If someone said my work put them to sleep, I’d have to strongly reconsider how I wrote my articles. However, for Phoebe Smith, it’s the ultimate compliment. As Sleep Storyteller-in-Residence for Calm, it’s her job to ensure that you drift off to her literary lullabies and, judging by how many people keep hitting ‘Play’ on them, we’d say mission well and truly accomplished.
Half literature, half lullaby, millions are tuning into Calm’s Sleep Stories for a better night’s slumber. Here’s why they'll give your pillow spray a run for its money
She’s the wordsmith behind Blue Gold, the app’s most popular Sleep Story, narrated by Stephen Fry, that’s been listened to over 15 million times. Other popular ‘audiotales’ of hers include Elephants of Nepal featuring the dulcet tones of Joanna Lumley, and The Trans-Siberian Railroad, told by the Viking-esque, Erik Braa. She’s written 15 Sleep Stories to date for Calm, each drawing from her experiences as an award-winning travel writer. That being said though, how she sets about writing a Sleep Story is very different from how she writes an article. Rather than building tension, anything exciting is placed at the beginning to help listeners wind down and encourage their imagination to let loose. No easy feat.
“It’s being able to tell a story that’s interesting enough to listen to it, but not so exciting where you can’t sleep as you’re desperate to hear the end,” she tells me. “It’s a constant balance.” They’re all about slowing the pace down and as a result, they aren’t the quickest things to write. “I’m constantly reading it aloud to make sure it all flows - trickling away like water to help people relax.”
Phoebe’s wanderlust stylings also prove extremely useful when it comes to weaving in the aspects of mindfulness, meditation and sound that give Sleep Stories their distinct point of difference to standard paperbacks. “The term ‘slow literature’ connects with the idea of slow travel for me, where it’s important not to rush through things and take in as much as possible,” she says. “Noticing smells, touching trees, different textures...using all the senses and making people feel like they’re there.” The goal is to shift listeners' focus to the story and help combat the sudden influx of noise and worries that can prove hard to block when trying to get to sleep.
Multi-sensory wordplay is key for creating a soothing environment, but it can also have the opposite effect. For instance, Phoebe tries to stay clear of writing about particular types of wildlife that can trigger a fear response, such as snakes, in addition to certain foods like citrus fruits, the sharpness of which acts as unwanted stimulus to tired ears.
Another important factor to bear in mind is who’s been chosen to narrate the piece. Phoebe sometimes doesn’t actually know who’s been selected, and in those instances reads it to herself to best judge if it would send listeners to sleep. On other occasions though, she does know, as was the case with Stephen Fry for Blue Gold. “Because I knew his voice, I knew the words he’d say beautifully which then helped dictate the words I chose. It was the same with Joanna Lumley - I could hear her voice as I was writing the story.”
If you don’t make it to the end of her tales, then that’s a good thing. Most Sleep Stories range between 20 to 40 minutes in length however, most people last only five to 10 minutes in Phoebe’s experience. In fact, she often receives requests from frequent listeners asking her to send them the full scripts so they can find out what happens.
In addition to Phoebe’s library of bedtime stories for grown-ups , you’ll also find an assortment of old and new fiction must-‘reads’ on the Calm app too. There are 120 in total, with a new one added each week. All are designed to help you get into the right mindset before bed, i.e. letting go and not actually trying to get to sleep, which can worsen the problem.
If you’re wondering what to hit ‘Play’ on tonight, here are six of our top picks.
1. Wonder, written by Chris Advansun - it’s narrated by none other than Matthew McConaughey. Enough said.
2. Blue Gold, written by Phoebe Smith and narrated by Stephen Fry – a calming journey through the lavender fields and sleepy villages of Provence.
3. The Waterfall, written by Chris Advansun and narrated by Tamara Levitt.
4. Morocco’s Hidden Forest, written and narrated by Phoebe Smith, where she shares her own experience of sleeping wild in the hidden cedar forests of Morocco.
5. Elephants of Nepal, written by Phoebe Smith and narrated by Joanna Lumley - a scenic safari in Chitwan National Park, guided by an elephant.
6. The Trans-Siberian Railroad, written by Phoebe Smith and narrated by Erik Braa - travelling to the farthest reaches of Northern Russia to take a trip on the longest train ride in the world.
Download the Calm app here to start your 7-day free trial.