2015, Archives, August 2015, The MFA Years

Ignacio B. Peña Introduction (University of Edinburgh ’16)

Hello. My name is Ignacio, and I am a fraud.

Let me elaborate. I was born in a city within the greater Los Angeles area to parents who had immigrated from Guadalajara, Mexico. Growing up as a Mexican-American, I never once had a moment where I was proud of my Mexican heritage, nor was I ever a die-hard American patriot. It’s not that I have ever really been ashamed of being one or the other; far from it. It was just something I never gave much thought. If there was one thing that always bothered me as a child, it was more that I just never really liked the city I was raised in. Early on, I hated just how gray and brown it was. I grew up wishing it were greener. As I grew older, I also wished it were smaller. Older still, and I started wishing I could leave. At some point I began to feel like I didn’t belong there. At the time I thought I must have been born in the wrong city, that I would be happier if I were somewhere else. I was a kid.

Studying for my undergrad led me to a deeper state of confusion. I decided to major in English as an excuse to keep reading literature, without any aspirations of becoming a teacher or without any real hope of pursuing a career in writing. In high school I had nothing apart from a few poems to show that I had any legitimate passion or talent. Once I began my degree, I found that the university I went to had an animation major; I was too scared, however, to make the switch. I took one art class in high school, and I remember my art teacher being distinctly filled with an overwhelming amount of “meh” at whatever I produced, so I didn’t think I had any business switching my major to a field that probably required a lot more talent than I thought I had.

Still, I loved watching animated films and shows, and I had electives to fill, so I signed up to as many animation courses as I could. At some point, I started doing the math and found I could leave LMU with both a major in English and a minor in animation, provided I really worked my ass off. It seemed like a good idea at the time, and so that’s exactly what I did. But I found myself in a state of academic limbo. I wrote fiction in my English classes, but I did so with a feeling that I didn’t actually know what I was doing. There were other writers in class with me who looked like they knew exactly why they were sitting in that classroom. I didn’t, and as I approached the end of my course and I looked at the things I wrote, I never really felt like I believed any of it. I wasn’t entirely discouraged by that realization; I just didn’t know what to do with it.

At the same time, I sat in my animation classes with friends who I thought were legitimately going to break into the animation world. I was blown away by what these people could do. They had raw fucking talent, and I was just happy to be there. I really enjoyed doing everything I could to learn about animation, but again, I felt like everyone around me knew why they were there. Meanwhile, I was just hoping no one around me realized how much I didn’t belong in that room.

I somehow made it through my undergrad with both sides never catching on, and suddenly I was left at a crossroads. I needed to work, but I didn’t know what it was I was going to do. I managed to pick up a few freelance jobs of the animation variety during the last year of my undergrad studies, and was slightly encouraged by that. I decided that before I got sucked into the LA school system, I’d see if I could somehow manage to find a job doing something animation related. It was a long shot that, through a series of strange and fortunate events, worked out. I faced some lean years living paycheck-to-paycheck, but never was it lean enough for me to throw in the towel and make a go at becoming a schoolteacher. In the back of my head, though, I was always ready for someone to say to me, “How the hell did you get in? You’re not supposed to be here,” and show me the door. No one ever did.

Nine years have passed. Five of those years have been spent in New Zealand; in Wellington, a city more beautiful than I could have hoped to live in, where the city rests in a harbor, the green hills are dotted with white houses and the people are battered constantly by the shifting winds of both the north and the south, a place where an umbrella is a sure sign that someone is from out of town—there’s no escaping the horizontal rain. A city I love. A city where, still, I don’t feel at home.

It was heartbreaking to me when I finally came to that conclusion a year ago, and it came at an emotionally turbulent moment in my life. I’d walk the streets of the city many nights just watching the people walk past me, in groups and in pairs, and I found myself hating them and, also, longing for them. I’d see their whole day flit across their faces in their smiles, their looks of worry, their anguish. At the time I couldn’t reconcile how isolated I was starting to feel with the reality of how important the people around me actually where. Due to the nature of the work I do, many colleagues come to Wellington, but many leave as well. I had a lot of people exiting my life then, and it started to overwhelm me.

At the same time, I had begun to write again. Up to this point, I hadn’t written a word since I had graduated. I thought about it every once in a while, but I never felt compelled to do so. I never felt I had anything important to say, and so I didn’t bother. But then someone I care about texted me one night. We had always talked about what other things we’d like to do in life, and I always mentioned how, in another time, I had studied English; and so she simply wrote to me, “Hope you’re spending all that free time writing!”

It was the first night I didn’t need to do overtime in a good while, and for the first time in years, I sat at my desk and started to write. It was more of an experiment for me, but I found that, actually, I really enjoyed doing it. I finished that story, and started another one. Then work went to hell in a hand basket, with my personal life following suit. I started coming home from work quite late, many times far past midnight. I’d prepare a cup of tea and would write until 3. I’d wake a few hours later, face another long day full of everything, absolutely everything, and come home late again, filled with a need to start putting a piece of what I was going through into words.

The accumulation of those chaotic months led to me feeling deeply displaced in the world. I was panicking at the realization that I didn’t have a place I could call home anymore. I had gone back to visit California earlier that year and realized it had truly become a strange place to me. I had also just finished working on a project I had dedicated years of my life to, something that I had begun with enough passion to sacrifice every minute I could, only to come to the end of it and find that I felt no ownership of it, both figuratively and literally.

And Wellington, sparkling in the night like some lost jewel of a city, haunted me. I wanted it to be home, but back then, nothing I could do seemed to change that for me. I felt lost, and after eight years of not being able to write anything significant and in any meaningful way, I suddenly couldn’t stand the idea of letting everything I was feeling sit inside me another moment longer. I needed to write more than anything in the world.

There was absolutely no way I was going to be able to do this if I continued to work in animation. A standard work week for us is fifty hours, with periods of overtime swelling past eighty hours a week. In this business, we seem to operate under long stretches of overtime on a regular basis. And so I set out to save all I could for a year so that at the end of that period, I could take a sabbatical from this industry and travel around Europe, dedicating a full year to writing while jumping between countries, skirting the limits of whatever tourist visa I could get with an American passport. In my head, this was the (loose) plan. But in actuality, it’s kind of become my “Plan B.”

I can’t specifically say what it was about Edinburgh, Scotland, that drew me, but something about that city has always held a dreamy mystique that I’ve been yearning to experience properly. The remnant memories of my academic life had left an unanswered question over the years. The idea of studying again and trying for a Masters was a quiet echo that bubbled softly inside me, and with my half-baked thoughts of vagabonding through Europe already settling in, the idea of spending that time studying became something not too far-fetched. I half-heartedly looked at other writing programs in the UK, but I didn’t submit an application to any of them. I applied only to the University of Edinburgh fully expecting to get rejected, but secretly hoping that I’d get my chance. Then one day in April, I got an email from the University, and suddenly Plan B was out the window.

As I write this, I sit a little over a month away from the beginning of my course. I am still anxiously awaiting my passport to be returned to me, with an approved student visa attached. I hope. I am eight days away from my last day at Weta Digital, and ten days away from my scheduled flight departing New Zealand. The last few months have rocketed by and have left me feeling dumbstruck, wondering what happened to all the time I thought I had left. Especially in these last few weeks, I have come to a full realization of just what I am losing when I leave my friends here. It is said that home is where the heart is. In the last few months I’ve learned that my heart feels most at ease when I am with the people closest to me here, and now I realize that at some point, I was really just envious that my life couldn’t be more intertwined with theirs in the way their lives intertwine with each other’s. I wonder sometimes if I would have come to this realization if I hadn’t decided to leave everything for this.

But for now, I feel this is the most important thing I can be doing with my time. I don’t know where I’ll end up after this year is through, or what I’ll be doing. And if I fail, then I will have failed having given everything of myself to this. I’ve surprised myself this last year with just how confused I actually am about a great many things in my life, but I know one thing is absolutely certain: I’m looking forward to seeing how this all turns out.

Everything’s gonna be ok. I think.

Image: Ignacio B. Peña

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