“I loved reading the article you wrote - I think you’d be great at sending people off to sleep . . .” I’ll be honest. It’s not the email every writer dreams of getting.
From the very beginning, I have been trained to grab a reader’s attention, to pull them into my story and keep them on a kind of literary rollercoaster - with no way off - until they reach the end.
For the 12 years I’ve been a writer, covering everything from news to entertainment, travel, penning scripts for radio and even writing books, I’ve been striving to hone my technique to make sure the one thing I don’t do is bore a reader to the point where they fall asleep.
So when the co-founder of the mindful app Calm, Michael Acton Smith asked me to write a story to do just that, I admit I was sceptical.
This was going to be a whole new literary genre, he assured me, one we tentatively called “slow literature”, aka sleep stories.
We all know that sleep is a hugely hot topic right now. Experts the world over, with special clinics dedicated to the art of a peaceful slumber, are writing books about the science and reasons why so many of us are struggling to fall asleep. Insomnia - they write - is a modern epidemic, so how could my travel stories, normally crafted to excite and inspire, help someone to nod off?
“It’s like when you were a kid, to get to sleep someone would read you a bedtime story,” explained Acton Smith. “Well, sleep stories are bedtime stories, but for grown-ups.”
His reasoning made sense and I started to recall the tales I was read by my mum when I was a child. This wasn’t going to be a case of making my words so tedious that I would bore people to sleep but, rather, finding a way to capture people’s attention enough that they would focus on it, thereby quietening all the noise we have in our heads as our brain struggles to switch off at the end of a busy day.
I accepted Acton Smith’s challenge and set to work on my first sleep story - a journey across Siberia on the longest train ride in the world. I submitted the copy and waited for the recording of it to arrive, which was narrated by a professional voice artist, for me to approve.
When it did, after a busy day at work full of deadlines and endless emails, I put it on still unsure of its capabilities. Within five minutes I was asleep. It was then that I knew we were onto something.
And it wasn’t just me that thought so. Within a week of that sleep story going live on the app, I had received more than 10 emails from people grateful to me for helping them to get a good night’s sleep. I got messages of thanks on social media, people asking me for a copy of the script because they were so interested in the story but could never make it to the end. I even had my GP recommend it to me when I said I was suffering from jetlag.
Since then I've written 15 sleep stories for Calm, with my most popular - Blue Gold read by Stephen Fry - being listened to over 15 million times. Although there are other stories on the app that are fiction, mine are mainly non-fiction and travel themed. Through my carefully chosen words - and they do have to be carefully chosen as any jarring phrases or utterances can easy disturb a listener who is trying to get to sleep - I have taken people with me on journeys along the Mississippi River from sea to source, through the jungles of Madagascar, walking alongside the elephants of Nepal, crossing Europe on the Orient Express and meandering through the forests on the edge of Bavaria.
A dream occupation
Writing a sleep story requires me to flip everything I would usually do when penning an article on its head. I have to put anything dramatic or exciting right at the start, then - as the old adage goes - it’s really about the journey, not the destination. Together with the listeners we meander, we wander, we explore and we notice everything in macro detail. It’s not just how a place looks but how it smells, sounds and feels.
Now, if go to a place knowing I will craft my experience into a sleep story, I have to travel more mindfully - I notice absolutely everything and slow my pace right down.
And it doesn’t end there. Even when I sit in front of my computer screenwriting I always read my words aloud. You’d be surprised how many times I’ve looked at words on a page that sound fine, but can jar or pop when spoken.
I’m often asked if I’d put my stories into a book and if I think it would have the same effect, but I’m not sure it would - unless it was a book designed to be read to someone, rather than by someone. Because it’s not just the words I choose, but the entire package - from the narrators with their silky, smooth soporific tones, to the sound effects used and the way it’s all put together and produced.
It’s funny, when I’m not writing stories to send people to sleep I am actually something of an “extreme sleep adventurer” choosing to spend the night in adrenaline-inducing places – such as hanging from cliffs, perched on top of mountains and once, inside a glacier in the high Arctic. Doing that I’m so focused on safety and being in the moment I sleep soundly. But, oddly enough, when I come home to my own bed I actually find it hard to sleep ,with all the stresses of everyday life running through my head. So I sympathise a great deal with people who struggle with falling asleep.
And that’s why I’m proud to have been made a sleep storyteller-in-residence, meaning every month I release a new story to help people nod off. You might say it’s a dream occupation. Now, when I get an email telling me “I never got to the end of your story,” I honestly just smile. Job done.
Phoebe Smith will be discussing sleep stories and launching her new story at Hodges Figgis, Dublin, on Wednesday January 16th, at 6pm. To reserve a free ticket email firstname.lastname@example.org