Ripe with "Eat, Pray, Love," movie references, magnificent prose and vibrancy of speech, author Elizabeth Gilbert talked writing, women's literature and dealing with depression at the Tennessee Theatre on Saturday.
Between two world adventures, Gilbert found herself in Knoxville, serving as the Jack E. Reese Writer-in-Residence starting in 2005.
"I look back on Knoxville so fondly because it was this pause in the music," Gilbert said. "There was this adventure that I had just finished and an adventure that was about to come, and I had no way to anticipate the tsunami of 'Eat, Pray, Love' that was going to hit in a few months.
"Between the two, there was this silent, quiet, warm, delightful calm that your town offered me."
After reading a section from her latest novel, "The Signature of All Things," Gilbert answered audience questions for more than an hour, addressing a variety of topics that reflected her diverse her world experiences.
One of these topics was the criticism of "Eat, Pray, Love" and the genre of women's memoir as a whole.
"When men do (memoir), it's brave and heroic, but when women do it, it's self-indulgent," Gilbert said.
She tied the topic in with "The Signature of All Things," where the protagonist is a female botanist living in the 19th century.
"When men did botany, it was called 'botany,' and when women did it, it was called 'polite botany.' It was just a label," Gilbert said. "I think you can interchange those words with 'literature' and 'chick-lit' and we're in the same place. It's precisely the same work but there's a term to make sure we all know that the work is lesser.
"I actually don't get offended because I am remarkably, almost pathologically, self-confident."
Although the criticism did not affect Gilbert, she spoke in defense of her fan base.
"When you dismiss that entire genre and specifically 'Eat, Pray, Love,' what you are actually doing is dismissing the voices and the emotional resonance of 10 million women who chose to trust that book," Gilbert said. "You are saying that their intellects don't matter. And you're also saying all of those 10 million are white, middle class women who do yoga, which is not at all right."
Tiffany Keener, junior at Johnson University, and Rachel Lesler, junior at Lee University, attended the event together because of their mutual appreciation for Gilbert's work.
"I read 'Eat, Pray, Love' in high school and when I saw she was coming to Knoxville, I thought, 'Of course I will come,'" Lesler said. "Her voice is so evident in her written work.
"Hearing her speak, I was like, 'Of course this is what she sounds like.' It was as though I already knew from her writing."
Kristie Gordon, associate professor of psychology, was impressed with how Gilbert discussed her past with depression and how that related to her writing.
"She's incredibly articulate and accessible," Gordon said. "It was interesting to hear her talk about her work behind the scenes and how she deals with anxiety and fear."
One of the driving forces in the decision to embark on a year abroad was Gilbert's depression and feelings about her divorce. She told a story of her experience crying in the Central Post Office in New York City.
"I was two years into this divorce proceeding and I could not get free of it," Gilbert said. "I just felt chained to this situation. There seemed to be nothing I could do or offer. I didn't want to be in NYC. Everything was bad. All I wanted to was go home and collapse into the comfort of tears.
"So I made a deal with myself – you are allowed to go home and cry, but not until you have gone out in that city and found something beautiful today. And you'll know it when you see it because it has to resonate with you."
Gilbert said the moment came immediately.
"I opened up the doors to walk out and I see coming down the bus lane, four Asian elephants with spangled drapery on them and on each elephant is a showgirl with a giant feather on her head. And I just sat down and I said, 'That will do.'"
For Gilbert, the elephants became her "victory" and helped her come out of her depression, piece by piece.
"It was like the end of 'Rocky,' I was like, 'Yes!'" Gilbert said. "They became my piece of what I was trying to reconstruct, one little piece of magic to add to the pile.
"When you can start to honor those contracts and commit to them and claim them as your own, that'll get you there."