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The Restless Quest for Satisfaction: Why the Edinburgh Festival Is Like Life

06/08/2014 14:02 BST | Updated 05/10/2014 10:59 BST

The Edinburgh Festival is famously the biggest arts festival in the world. It infests Scotland's capital city for the whole of August, comprising the Art Festival, the International Book Festival, the Television Festival, the Official Festival, Foodies Festival and the over 2000 shows that make up the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

As a result of the unremitting art and performance, Edinburgh's population doubles for four weeks and the centre of town becomes a seething mass of tourists, keen-as-mustard performers/artists publicizing their shows and locals trying to get on with their day-to-day lives. No-one can see everything - there's simply too much. Put the programmes together and you have a telephone-directory sized conundrum. It'd take hours to read all the listings, never mind process the information and make decisions about what to buy tickets for.

I reckon people deal with this overloading of events in different ways - it's a bit like life. Everyone is engaged in a mad scramble for satisfaction that the field of choice ought to facilitate but the truth is there's too much on and for many that becomes a burden.

Some people simply hone in on one element of what's on offer and choose to see only comedy or dance or new drama. This is to miss the glorious diversity of the festival - the joy of live poetry followed by cabaret, but it certainly makes things simpler. The fringe programme caters for people who like to experience this kind of festival by separating the listings into categories and, on the upside, if you tackle the fringe this way, you'll see a great spread of the best performances in that field worldwide. Another way of taking this tack is to stick to one venue and simply see everything that's on at the Traverse, the Assembly or the Pleasance - large venues with varied programmes. Or to only go and see free shows (some of which are amazing, and some of which, well, you can always leave.) Still, all versions of this method of festival control strike me a little like doctors whose friends are mostly doctors. It's a safe option but there's a part of you that has to wonder if you only crossed a few boundaries, tried something else, if it might change your life.

Another tack people take when presented with the programme is to look for critics to curate it for them. Most UK newspapers publish extensive reviews. The List, Scotland's version of Time Out is probably the one I'd choose to follow, clued in as it is, and on the spot. Similarly, the Scotsman's 5 star reviews are coveted for the same reason. However most reviews are the product of placements by PR professionals and often smaller, less worldly-wise gems get missed or left until so late in the season that you only get a day or two to fit in a ticket. You also need to be sure that you're trusting a critic who has similar taste to yours - I vividly recall making myself sit through a turgid play which had been given 5 stars by a terribly earnest Scotsman reviewer - what's meat for the goose might not be meat for the gander. For the shows the critics rave about you need to be quick on your feet - tickets go fast which is, I suppose, testament to the fact that a lot of festival-goers like this tried and trusted method of choosing what to see. Don't forget though, some shows are one-offs, especially at the Book Festival, and for those there are no advance reviews. While this method of choosing tickets protects you from low production values and actually, from needing to make too much of an assessment of your own, for me, trusting critics implicitly feels like being told what I ought to like. More importantly it somehow takes away the glorious chance of diving into the unknown seething mass of creativity that the Edinburgh Festival presents. There's something just a little smug about the review method, helpful though it may be - like choosing your clothes because they have a designer label.

The other way to go is simply to live on your instincts. An overheard recommendation between friends in a bar or coffee shop, a chance flier shoved into your hand or catching a snippet of a show acted out on the pavement and seeking out the full version because you were stopped in your tracks by what you saw. This year I wouldn't have chosen to go to Olwen Fourere's masterful riverrun at the Traverse or the 15 minute one-to-one poetry and music performance Viewmaster at Summerhall or, for that matter, Collapsing Horse's brilliant kids' show, Human Child at the Underbelly on the Cowgate, if I hadn't found them by a series of chance conversations and fliers. The festival is a tide of unknown inspiration that laps at your ankles as you walk through town and my own way to deal with it is to go with the tide. What that says about me philosophically, I'm not entirely sure - perhaps it means I'm a hopeful optimist. I've been going to the festival since I was a child and creatively I know it's formed my own work, opened my eyes and presented me with an enormous rush of imagination every single year. I like the element of chance even though this is the most risky method of choosing what to experience. I'm not going to pretend I haven't sat through some real turkeys, but I've also discovered shows that have grabbed me by the imagination in the most unexpected ways and stayed with me long after the fliers are gone. Easy access to the festival is only one of the privileges of living in this amazing city but as a writer it's an important one.

Still, if the fliers, the pavement performances and the scouring of newspapers is all too much for you, Edinburgh is big enough that you can get away for a while. I wrote my tips for time out on this site last year so if you are reading this in a haze of confusion and long to flee the jugglers and the University drama groups, you can find out how to slip into the cool waters of Real Edinburgh here. You're welcome.