‘Nothing Much Happens’ Podcast Interview

Reading Time: 8 minutes
Logo and Headshot of 'Nothing Much Happens' podcast
Image By Kathryn Nicolai

“Let me tell you a bedtime story. It’s a simple story, in which nothing much happens, you feel good and then you fall asleep.”

Kathryn Nicolai is the writer and voice of the Nothing Much Happens podcast with a devoted following all over the world. She tells stories for grown-ups that help ease people into sleep. The stories take place in our modern world, focusing on everyday simplicity, and are told in a soft tone, twice. (Yes, the second time she speaks slower.) If you’re wondering, it works. I enjoyed reading the reviews:

“My favorite podcast, but I can’t remember the story because I fell asleep so quickly! Thanks!”

Although I wrote specifically about teens and the importance of sleep in my previous post, adults also suffer from insomnia. As a chronic insomniac, I have tried most ways to fall asleep and Nothing Much Happens is wonderful. As Kathryn explains in the intro, our brains have a hard time shutting off the world and need something to focus on, something gentle and unstimulating in order to quiet and allow the body to go into sleep mode. The stories she tells in Nothing Much Happens fill that role.

I am grateful for Kathryn for taking the time to answer my (many) questions about her podcast. Enjoy!

GEEKMOM REBECCA ANGEL:
In your bio you state that you used to tell yourself relaxing stories to go to sleep. At what point did you think other adults would enjoy your stories?
KATHRYN NICOLAI:
A few years ago I started to notice that more and more of my friends and family were having sleepless nights. I’m sure that’s always been true for a certain percentage of the population but the current state of the world has driven that percentage higher. So many of us are struggling with anxiety and insomnia. I knew I had a tool for consistently getting to sleep and I thought that there must be a way to share it. I’d been a podcast of my live yoga classes for a while so I was familiar with the technology and thought I’d just give it a go and see if anyone would listen.

RA:
What is the process of creating the Nothing Much Happens podcast?
KN:
My writing process starts with me just being mindful as I move through my days. I think so many years of teaching yoga has trained me to pay a lot of attention to what is good and enjoyable in the world around me. I find inspiration for a story in almost anything I do, then I take those bits of inspiration and sit down to write. I have regular writing days scheduled through the week and I stick to them like glue. Then I let the story sit for a week or so and revisit it for editing and final touches. I have a recording space in my house and once the podcast is recorded I send it to my audio engineer Bob Wittersheim. He’s been with the project since the beginning and knows exactly how I want it to sound. He does his magic and then it gets uploaded. We release a new episode every other Monday and follow up with our social media accounts.

RA:
I notice in your stories that most of the characters mentioned are gender-neutral, “my friend”, “a college student”, etc. Why is this important? Is it a challenge?
KN:
I write this way so that my listeners can easily insert themselves into the stories. When I use the technique myself it always hinges on being able to feel part of the scene, that the warmth and safety of it includes me so I write a lot without gender markers. I do this specifically in romantic relationships, I’m a queer woman and I wanted to make sure my listeners could feel like they could see themselves and their partners in the stories. In friendships, I do cite gender sometimes and look to represent all of them. In the story called “Coffee on the stoop or How to have a better day”, a person leaves a tin of muffins on the doorstep of a neighbor who uses they/them pronouns. It’s subtle, but it’s important to show that all people are part of this little world, just like they are obviously are in the real world. It takes a little extra time and creativity to write this way but I’m happy to do it.
On a side note, some listeners have gotten confused because they assume that all these stories are real and about me, so sometimes they worry that I might have broken up with my wife or that I’m afraid to be out and that is why I don’t use gender markers. I remind them that the stories are works of fiction and that while it’s a shared universe, the characters in each story are different. Ah well…best laid plans.

RA:
There is food mentioned in every story of Nothing Much Happens in a delightful way. So far, each story I listen to has vegan ingredients. Are you vegan or just being polite to all listeners?
KN:
Good catch! Yes, I have been vegan for nearly twenty years and I knew right away that none of my stories would include animal products. I think it’s a nice way to introduce listeners to all the lovely food vegans eat (I get lots of requests for recipes and sometimes hear that people dream of avocado toast and lentil soup). I also hear from fellow vegans who say that at first, they braced themselves to hear about eating animals but were so grateful that that moment never came. Since I am the architect of this world I get to say that in it, animals are only friends and never food.

RA:
(I’m very curious about the writing process…) I also noticed that although you have full sensory experience in every story, sound is the least utilized. This came to my attention in “At The Summer Fair”, which pretty much mimicked what my husband and I had just done two nights before, except the incredible array of sounds were omitted. I am guessing this is to keep everything quiet, but is there another reason?
KN:
I don’t know if I agree that they are omitted though in that specific story you’re right. I do try to use as much sensory detail as possible unless I think some detail might be unpleasant or keep my listeners awake. I imagined that fairground with a lot of noise and I thought that might be intrusive but in other stories, I describe the sound of the wind, or moving water, music and sound of one’s own breath and footfalls. I guess I pick and choose to give the most relaxing experience I can.

RA:
You are now in Season Four of Nothing Much Happens with many positive reviews and loyal followers. What was your favorite response? What was the most unexpected?
KN:
I hear every day from listeners all over the world. Some have shared their stories with me and they are humbling. I have many listeners who have chronic diseases and spend a lot of their time in bed, they tell me that the stories are enormously comforting to them and give them a break from focusing on pain. I hear from kids at college who feel homesick and stressed from new pressures telling me the stories keep them grounded and help them feel safe. I heard from new parents, night shift workers, Doctors and nurses and a few celebrities who all tell me they are sleeping better than ever and that they tell everyone they know about the show. I’ve heard from survivors of sexual assault, people who listen while their chemo is administered, people who are overcoming really difficult moments and I am so grateful to be able to offer them some peace. I believed when I started that I’d be able to help people who struggled with sleep, I didn’t foresee all the other ways that the stories would reach out and assist people. It’s hard to pick a favorite message from a listener but if I had to I’d pick a little boy who was inspired to write his own story. His mom helped him record it and they sent me the file. He was brilliant! He wrote about a cup of tea on a rainy day and I still think of him a lot.

RA:
Your answer made me tear up. At first, I wasn’t sure why, but I suppose its the realization that people need comfort, no matter what age, and maybe our whole world needs more instances of comfort and peace. Your podcast is designed for grown-ups but still resonate with children. Why do you think that is?
KN:
This is so true. People need comfort, now more than ever. I’ve noticed in the last few years (well, specifically the last three) steadily rising anxiety among my yoga students and friends and family. And even when the world doesn’t constantly feel like it’s on the brink we all still do need comfort. I also noticed as an avid reader, a trend in literature toward stories that were more and more upsetting, full of awful circumstances and characters that lacked one redeeming quality (I call it despair-porn). After reading I’d close my eyes and set my book down and could not find a place to put my brain that wasn’t terribly upsetting. Finally, I thought, “Well, I guess I’ll have to write them myself.”
So that’s a long way to say that in these particular times there is a huge need for comfort and sanctuary. I don’t know much about kids…I don’t have any and I don’t really have many opportunities to interact with them so I can’t say why the stories resonate with them except to say that kids aren’t so different from grown-ups, are they?

RA:
You are also a yoga teacher. Does that training come into Nothing Much Happens? Vice-versa?
KN:
I’ve been a teacher for 16 years and it definitely does influence the podcast. I teach a lot about the negativity bias that human brains come equipped with, about how it means that we give more attention to scary stuff than good stuff and how we must deliberately pay attention to what is good to have a realistic understanding of the world. This has led me in my own life to constantly look for things to appreciate and enjoy, even when they are very small and every-day. Teaching yoga has also given me a very good understanding of how to use my voice to help people relax. I have very well-honed instincts for pace and tone that come from years in the classroom.

RA:
As a yoga teacher, I’m sure you are familiar with meditation. What is the difference between meditation for relaxation and Nothing Much Happens?
KN:
Yes, I practice and teach a lot of meditation. Meditation is really just paying attention to what is happening in a calm way, it is moment to moment non-judgmental awareness. I think the stories are a way of meditating because the listeners are focused on the present experience and using their senses by proxy through the story. Sometimes even for seasoned meditators going straight from the busy noisy world to the quiet of their own minds can feel like a bridge too far. The story is a stepping stone, teaching the listener to practice mindfulness by following along with the main character. In fact, a lot of listeners write to say that they find themselves becoming more mindful in their daily life from listening.

RA:
The website sells some merchandise, including a mug that says: “First this, then that.” Where does the phrase come from?
KN:
That is the name of a story in season three, and it was a story that resonated really strongly with listeners. A prof of mine in college had a similar saying which I tweaked a bit for use in yoga classes. I’ve been teaching my students to do “First this, then that” for years. It’s a very helpful mantra when you’ve got a lot on your plate.

RA:
What other writing projects are you working on?
KN:
Oh boy, I’ve got a very big project that will expand the way people can experience the stories but I’m not quite ready to spill the beans on it yet. I’ve got a lot of stories to share in lots of ways. Stay tuned!

KN:
Whew! Thanks for asking such thoughtful questions! I had a great time answering them.

RA:
You are welcome! Thank you for your stories. Although nothing much happens in them, their effect is substantial. I highly recommend Nothing Much Happens for all ages.

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