One recent evening, struggling to fall asleep, I decided to listen to some “sleep stories”: essentially short podcasts that are custom-built to help you snooze. It wasn’t until the next morning that I realized sleep stories are perfect little opuses of tedium, just boring enough to lull you into a stupor without distracting you with the absurdity of their boringness. Many of them involve train journeys. They describe, in surgical detail, things like the rhythm of the wheels and the look of the leaves outside your window. They feature sentences like “Inexplicably those deep lines in your furrowed brow one by one unfurl.” Their vapid inchworm plots do the exact inverse of what normal story plots are supposed to do.
Phoebe Smith is a “sleep-storyteller-in-residence” for the Calm app, which features a gallery of bedtime tales narrated by assorted sedative voices. She has written many of the app’s most popular stories, including “Blue Gold,” a benumbing riff about some lavender fields in Provence in which, for 24 minutes, absolutely nothing happens at all: “You’ll smell it before you even see it,” it begins. “That unmistakable aroma that fills your nose and seeps into your senses, instantly mellowing into a smooth and soothing scent.” In this conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, Smith discussed how the experts go about writing stories that are specifically designed to put listeners to sleep.
Laura Bennett: How did you start writing sleep stories?
Phoebe Smith: I’m a writer by trade—I write travel stories. One of my best-selling books is called Extreme Sleeps, which is all about my sleeping in strange places. I basically sleep in strange places for a living.
What kind of strange places?
Like hanging from a portiledge in a tree, sleeping in a cave, sleeping inside a glacier.
Wow. So how did you get from there to writing stories intended to put people to sleep?
I’d written a piece on the Trans-Siberian Railway for a travel magazine, and Michael, one of the co-founders of Calm, contacted me out of the blue and said, “I absolutely love this story, I wonder if you’d write a sleep story for me.” I was skeptical at first because I thought: What?? You want me to write a story that will make people fall asleep? Normally when you write a story you think, I want people to stay until the end. So this goes against all those instincts.
Was any part of you offended?
Well, no, because I always like things that are a little bit weird. So I was totally intrigued by the idea.
I started to think about it, about how when we were kids, that was how we fell asleep—we had stories read to us in bed. So I realized, yeah of course, why wouldn’t that work for grown-ups?
If you’ll forgive the indelicate question, were you offered lots of money to write this sleep story?
Hah, no. He did offer to pay me. But it was enough money and my curiosity was piqued. Now I’m officially one of their sleep storytellers in residence.
Can you tell me about your process when you sit down to write one of these?
It’s not the kind of thing you can knock out quickly. If there’s any action, it has to start in the beginning. And then it has to slow down. You are putting people to sleep, you are not writing a gripping thriller.
So how specifically is writing a sleep story different from, say, writing for a travel magazine?
When you’re writing for a travel magazine, you are starting somewhere really dramatic and pulling people along. But in a sleep story, it’s about making them feel like they are there, relaxing them as they go. Anything remotely exciting happens in the beginning. In a travel story, say you’ve been on the trail to find a lion in Africa, and finally you see it and it’s a really dramatic moment. In a sleep story, you can’t do that. Because seeing that lion would wake someone up.
How do you write something that is so perfectly boring as to be sleep-inducing, but not distractingly, ridiculously boring? Obviously you can’t be like: “You are on a train. You sit still for 14 hours and stare at the wall.”
[Laughs.] You know, I get so many emails from people who are like, “Can you send me the script for your story? I’m really interested in it but I never make it to the end.” And that’s a fantastic accolade as a writer of sleep stories, for someone to say “I can’t get to the end of your story.”
I don’t generally worry about writing sentences that are too boring, but sometimes I have to go back and delete sentences that are too exciting. Say, I did a recent story about the jungles of Madagascar. I was walking through the forest and I remember near where I wanted to end the story, I’d seen a really beautiful python. To me as a travel writer, that’s amazing. I wrote it in the story. And then I was like, oh no. That’s gonna freak some people out when they are trying to drift off. So I had to edit out that snake.
Do you ever listen to your own stories when you’re trying to sleep?
It’s funny, they sent me the first one before they posted it. I listened to it and fell asleep before I got to the end of it. With my own story. Where I knew what was going to happen.
People who write to me all seem to say they fall asleep somewhere between five and 10 minutes. So at least they might not notice if I accidentally throw the snake in or whatever.
What is your favorite sleep story you’ve ever written?
I do like the Trans-Siberia one. I love Erik Braa [the narrator]’s voice, it’s almost like treacle, really soothing. I love “Blue Gold” too, because Stephen Fry is so good as a narrator also. I also like the one I wrote on Scotland’s hidden hideways, which is narrated by someone who has a Scottish accent.
Do you ever now read normal fiction or nonfiction and find that it just seems so insanely fast-paced and suspenseful to you? Are you ever like, “Oh my God, there are so many pythons in this story.”
Hah, only if I’m trying to get to sleep.
How many sleep stories do you write in a given period of time?
I write one story a month. I’m a regular now because it turns out mine have proved to be very popular.
Do you have to pitch ideas for stories?
Yes, and sometimes if the people at Calm are skeptical I’ll just need to provide more details. Instead of just saying “I did this really cool thing in Sweden,” I’ll need to say “When you go on this trip in Sweden, everything slows down, you have to collect your own water, there’s no electricity, you light your own fire,” and then they’ll be persuaded.
When you’re traveling now, do you find yourself thinking: This experience would make a perfect sleep story?
All the time. Whenever I’m somewhere where you can go slow, where you’re observing and thinking and not just racing through. So you’d never do one on the new 14-hour direct flight from London to Perth, Australia. That would be too boring. I would fall asleep trying to write it.