Capturing the Ordinary: Writing about illness and the everyday by Yoshiko Iwai



Yoshiko Iwai is a writer and dancer from Japan, living in New York City. She is a master’s candidate at Columbia University for her MFA in Creative Nonfiction and MS in Narrative Medicine. At Columbia, she is a Chair’s Fellow for the Graduate Writing Program and teaches creative writing in prison facilities as a member of Columbia Artist/Teachers. Her non-fiction essay “The  Witness’”  appears in the Spring 2019 Intima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine.

Yoshiko Iwai is a writer and dancer from Japan, living in New York City. She is a master’s candidate at Columbia University for her MFA in Creative Nonfiction and MS in Narrative Medicine. At Columbia, she is a Chair’s Fellow for the Graduate Writing Program and teaches creative writing in prison facilities as a member of Columbia Artist/Teachers. Her non-fiction essay “The Witness’” appears in the Spring 2019 Intima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine.

I’ve been particularly drawn to illness narratives that capture the unexpected. As modern readers, I think we’ve been primed for—in books, film, music, even commercials and PSAs—certain characteristics in stories about illness. Even in my own writing about parental cancer, I often catch myself invoking similar, predictable images: taut skin, falling hair, brittle frame. I’ve found that one way to capture a different angle of the illness experience is by giving space for ordinary moments, and Steve Street does this well.

In Street’s nonfiction piece “Hey Hey Hey Hey”, he tells the story of his experience with cancer. What strikes me about his writing is the ability to capture the interruptions his illness has on his everyday life—he subverts our expectations.

He writes: “I love everybody now, even when they don’t love me. A guy behind me in the donut shop line, the beleaguered woman who slid over my burrito order for minimum wage—I chirp at them. They both scowl back.” We see, through this scene, with Street’s love for the man behind him in donut line, the subtle and specific way illness creeps into life. We feel his warmth, despite his illness. Later he writes, “I have a million things to do, and one by one, I’m getting them all done: errands, will arrangements, getting a tattoo—small, tasteful, inside left forearm—so the phlebotomists have something to look at when they draw my blood.” I love that tattoo. I love the urgency of this sentence, and of his illness, that manifests in an unexpected way.

In my own short nonfiction essay, “The Witness” I wanted to capture the ordinary. Not being able to go to the theatre to see Harry Potter because the oxygen tank is annoying to lug around, is a real problem. It’s something the doctor or anyone on the caregiving team may not recognize, but it’s still an interruption to life, to something good.

I am interested in finding ways to capture these quirky, sometimes peculiar, but honest moments in illness narratives. And I think reading writers like Street can help us, as readers, see a bigger picture of a person’s experience beyond their physical condition.


Yoshiko Iwai is a writer and dancer from Japan, living in New York City. She is a master’s candidate at Columbia University for her MFA in Creative Nonfiction and MS in Narrative Medicine. She graduated from the University of Michigan with a BFA in Dance and BS in Neuroscience, and was also an editor/writer for The Michigan Daily. At Michigan, she was the recipient of the Earl V. Moore Award for Excellence in Dance and the Hopwood Nonfiction Award. At Columbia, she is a Chair’s Fellow for the Graduate Writing Program and teaches creative writing in prison facilities as a member of Columbia Artist/Teachers. Her non-fiction essay “The Witness’” appears in the Spring 2019 Intima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine.

©2019 Intima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine