Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Sheryl Keen and Journal According to John

Our special guest today is Sheryl Keen, author of Journal According To John.

Following a nasty bar brawl, John, a twenty-eight-year-old man, follows a close friend’s advice and begins keeping a journal. He’s recently divorced from his wife, Debbie, and he hopes the journal will provide a tool with which to make sense of his brief, failed marriage and to determine why he is so emotionally challenged.

As a therapist specializing in behavioral issues, he knows he has to pull his own life together. If he tells people to clean up their own lives, modify their thoughts, and learn new, more appropriate behaviors, he knows that he’s got to step up and follow his own advice. Early on, he realizes that his mother, the curator of a gallery that specializes in steel art and other nontraditional works, has largely shaped his thoughts and actions. But just how much can he blame her for his current state of affairs?

Soon the words in the journal are flowing easily and quickly. When painful thoughts are no longer avoided and dreams provide fuel for his writing, the journal takes on a life of its own. Will John discover the reasons for his dysfunctional situation? Can keeping a journal help him improve his life?

I asked Sheryl to discuss what research she performed to make John a realistic psychologist. Here is what she had to say:

I tried to make John real for the reader by making his profession as a therapist as authentic as possible. Drawing on my own background knowledge that I had from having worked for an institution that dealt specifically with addiction and mental health, I was able to proceed with a bit of confidence. I was in a position where I was able to see psychologists and psychiatrists on a daily basis and I was able to see some of the issues that they dealt with and the analysis that they made about patients. The organization’s environment and culture were helpful in forming a framework in my mind that I able to use to form a backdrop to John’s practice. At the time I had no idea that this would be helpful to me as a writer but I have learnt that all experiences can become fodder for writing.

Of course, this background knowledge was not enough to make John as bona fide a therapist as I wanted him to be for readers. I had to delve deeper. So I did more research especially into what would actually happen in a session and the methods that a therapist would use to encourage patients to change. This was important because there is a parallel here. John is not just a therapist; he is also a man who is trying to make changes in his personal life. The question is, are there any techniques that he uses in his office that he can use in his own life?

I concentrated on behavioral therapy because the research clearly states that self destructing behavior can be altered by learning more appropriate actions. This research allowed John to act and speak in an authentic way about things like aggressive behavior, anger and anxiety. To take this a step further John could speak about and choose between various techniques of treatment. So, from time to time readers may hear John talking about treatment choices such as rehearsed behavior and role playing, modeling through observation, behavioral homework assignments and conditioning where a desired behavior is reinforced and encouraged by something like a gold star. At one point in the novel John contemplated this kind of conditioning for himself.

A major part of making John real was not just doing research at the library or on the Internet about his profession. It was the duality of showing him as a therapist who probably needed therapy himself. I think that made him more relatable and accessible to the readers who could identify with the frailties of the human condition.

Sheryl A. Keen has a bachelor’s degree in History with a minor in English Literature from the University of the West Indies. She lives in Canada where she works in Administration.

In addition to prose, Sheryl also writes poetry. When she is not writing, one of her other loves is painting.

You can visit Sheryl A. Keen’s website at

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