'Busy Trap' Writer Tim Kreider Talks New Book, Resigning Himself To Ambition

'Busy Trap' Writer Admits He's Pretty Busy

Last week, a New York Times essay from writer and cartoonist Tim Kreider probably appeared in your Facebook, Twitter or Tumblr feed at least once, or twice, maybe even 100 times.

It was as if a giant light bulb had flickered to life in a million collective minds -- or at least a million minds with an internet connection and too much stuff going on.

In his much-cited essay, Kreider lamented what he calls "The Busy Trap," the constant and unwavering push to tack more work, classes and extracurricular activities onto our already overwhelmed schedules. Though we constantly complain about our lack of free time, he said, it's essentially all our fault.

"Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy," he wrote, "completely booked, in demand every hour of the day."

Kreider was hardly the first person to advocate shutting down as a way of reclaiming our sanity, but never before had the argument sounded so damned rational.

The essay became ubiquitous and sparked a bevy of reaction pieces, most of which criticized Kreider for appealing only to a privileged class of people who can afford to drop their obligations. Kreider acknowledges the article was written for a "New York Times-reading, internet-surfing audience," but he also anticipated the complaint in his second paragraph, where he noted that complaining about being "too busy" is something of a high-class problem itself.

"Notice it isn’t generally people pulling back-to-back shifts in the I.C.U. or commuting by bus to three minimum-wage jobs who tell you how busy they are," Kreider wrote. "What those people are is not busy but tired."

Agree or disagree, the article has made Kreider a wanted man. He told The Huffington Post that his inbox is fuller than it has ever been, and he has found himself using the dreaded "I'm too busy" excuse far more often than he'd like.

Because for all his emphasis on slowing down, Kreider himself is just getting revved up. He's currently traveling around the country on his own dime to promote his new book "We Learn Nothing," a collection of essays and cartoons written in the vein of "The Busy Trap," published in mid-June by Simon and Schuster.

Thanks to the essay and the book, Kreider is poised to become a sort of Chuck Klosterman of psychology and human interaction. He's the guy who has spent his life trying to figure people out, coming up with hundreds of answers -- and just as many new questions.

"Getting the opportunity to write this book is like someone asking you for the first time in your life, 'Hey, what do you think of everything?'" Kreider said. "Mostly if I choose to write about something, it's something that had wounded or puzzled me. Something unfigure-outable."

Whether he's examining a complicated, frustrating relationship with a former teacher, the euphoria that comes after a disaster or the ambivalence that accompanies the death of a troubled friend, Kreider doesn't take the organized route in the book. It's never: "Here's something that happened, and here's what I learned from it." Instead, he embraces the messiness of his thoughts and feelings, crumples up timelines and throws big things into the air.

Sometimes the ideas are so simple that they feel revelatory. He casts the age-old conservative-versus-liberal debate as an ultimate fight between two sides: the "Got Outs," who left their hometowns because they were tired of feeling out of place, and the "Stayed Puts," who remained and got married and will live in the same places forever.

He realizes both sides need the other to survive.

"It's a delusion to imagine that at some point in the future, someone's going to win this culture war," he said. "Both sides think that once we eliminate all these people, the world will be perfect. Liberals think if only we could explain ourselves clearly enough, they'd understand. But it's like telling your kids what to do. If they agree with you, then they lose."

For years, Kreider was best-known for writing a subversive weekly comic called "The Pain -- When Will It End?" for Baltimore City Paper, which was syndicated and has now been published online. He did that for 15 years. Though he studied writing as an undergraduate at Johns Hopkins, and continued to write in his spare time after that, he has worked primarily as a cartoonist for most of his adult life.

He has fans who wish he'd get back to drawing, he said, but his heart seems to be in writing, even if it took him a long time to realize it.

"I had to finally admit I was an ambitious person," he said. "Which is a bit like an Evangelical Christian coming out of the closet. I'm stuck with it now. I didn't choose."

Now the guy who hates being busy is faced with the need to "self-promote," a necessary evil that he struggles with. He's on Facebook for the sole purpose of promoting his book and has to check hundreds of new emails a day. He's quick to explain that all the attention isn't a bad thing, and he's grateful. He just wishes he could have his old schedule back.

"In my life, I mostly have been able to just do what I do, quietly enough for someone to notice," he said. "Now I feel like a late-stage alcoholic. It's killing me and I cant live without it."

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