters. Know and apply the commands, and you will win the future.

But, increasingly, I was beginning to ask why in all areas of my life, obsessively.

One of my favorite works of cinema is a little-known Polish TV series from the late 80s called "Dekalog" by Krzysztof Kieślowski. Each of the 10 episodes is a loose interpretation of one of the Ten Commandments, but they each tell stories of different characters that aren't directly interconnected, so they stand on their own as mini-movies. Rewatching the first episode recently, I was touched by a scene where a young boy, Pawel, types existential questions on a computer much like the one I had in computer class.

I remembered when I was testing the limits of the system and typing questions into the void, no answer returned. Asking why enough times in the context of religion, I would also hit a wall of "because He said so" or "such is God's will."

Over time, I lost connection with the church, and with any desire to master programming. But I found solace in storytelling, and a mission to understand the function stories play in governing our world.

In a review of "The Storytelling Animal", writer David Eagleman notes: "Neuroscience has long recognized that emulation of the future is one of the main businesses intelligent brains invest in." Fiction allows us to engage in counterfactual realities, to simulate without paying the cost of direct experience.

Or, as Karl Popper put it, it allows “our hypotheses to die in our stead.”

Fiction was the only avenue that satisfied my infinite appetite for questioning. It didn't promise answers, didn't have to provide any solutions - just a playground to experiment with reality.

As long as I could imagine answers, I could make the world make sense.


Rob Drilea

On creativity & work