As a piece of advice, ‘write what you know’ can be off-putting. On the surface it seems to suggest that aspiring writers limit their creativity. In practice, ‘write what you know’ has more to do with emotional experience than writing your own life story. Let’s take a look at how a story as fantastical as Steven Spielberg’s E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial is still firmly rooted in the trials and fantasies of the director’s childhood.
When you strip away all the levitation, spaceships and the like, what E.T. is really about is a group of disenfranchised siblings (one of whom happens to be an alien). Following the emotional turmoil of witnessing his parents’ divorce at a young age, the future director and overall creative force behind the film, Steven Spielberg, would daydream about an alien friend to bond with, often to comfort himself, as he had to stop teasing his younger siblings and take care of them.
Spielberg stayed with his father, his younger sisters stayed with his mother. E.T. deals with the concerns of the adult world as they are imposed onto children indirectly. Family trouble makes the kids in E.T. feel lonely, as it did Spielberg, and as it does all children of divorce. The main character, Elliott, spends his days riding alone on his bike, occasionally skipping school (hence his know-how in tricking the thermometer) and bickering with his family. E.T. comes to save Elliott from his home life, by giving him someone to take care of. The family’s in-fighting brings Elliot’s overstressed mother to tears, a familiar sight to any family who’ve seen tough times, and it is no coincidence that just after this Elliot first manages to coax E.T. out. The
parallels continue and become blatant as the film goes on.
Being separated from his family is literally killing E.T. and as a consequence of their metaphysical link, Elliott. At the end of the film Elliott’s growth is being able to say goodbye to let go of his need for E.T. to put this part of his childhood behind him. Yet as E.T. points out (“I’ll be right here”); their bond remains.
How much of this could really have been Spielberg’s doing considering he didn’t even write the film? Well, quite a lot. The director vetoed a first draft because he considered it too violent and found that it didn’t fall in line with his childlike vision. Then there were several other E.T.’s before Steven moved on to the creature we know today. Whilst the alien aspects of E.T. kept evolving, the personal element, the unmistakable heart of the film which separates the E.T.’s from the Mac ‘n Me’s always stayed the same.
That is how a vision stays alive through the chaotic and often inevitable turns every film takes. To solidify a core story like that, to write what you know, means your familiarity with personal experiences are the guiding forces that make for the honesty that elevates a film like E.T. to the status of classic.