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SPOTLIGHT ON LYNDA CALDER

can An engineer also be a successful creative writer?

lynda shares how her love of science and numbers has led her to a FULFILLING life as a writer & passionate volunteer. 

Alumni-Lynda Calder_FB

When did you come to PLC, and what did you plan to do after school?

I started in Year 7 in 1982, and I went all the way through to Year 12 in 1987. I received a full scholarship, and, without it, I probably wouldn’t have been able to go to PLC Sydney. The first couple of years were a little hard for me, but then in Year 9, I found a group of girls who I got along with. We’re all still quite close friends even though we all did completely different things after school. 

Year 12 was interesting because I had attended the National Maths Summer School where we covered a couple of Year 12 topics, so my teacher, Mr Daniel, made me teach Permutations & Combinations to my own 3U Maths class! The other 3U maths class was struggling because the teacher, Mrs Moffatt, was Acting Principal at the time and she was absent quite a lot. I pretty much tutored the whole class for the HSC! When we had one of our reunions recently, one friend said, “If it wasn’t for you, I wouldn’t have passed!” [laughs].

Initially, I thought I might like to be a Vet, but I did some work experience at a vet clinic and decided that it wasn’t for me. I concluded that I’d do Electrical Engineering and I ended up going to the University of Sydney.

What did you end up doing after school, and where are you now?

I did Electrical Engineering and had planned to join the Army but was married while at Uni, so that went out the window. And when I finished my degree, I didn’t quite know what I wanted to do. So I went into teaching instead - I taught at St Catherine’s in Waverley for a year and a half and then landed a 6-month position at PLC Sydney replacing both Mrs Bubb and Mr Daniel, which was awesome! It was quite surreal being back such a short time after being a student there, especially calling all the teachers by their first names [laughs]. 

After that, I fell into my dream electrical engineering job - I was programming microcontroller chips to make electronics do stuff. My company was making scoreboards, consoles and other things leading up to the Olympic Games. 

I then had two boys, and that’s when I started writing. Around this time, I had also decided I’d go back to university and do a Diploma of Languages in German for fun. A few years later, within two weeks, I’d had two recommendations to do a Master of Arts in Creative Writing at Macquarie University. So I thought, let’s do it. It was difficult. There were times when I was reading some of the academic papers, and I remember thinking, “I understand all the individual words, but in a sentence together, they make no sense.” 

Because of my engineering background, I was looking at things very differently from all the other arts students and coming up with different insights. I started to think that perhaps we’re teaching English to gifted STEM students the wrong way - we need to train up Maths and Science teachers to be English teachers to help those students be better at English. 

Since then, I’ve written three books for middle grade/young adults: The Enigma Diaries. People often say that writing children's books is easy because they’re not as sophisticated as adult books, but writing for young people is quite hard. You have to make sure that every word and concept works. There is no room for fluff.
I might be a writer, but I’m more of a professional volunteer. I do so much volunteering that sometimes the writing gets set to the side. 

What does a typical workday look like for you?

The middle of the day is usually pretty free because everything I do is at the end of the day and on weekends.  I’ll get up at 5 am to go to fitness training at 6 am for an hour and, if it's going to be an empty day, I’ll go back to bed for an hour or so. Otherwise, I’m doing administration for my volunteer work and, if I get a chance, I’ll do some writing and check my emails. After school hours I’m a Scout Leader, a trainer at St John Ambulance, I tutor maths and coach Little Athletics. I’d say I’m a pretty compulsive volunteer! 

When I’m writing, I need a big block of time which is free. When I’m in writing mode, I’ll go to bed running scenes through my head to perfect them before sitting down at my computer to write them out.

What has been the proudest moment in your life?

The birth of my first son was an extremely proud moment because we had a bit of trouble getting there - holding him for the first time was really special.  That was similar to the birth of my first book; I remember opening up the envelope holding my advance copy and thinking, “Wow, it’s got my name on it!” 

Another proud moment was my Masters graduation. My son and I received the program, opened it up and next to my name it said “Vice Chancellor's Award for Academic Excellence”. At first, I was like, “What is that?” [laughs]. I’d done so well I’d earnt that award, and that was a pretty good feeling.

Could you share a mistake you’ve made and what you learned from it?

On reflection, one of the biggest mistakes I’ve made would have been with my first book. I had a manuscript that I thought was just awesome. I had it assessed, it was sent back with some suggested edits - which I made - and was then told it was ready to be sent out. So I sent it out to several publishers, and they all came back with, “Thanks but no thanks”. After that, I sought a mentorship through the NSW Writing Centre. They were so kind and organised Susanne Gervay - who wrote I Am Jack - as my mentor. She has been one of my biggest supporters; she even launched two of my books! When I gave her the original manuscript for my first book, she (metaphorically) ripped it apart. I learnt from her that writing is more than just sitting down and writing. Writing is rewriting over and over and over. I can’t tell you how many times I rewrote that first book. But I’ve learnt from that, and the writing process is easier for me now.

What’s the most significant piece of advice you’ve received in your life and who shared it with you?

We had a lot of trouble having our two boys - lots of losses. I always say we have nine children; seven in heaven. Someone I knew, who had lost his wife when his son was born, once said to me, “You have to allow yourself to feel sad and allow yourself to feel happy. Don’t feel sad that you feel happy and don’t feel sad that you feel sad. Just feel it.” That’s probably the most significant piece of advice I’ve been given in my entire life. It’s gotten me through some quite bad times.

If you could travel back in time, what would you say to your younger self?

That question is very much on-trend with my first book because it’s all about the older person mentoring the younger self - spoiler alert! [laughs] I’ve recently had it said to me that I instil a growth mindset in people that I’m training, coaching and mentoring. But when it comes to myself, I don’t possess that growth mindset; instead, I have a fixed mindset. I wish I’d been kinder to my younger self, that I could go back and coach her to have that growth mindset. I’d tell her that it’s OK to fail, to not see failure as a bad thing but as an opportunity to grow.

What tools or activities do you go to to find balance and inspiration in your life?

In terms of my writing, my biggest influences are Doctor Who and Star Wars because I grew up with a love of science fiction and time travel stories. I also write with a thesaurus; words don’t come naturally to me all the time because I have that maths and science brain. 

Stephen King’s book, On Writing, has given me great writing insights: adverbs are bad, the writing process and what constitutes bad and lazy writing. Generally, in life, I think Youtube and Google are great tools, especially when it comes to my athletics coaching. Funnily enough, I think my youngest son is an inspiration. I used to be a big gamer when I was younger, and my son got into that in a big way. I’m quite jealous of him because he went pro, although he’s retired now at 21. Watching what he does and his passion, I thought I’d love to have a go at some of the modern games that he plays. It’s nice because he’s brought me into his world - he understands that that was once my world, then it was his world, and now it’s (increasingly) our world.

What role has PLC Sydney and your time here as a student played in your life? 

In the 1980s, it was seen that boys were very overpowering in the classroom, that females didn’t get a go and that we were supposed to dumb ourselves down around boys. I think that the all-female environment at PLC Sydney was excellent because I was able to achieve and not have to worry about boys.
A lot of my friends would make friends with the boys from Trinity or Newington as they came through on the train but for me, life at the time was about striving for excellence both in school and sport. I think that’s allowed me to be my own person, follow my passions and not worry about what other people think. 

PLC Sydney also taught me that if you want to achieve something, it’s not going to be given to you - you have to go after it yourself. I went to the National Maths Summer School twice, and they only picked a very small number to go that second time. I was involved in the Australian Maths Olympiads, and that was all off my own bat before the school even knew about them. I was probably the pioneer that moved the school onto that track. If I wanted to do it, I had to go out and do it.

What are some of your favourite memories from your time at school?

My favourite teacher - and I was so pleased to be able to come back and work with her - was Janine Lawrence, who was my maths teacher. I just loved the way that if students said that they didn’t understand she would explain it all over again. 
When I was struggling with English, Janine got me to talk to her sister-in-law, Judith, who worked in the junior school. I had always seen the world in black and white, and I remember Judith saying to me, “All you have to do is pretend the world is grey”.  After that essay, writing became easier!

I think the biggest thing for any student back then was the Year 11 play. Audrey Keown picked a musical, especially for the talents of our year group: Toad of Toad Hall. I didn’t audition for a part because I thought I wouldn’t be able to go to all the practices. Yet, I ended up playing the piano and ended up going to more practices than anybody! I had to go to all the cast practices and all the music practices as well [laughs]. The funniest part of this play was the “swamp flu” that stole the voices of a couple of the main cast during the performance season, and another student had to sing for them from off stage.