They say we should write about what we know. To avoid mistakes? Perhaps. But it is more likely that they ask this of us because it will lend credence to our stories. And so, that is why, today I will write about something that I know dearly as an introvert: solitude.
Until I came to UP Diliman, it had never really occurred to me how – shall we say – different I was from others. Where they found joy in meeting other people, I found apprehension.
That being said, it had never been easy for me to dive into social situations. My childhood up to my teens had been spent in different locales, but they were located in close proximity to one another and dotted with familiar faces that the environment never seemed any different. My schooling had been done in only one institution, and for more than ten years, I saw the same faces every day of every year.
There were variations, sure – new students coming in as the school years passed – but it was a monotonous life, more or less. Peaceful, even, some would say. It was never exciting or fear-inducing. University was quite another matter.
Spending a life in one province with the same people day in and day out must have taken a toll. I suddenly wanted to rid myself of the black and white of daily life. Perhaps it was time to infuse color. And so I applied to a university I once never dreamed of going. It was two hours away from home. To a younger self, it must have seemed attractive – sinful, even – to live a life (finally) apart.
I filed my application, choosing my course with care. For years, it seemed like I had known what I would be when I “grew up.” I thought of being an astronaut, botanist, marine biologist, theater actress, florist, and even a farmer, but none of these professions invoked a stronger desire than the desire to become a writer – the one who bleeds ink.
It was a noble profession, I thought, and it would have afforded me a sense of freedom. The fairy tales I read growing up, down to the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys series, instilled in me a need to write. It was a thirst, I guess you could say, that would not be quenched until fulfilled.
And that, really, was the reason why I chose Journalism as my major. It was an easy decision, but one that took careful consideration. You see, I had originally wanted to take a baccalaureate in Creative Writing. It lined up with my dreams better than Journalism did. I was into newspapers only for the comics and, occasionally, the features. But it was my mother who asked me to reconsider.
Creative Writing would have brought me closer to the dream, yes, but would it feed me? It seemed that it would not. There were far too many stories of writers who subsisted on meager royalties. It was a noble profession, but a relatively poor one.
Journalism seemed to be the compromise. I would be able to write, yet earn some money that would tide me over. It was not a high earning profession, but it was anchored on subsistence, and that was good enough. I checked that box, never knowing that it would entail so much change.
Getting into the College of Mass Communication is no small feat; everyone who has taken the UPCAT could attest to that. But surviving in it, well, that’s another thing. More so if you thrive on peaceful and quiet days.
I have an anecdote that, I suppose, sums it up. It was the time I shared my good fortune with the rest of our relatives. I told them that I had gotten into the course, and that I would be studying in the country’s premier university in a few months. It was news met with the usual ‘Congratulations’ and ‘God bless you.’ Heartwarming, yes, but it was my uncle’s words that I remember the most:
“But you’re so quiet! Why are you taking a Mass Communication course?”
Laughable. It was only the first of ironies, I later realized. But, really, it was not the incessant chatter that filled the halls of the college that was unnerving. Rather, it was the noise and the hustle and bustle of activities inside the university that made things unsettling.
Suddenly there were so many people and places to see and books to read and lessons to learn. I remember crying in my dorm room because a certain History professor told the class that he was strict with exams and would not hesitate in giving an undeserving student a failing grade.
It was worth a shrug to many, perhaps, but for someone who was given only the kindest of words for the past sixteen years of life, it was an anxious experience. Now that I think back on it, it must have been what they called culture shock.
But it wasn’t long before I found my niche in the university. Since we were given the freedom to choose our subjects, I took the opportunity to indulge in topics that had aroused my curiosity before – archaeology, anthropology, history, and even molecular biology. Where the university shows you a weedy and forested path, it also allows you to explore the world on your own, to make your own trail.
And it was a trail I do not look back on with regret.
For nearly three-fourths of my life as a student, I spent hours poring over books and documents in the UP Main Library. It was a haven – one of many – from the lectures and discussions and chatter of the outside world. I guess you could say that I had long accepted that books would be my friends for a long, long time. It was a place where I could learn the best way I knew – in peace and quiet.
That was generally what I found lacking elsewhere. There were no places where you could be solitary and inside your own thoughts. There were hardly places for reflection and silence. It was a world that would not stop talking. It is why, outside of the libraries, I spent my time inside my dorm room, reading books, studying, writing, or cleaning. Anything, other than socializing or putting myself out there. It was easier that way. Without gambling on awkward conversations, I felt safer. Bumbling through recitations (or worse, not being heard) did not seem like a good idea. I always brought a book with me, to fill in the time and to avoid small talk – the bane of an introvert’s existence.
I recall some people ask me if I ever get lonely. It was a question I could only smile at. But I write today that, no, I do not get lonely when I eat at a restaurant, or watch a movie or a play, on my own. I do not get lonely when I explore the sites of Manila alone on a weekday or even on a Saturday afternoon.
I do not get lonely when I browse through the selections on a thrift store or a book store.
I do not get lonely, except on rare occasions when I let my mind wander and think my life incomplete without a companion (or when, as now, I read a fictional mystery so effective that I am shaken to my very core with fear that the book’s antagonist is standing outside my window). If anything, being alone lends me time to think. It is not so easy to think while standing in the midst of a noisy world.
(This is a hazy and jumbled recollection, but bear with me.)
Four years, when I think about it now, was such a short time, but while they were going on, the days were long and the nights too short. It seemed that I never got enough rest, not even on days when I purposely overslept. But, like they say, all things come to an end.
And there is no better indication of an ending than a graduation date looming closer. As it did, I found myself being asked, again and again, what I wanted to do with my life after university. It was a question with an immediate answer: “I want to write.”
But it was a vague answer, and hardly acceptable. Instead, I usually replied with the industries I did not want to enter: newspapers, magazines, public relations, advertising, radio and television. For a Journalism graduate, that did not leave much room. But what was I supposed to do? After a chaotic (but fruitful) four years of study, it was time – I thought – to work in a much stabler environment – one that would not entail long, irregular shifts.
So, so naïve.
But life has its ways, and we never know what is going to hit us. For me, it was a call, a few weeks after graduation, one weekday morning. It was from the News and Public Affairs department of GMA, asking if I was interested in a job offer.
I had been expecting the call because, full disclosure, I was a scholar of the network for my final year in university and a recipient of an award from the network. Not that it was pleasing. As I said, television was included in my not-to-do list. But I didn’t send out resumes and expected nothing else. Why not? It might be like university – chaotic but fruitful.
And so it began – a life in television. A life I never really asked for, nor wanted. A life I never saw myself living. But then I realized that, if I continued working for the media, there was nothing I would rather do than research and produce stories for television, because, maybe, someone might finally be listening.
It was not easy, as with anything. Working for a television network was vastly different from writing for print. It required visuals, audio recordings, actual writing, research, field work, and endless conversations with people of all backgrounds.
It was chaotic and noisy and stressful and unhealthy. It offered no room for error, and certainly no room for solitude. Everywhere there is chatter, in the lobby, in the elevator, in the gazebo, in the canteen, in the restaurants surrounding the network.
There were no quiet moments, and even if there were, they were only the calm before the storm, because a few minutes later, the storm would hit and everyone would be drenched in fatigue and running around — wondering where the tapes went or what happened to the live interviewee. But everything – everything – makes me appreciate serenity better:
How beautiful it is to go home to your parents’ arms and rest and pig out because – hurrah! – you don’t have to monitor news reports for twelve hours that day.
How lovely it is to see the faces so familiar to you four or five years ago – the very faces you left when you embarked for another journey.
How nice it was to hear your voice again and revel in the silence of a cold, still night, huddled under the covers reading out loud about the exploits of a forensic anthropologist.
In the end, I think, all the noise has served me well, perhaps it has even helped me grow. I embrace my introversion, but I also embrace the world outside my bubble. It was a world once foreign, but has now grown – slowly – familiar.
About the Author
Igal San Andres works for the National Museum of the Philippines. She was a recipient of the GMA Network Excellence Award during her college days in the University of the Philippines Diliman. The recognition helped her land a job in the network as a program researcher and eventually as a segment producer for State of the Nation with Jessica Soho. But she was a contractual worker and her contract ended last October 2014. This December, the network informed her that it was her last day at work. Coincidentally, she was also part of the group that filed a regularization complaint against the company.