Part of what makes this scene work so well is the way it's set up. The audience has seen enough of E.T. to know he's not a man-eating monster, yet the scene plays out like a horror movie: Elliott is outside in the dark, his path lit by a sliver of moon. Meanwhile, his oblivious family laughs and goofs around in the house. If this were a cabin-in-the-woods slasher flick, Elliott would be the first victim, killed and dismembered while everyone else was in ignorant bliss.
So at the end of this scene, when the baseball rolls out of the garden shed, we can understand why Elliott screams and runs for his life. As the audience, however, we also recognize something that Elliott can't. That baseball, so gently returned, is an attempt by E.T. to make contact. There is a message there in that moment, but Elliott isn't able to see it.
As a metaphor for the unconscious, it doesn't get much better than this. Dreams and ideas spill from our minds all the time, like baseballs rolling out of a shed, but we don't always recognize them for what they are. An image, a line of dialogue, a name – each an attempt to make contact.
This unclear communication between the unconscious mind and the conscious can feel very alien. Or maybe it actually is alien. In her book Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert suggests that ideas are not actually ours. They are a “disembodied, energetic life-form … completely separate from us, but capable of interacting with us – albeit strangely.”
“When an idea thinks it has found somebody – say, you – who might be able to bring it into the world, the idea will pay you a visit. It will try to get your attention. Mostly, you will not notice. … The idea will try to wave you down (perhaps for a few moments; perhaps for a few months; perhaps even for a few years), but when it finally realizes that you’re oblivious to its message, it will move on to someone else.”If we are fortunate enough to recognize an idea when it knocks on the door, Gilbert says we then have a choice: Do we say no to the idea, and refuse to engage? Or do we say yes and commit to bringing it to life?
Gilbert explores these two options, but she doesn’t answer something more basic: How do you know which ideas to say yes to? When the baseballs land at your feet, which ones should you reach for?
Stephen King may have an answer.
Here is a guy with no shortage of ideas. Despite his popularity and prolificacy, King doesn’t use ghostwriters or hire “co-authors” to write his books for him. He seems to be the genuine article, someone who loves to write for the sake of writing and consistently publishes books that sell well.
How does King write and publish at that pace and still manage to sort his good ideas from the bad? By letting himself have time and space to forget.
“A writer’s notebook is the best way in the world to immortalize bad ideas,” King said, speaking at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. For King, memory is a tool like a sieve. Over time, the small, lousy ideas slip through the gaps. The good ideas, however – the ones with real substance – stay reliably caught in the mesh.
It only makes sense: if an idea isn’t good enough to hold his attention, how will it hang on to his reader? And so maybe it is for the rest of us. If Gilbert is right, and the din and distraction of daily life drowns out a potential idea, maybe that's a filter you need. It may be that the ideas you notice, or the ones that you never forget, are the ones you most need to send into the world.