Suspend Your Disbelief

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In Defense of MFA Programs

Lev Raphael

Lev Raphael

The more MFA programs spring up, the more people seem to look down on them—as if some kind of MFA-inflation and devaluation were taking place. Novelist Lev Raphael, however, recently wrote about why he found his MFA program valuable:

I was at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst MFA program for two and a half years back when it was rated in the top ten, for whatever that’s worth. The workshops kept me writing and turning in stories, even when I wasn’t in the mood, a good lesson to learn for a writer like me who later ended up doing a lot of print reviewing on tight deadlines.

I enjoyed the company of my fellow students in what was in effect a giant writers group. Were they all good writers or even good critics of each other’s work? No. But the enthusiasm for writing and reading was powerful. I can still remember finding a friend at lunch who was glowing because she’d been reading Richard Wilbur’s “The Mind-Reader.” I only knew him through his Moliere translations, and was thrilled myself by the poem when I read it right there at the cafeteria table. But that was only one POV; another friend said after a reading Wilbur did in Amherst: “God, he uses so many old words!” We definitely didn’t march in lock step.

Certainly there can be downsides to an MFA program as well—and Raphael admits that. But the reason for attending an MFA program that I hear most often involves not practical help with writing but something more psychological. As Raphael puts it, “Taking those two and a half years for the program was taking myself seriously.”

Judging by the passionate response to this essay, though, it’s likely that the debate over MFA programs (worth it, or waste?) will continue for some time.

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