The secrets of a successful sleep story, revealed

Phoebe Smith says attention to detail helps a sleep story
Phoebe Smith says attention to detail helps a sleep story
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Phoebe Smith reveals the secrets of a successful sleep story, aimed at those who want to nod off.

Crack, break, zoom, spatter – when it comes to words I love the ones that are spoken with drama and an accompanying sound that conveys the meaning so beautifully.

They have the power to take a reader right to the heart of a busy marketplace, to plunge them deep within a dark forest, to hurl them headfirst onto a racetrack or force them foot by foot onto a long path of squelching mud.

When I write travel articles these words become my tools by which I excite and transport readers into the places I am exploring so that they too can experience them. But, lately, I have had to rethink their use. Gone are the days when I could casually throw one into a sentence to enthral those scanning my words and yank them along the tale, unable to stop themselves. That’s because I now hold the accolade of being the world’s first Sleep Storyteller-in-Residence for Calm – a mindful app. Sleep Stories are – in a nutshell – bedtime stories, written for grown-ups. I’ve had some incredible voices narrate my words, from Stephen Fry to Joanne Lumley, and many more whose names you won’t know but who have the ability to utter my phrases in a way that will soothe you into a deep and peaceful sleep.

Effectively I’m writing what you might call ‘Slow Literature’. The idea being not to grab and race a person through a story, gripping them with each and every word, but instead allowing them to join me for a mindful meander in the hope that – conversely for any writer who values their words as much as I do – they never actually make it to the end.

As a classically trained journalist this is not as easy as it sounds. My love for language is often clashing with my will to send people off to slumber and not risk jarring them out of sleep. Some might assume that it would involve writing about something so utterly and tediously boring that the listener would naturally doze off – but that doesn’t work.

Think about the other ‘slow’ movements – slow cooking, slow travel – they are not about dullness, but about taking your time over something, whether it be the steady and purposeful preparation of food, or catching a train overland to navigate a country so that each and every mile covered is accounted for and appreciated.

That’s how it is for slow literature and especially the slow non-fiction travel stories that I usually pen for Calm. It’s noticing the place I’m in at a macro level. So instead of simply walking along a mountain path, it’s listening to the sounds of the birds that hover above on the thermals, it’s identifying the sound my boots make as I tread over the terrain. It’s feeling the cool and rough surface of the gate as I open it, smelling the damp, earthy tones of the undergrowth as I pace through the patch of trees; it’s taking the time to notice how a place makes me feel. Taking all that in, and adding to it factually correct information about a place, means that the listener of my Sleep Stories is interested, but at the same time, pacified. It’s because of this new way of writing that I have to, myself, travel differently when I am in a place researching a story. I have to learn about it, of course, but then I have to take some time to truly soak up a place. It’s no good if I say something that doesn’t quite ring true to someone who knows the place well or even lives there themselves. For instance, when I was writing about Scotland’s Hidden Hideaways – aka the network of bothies (mountain huts) we have that allow people to spend extended time in the wild mountainous landscapes – it was vital that I got the names of places correct, the descriptions of the buildings and pathways sharply accurate, that I noticed the green lake on the way to Ryvoan and carefully researched the folklore that surrounds it as well as the scientific explanation for its colouring.

It takes time to truly experience a place and it takes even longer to write about it in a way that makes people intrigued enough to focus on it but, at the same time, relaxed enough to drift off to sleep. If I ever doubted it worked the emails I get from listeners (over 15 million have fallen asleep to my most popular story, Blue Gold) tells me it does – from those asking for a copy of the script as they love hearing about a place but can never stay up to hear the end, to those who say it has cured their insomnia.

I may no longer be using the words that shout, explode and thrill, but then I’ve learned that perhaps the greater power my words have is actually one needed now more than ever; the ability to calm, to soothe, to steady a person when all the noise in the world gets a little too much. And that thought also helps me to sleep a little more soundly.

Phoebe Smith is the Sleep Storyteller-in-Residence for the Calm App. She’ll be showcasing her new sleep story in Edinburgh at Blackwell’s South Bridge on Thursday 31 January at 6.30pm. Free tickets can be ordered via eventbrite.