Podcaster Kathryn Nicolai Shares Her Secrets for Helping You Sleep
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When I got on the phone with podcaster Kathryn Nicolai, I was worried I might fall asleep during our interview. Not simply because of her soothing voice, but because her soothing voice is one I’ve already been falling asleep to at night for months. Nicolai is a self-described “architect of cozy” and the host of Nothing Much Happens, a podcast in which the Flint, Michigan yoga teacher reads original stories designed to send listeners off to dreamland.
“One of my earliest memories [is] of laying in bed and telling myself a story to fall asleep,” Nicolai says. “And I had used that technique my entire life.” As she grew up, she realized drifting off was not that easy for everyone. Restlessness, persistent thoughts, insomnia—those are likely familiar feelings to most people. So in 2018, Nicolai decided to share her gift with them.
The stories in Nothing Much Happens aren’t fairytales or traditional bedtime stories. They’re more like vignettes of pleasant experiences—making dinner for friends, going on a walk down a Christmassy street—filled with peaceful visual descriptions and other charming moments Nicolai takes note of in her daily life. She reads the story once, and then again, slower. At that point, though, you’re probably already asleep.
Now, Nothing Much Happens is also a book—which is what Nicolai had originally intended the project to be. But three years ago, without any connections in the publishing industry, Nicolai ordered a microphone during one of her own sleepless nights (her dog was sick) and launched Nothing Much Happens as a podcast. Soon after, Apple featured it as a new and noteworthy podcast, and that, combined with strong word-of-mouth, caused it to blow up. Nicolai in turn got a literary agent, who helped transform the podcast into the first of what the host says will be many books.
“For so many people, [sleep] is a real problem,” she says. “It's a real need. And when you find something that actually works, it's a life changer.”
Nicolai and I spoke about the book, the future of the podcast, and what it means to train your brain for sleep.
Have you always been told you have a soothing voice?
Probably not in passing, but in my [yoga] classes, yes, people have an immediate reaction to my voice. I was a theater student growing up and I feel like that prepped me. It's all about creating a mood. So that's something I'm really conscious of. When people ask me, "Well, how do you write a story about nothing?" That's what I try to explain—that it's really just about building a mood, and if you can layer it with enough detail, then it's a really interesting place to stay.
Would you describe the podcast as ASMR?
I think it's so much more than ASMR. There's so much more thoughtful building of a story. It's not just clicks and sounds. I definitely realize that I'm leaning into my voice, and I'm leaning in to taking my time telling the story and all of that is important, but I think that the story itself is also really hugely important. People sometimes say, “Oh, I could read the phone book to fall asleep.” No, you can't, that's boring. You deserve better than that. So the story is really aimed to be pleasurable. It's something you look forward to.
What is your writing process?
I've trained myself to pay attention to small details and to celebrate them whenever I can. So I'm always looking for good things to notice in the world. I do keep a list wherever I go, of things that I've seen that I think could be part of a story. And then when I come to sit down to write I have a really strict schedule, because I have so much writing to do every week. Usually I'll start with just sort of an idea of something and sometimes it doesn't go where I thought it would. I just wrote a story that I thought was going to be called "The Pottery Wheel," but it didn't actually have any pottery in it. But that made me think about stones. Once or twice a season, I write a story that's a little bit "through the looking glass," that's a little bit magical, and this is my magical story for season seven. And it's a little bit about that feeling of when there's some object in the world that keeps showing up for you over and over again, like feathers or keys or stones, you know, something where for some reason, everywhere you look, you see it.
I’ve noticed your stories are often about nostalgia, small towns, neighborly friendship, etc. Are those the kinds of motifs you write down?
Usually it's not that broad, it's more specific—I was in a moment of my life, saw something, felt a certain way about it, and I put that moment down. Like [recently] I was coming home from the grocery store and it was Valentine's Day, but I felt like I was on a movie set because I was driving home and I saw three couples in two blocks walking and holding hands. And I was like, "Who's directing this movie?" It was so perfect. You know? Or sometimes I just catch a moment where I'm outside with my dogs, and suddenly a flock of geese go overhead. And then I look up and notice the way the branches look against the sky.
Do you ever find yourself writing a story that’s accidentally too exciting?
Yes, absolutely. And the thing is I've noticed as a writer is that I have no control over that. So there are moments where I've been working all day on an episode and I keep telling myself, “No, no, you gotta get the episode today—whatever book this is you're writing, you need to stop and get back to the episode.” So that's happened more than once and I'm working on more than one book right now. So what I'm trying to [decide] is: Is something happening or is nothing happening?
You open each episode with a short explanation of brain training and how that relates to sleep. Could you expand on that a little bit?
There's a couple things at play here. One is something called your default mode network, and your default mode network is basically the background static of your brain. It is what your brain is doing when it doesn't have a job to do. And that you can probably most relate to if you wake up at three o'clock in the morning and suddenly things start to tick and whirr and you're just being pulled along on the current of these endless thoughts and it feels like you're never going to go back to sleep. That's when you are in your default mode, and getting yourself out of default mode, it's not hard, but most people just don't know the trick to it. You must give your brain a job to do, a task to follow. So as far as how the podcast works, that's thinking your way through the details of a story. You need to task your brain with focusing on all the sensory details that you can remember. And as soon as you do that, people often tell me, within seconds they drop back out.
The other thing to think about, too, is that it's a natural tendency for our minds to wander. People often think, especially if they sit meditation for the first time and they notice all this background static in their brain and they think, “Oh, I can't meditate.” And they also think, “It's just me.” But that is actually the state of everybody's brain. And in meditation, you're not trying to stop that from happening. You're just trying to stop identifying yourself as that process, step back and have an objective look at it.
Then we have this inherited trait that came from evolution called the negativity bias. And that means that worrywarts had more kids because there was an evolutionary benefit to being hyper-vigilant and cautious. So we tend to give more value to scary stuff than sweet stuff. As we move through the world, we ignore lots of good things that happen. We fixate on lots of bad things that happen. And so we actually don't have a true view of the world by the end of the day. So in order to counter that, we need to deliberately go out and pay more attention to good stuff. And that's not putting on rose-colored glasses, that's just taking off the gray ones. So that's why the stories are planting these seeds of, “Look, there's lots of great things to enjoy and admire and be grateful for every day.”
How would you describe your audience—are they older or younger, for example?
They really are all over the place. I thought when we launched that I was doing something quite niche, but I realize it's not niche at all. Everybody struggles with anxiety and sleeplessness at some point in their life. So I do hear from people who are quite young people who are college kids who are telling me how useful it was while they're getting used to being in dorms, especially with Covid and they're homesick and lots of things are uncertain. And then I hear from people who say, “I've never listened to a podcast before and I had to have help to set it up, but now I'm listening every night.” And I hear from people all over the world, I hear from a lot of shift workers and people, doctors and nurses who are under incredible stress and sleeping at weird times.
Has anyone ever recognized you from your voice?
That hasn't happened yet. Maybe it would if I was able to be more out in the world, but it has happened where people have sought me out at my yoga studio because they've sort of done some homework to find out where I am. People have come to my yoga studio and they'll just stand and stare. I'll say, "Hi, are you here for yoga?" And they'll go, “Oh my God, it is you!”
And how did Nothing Much Happens the book come about?
Maybe a year and a half into it, I got a literary agent. I was able to find one who was excited about the podcast and the work and understood what I was doing right away. I've always thought this should be a book, and it should be a beautiful illustrated book, and she agreed. When we sent our proposal out into the world, she said, "It's going to be a couple quiet weeks and I'm not going to give you the blow by blow, go work on another project and I'll talk to you later." And I said, “Okay.” And she called me two days later and said, "You better buckle up because we're hearing from people all over the world who are talking about this book.” So it was absolutely the biggest dream of my life, the wildest dream of my life, which has taught me to dream wilder. I see even bigger things happening with Nothing Much Happens in the future.
What are the other projects you’re working on?
I've got a couple books going right now and I think they would still appeal to the Nothing Much Happens readers. I'm working on a queer murder mystery that's like a cozy mystery. So I feel like that might check a couple of boxes for people who love a little bit of mystery who want to see a positive representation of queer people in love and being good at their jobs and living happy lives. And then I'm working on a follow-up Nothing Much Happens project that I can't be too specific about, but it really expands the world in a deeper way and shifts the narrator's voice and just does some really interesting things that I couldn't do in shorter stories.