11/19/2012 10:51 am ET Updated Jan 19, 2013

How Prison Made Me a Better Writer

Everyone in prison thinks they can write. From inmates writing poetry and song lyrics to the officers who all say they're going to write their memoirs when they retire. There's something about the darkness and desolation that breathes life into the muse.

It wasn't like that for me. I was already a writer and instead of inspiring me, prison suffocated me. But just like some of the best stories, death isn't always an ending.

Working as a corrections officer at a maximum-security prison was supposed to be a day job until I could sell my novel. It was my first. I had a nice collection of personalized rejection letters with feedback. I was sure I'd sell soon. What I didn't see then was that while the writing was mechanically sound and the story was good, there was no spark. I'd crammed a lot of living into my years, but I didn't really understand the themes I wanted to write about because I'd never experienced them. So I never got to the core of what the characters wanted and needed: love, hope, redemption.

I wanted to be a romance novelist, but the job made me think that love wasn't real. That all of the softer human emotions were tools for predators to use against their prey. I stopped believing. I stopped writing.

But in the end, that wasn't the lesson I learned at all.

Prison gave me an insight to the lowest common denominators in human behavior--the least civilized, the most base. I was going to say the most animal, but that's not correct. There are few animals besides humans who inflict pain on one another for pleasure.

It taught me a lot about communication both verbal and non-verbal across cultural and socio-economic boundaries. I learned how to read people and anticipate their reactions to different stimuli. People-watching wasn't just a pastime; it was a survival skill. Knowing how someone would react to something could mean the difference between going home or to the morgue. That's given my characters a sharper edge and made my writing stronger because the conflict is more real.

Perhaps one of the most important lessons I learned as a writer was that villains are human. They're made of the same muscle, bone and blood as the rest of us. That seems like common sense, but it's not. Not when the man you're talking to killed at least three women (that's all they could prove anyway) and was rumored to have disposed of their remains with a woodchipper. Or when the one asking you to double check the inventory of the rec equipment raped an untold number in his taxi. Or when the guy asking for protective custody is the same one you read about in the paper who molested the children he was supposed to protect.

Love. Hope. Redemption. It doesn't seem possible for those things to thrive in all that darkness, but they do, the same way the stars glitter in the night sky.

That discovery is really what made me a better writer. Working at the prison was a kind of incarceration for me, too. In my memoir Sweet Hell on Fire (Sourcebooks) I talk quite a bit about what a bad mother I was, a bad wife, a bad friend. I was caged right along side the inmates. I had to lose everything before I could see the light. That's something I put all of my characters through. Just like we say in prison, you don't get anything you don't have coming.

It was only after losing everything that I knew what kinds of stories I wanted to tell and that I had the power to tell them, because while the backdrop and details would be different, I'd lived those things. I'd had my blackest moment, lived through what I feared most and I'd earned my Happily Ever After. That's how it happened in all the best stories, anyway.

So I wrote my second novel and it's over the top, it's funny, and it's dark. Just like my life. Most importantly though, it sparks. The emotions I experienced, the pain, the joy, it all lives and breathes on that page. I can write about those things now I'm so big on--love, hope and redemption--because I know what they feel like and I know what it means to earn them. I sold that novel and currently write romance, erotica and urban fantasy as Saranna DeWylde.