How Did I Get Here?: A Memoir
“The little boy who dreamed of painting like Norman Rockwell ended up with his own art on the cover of The New Yorker. What could be more magical than that? How Did I Get Here? provides a warm, humorous guide to the journey.”
Bruce McCall packs a lot into his memoir, How Did I Get Here? He starts with his miserable country childhood in Canada, one of six kids, absent dad, alcoholic mom, then the move to Toronto (even worse than rural Simcoe, since now eight people were crammed into three rooms). Despite the clear deprivations McCall faced, the story glows when he describes how writing and drawing were a refuge for him. “I drew and wrote to vent my feelings, to explain to myself what was going on. . . . I had adapted creativity as a survival therapy, not a calling.” Growing up during WWII, the illustrations of Norman Rockwell had a magnetic pull on the boy. His only escape from reality was through the tip of his pencil, compulsively copying the world around him, drawings of cars, planes, and machinery proving especially compelling.
This focus on art buoys McCall as he drops out of school and looks for a job as a commercial illustrator. After stints in Canadian “studios,” he moves to Detroit, then New York, working at Ogilvy & Mather in a Don Draper, Mad Men kind of life as a copyeditor. McCall bounces from one amazing position to another, landing work at National Lampoon, Saturday Night Live, and The New Yorker. He provides wonderful details about these work environments and the fascinating creative people he met. He has clearly been everywhere and done everything when it comes to commercial art and satire (another early love of his, as it is for most preadolescents).
With a warm, inviting voice, McCall invites us into his world and shows us the nuts and bolts of creativity. There are no complicated descriptions here, no evocations of a distance muse. For McCall, writing and drawing are hard work, demanding constant engagement. They are a way of thinking that can’t be teased apart but are essentially intertwined. People who are author-illustrators and children who are naturally journalers will understand what he means: “I’ve virtually always written and drawn simultaneously and can offer no scientific reason for it. I’m an artist and a writer—maybe better defined as a writer who draws and paints. My first act in making an illustration is to pepper a page with free-form, stream-of-conscious phrases. Not notes, exactly, but blurts about color rules, the mood, things to avoid: in sum, pep talks to myself. A blank page is a terrifying thing to an artist. Words help diminish the fear of losing oneself in the vast white emptiness. Or maybe that’s just me. At any rate, I can’t get traction without this step.”
This kind of “how-to,” permission to make mistakes and be messy is what every young artist and writer needs. The book is threaded through with these wise and accessible insights. “I’ve only once or twice even come close to fully capturing a mind’s-eye image on paper. That’s okay by me: defeat is no reason to stop. In fact, ninety percent of the pleasure of a creative act is in the chimerical pursuit.”
Despite the hardscrabble beginnings, McCall has definitely led a charmed life, being “deeply involved in what truly mattered.” He found what he loved to do and managed to make a good living from it, both personally and financially. It’s an incredible achievement for a kid with “no education, no guidance, no money, no formal training.” The little boy who dreamed of painting like Norman Rockwell ended up with his own art on the cover of The New Yorker. What could be more magical than that? How Did I Get Here? provides a warm, humorous guide to the journey.