Her family had been early settlers in California, and she was born in Sacramento. Her father was a finance officer in the Army Air Corps, and early in her life, the family often. After high school, Didion attended the University of California, Berkeley, where she graduated with a BA in English in 1956. During her senior year at Berkeley, she won an essay contest sponsored by Vogue. She was awarded a position with the fashion magazine as a research assistant in New York City.
In 1963 Ivan Obolensky, Inc. published her first novel, Run River. It was received well critically but not commercially successful.
On January 30th, 1964, she married the writer John Gregory Dunne. She was twenty-nine, and he was thirty-one. Unable to have children, they adopted a daughter, Quintana Roo, in 1966.
Considered one of the best and most fearless prose writers of the 20th century, her first successful book, and one that she is best known for, was her 'landmark' collection of essays on 1960s California, Slouching Toward Bethlehem (1968).
A powerhouse literary couple, Didion and her husband supported themselves mainly through writing screenplays. Their first screenplay, "The Panic in Needle Park," was produced in 1971 and starred Al Pacino in his screen debut. In 1972 they wrote the script for Didion's bestselling novel, Play It As It Lays, a book about drugs and despair in Hollywood.
Along with director Frank Pierson, they wrote the screenplay for the 1976 remake of Star Is Born, starring Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson in 1976.
A Book Of Common Prayer (1977) is a novel set in the fictional country of Boca Grande. It centers around the mother of an underground American terrorist who stumbles, with tragic consequences, into a Central American revolution.
Didion followed up the success of Slouching Towards Bethlehem with another book of essays, The White Album (1979), collecting her previous magazine work. The book's opening sentence, "We tell ourselves stories in order to live," became one of her often-quoted sayings and a later title of a book collection published in 2006.
In 1982 Didion visited El Salvador during their Civil War in which the United States backed their military against guerilla groups. After writing multiple articles about her visit, she published Salvador, a book-length essay, in 1983,
On December 30th, 2003, her husband, John Gregory Dunne, died of a heart attack. Her Daughter, Quintana, had been hospitalized earlier in December with pneumonia and was in the ICU after it developed into septic shock.
In 2005 Didion published her most famous work, The Year Of Magical Thinking, and after decades of writing, she became a popular success. She later followed it up with Blue Nights (2011), another piece of literature mourning that deals with her daughter Quintana's death just a year and a half after her husband, on August 26th, 2005, at 39.
In 2017 a documentary on Didion "The Center Will Not Hold", directed by her nephew Griffin Dunne, an actor and the son of writer Dominick Dunne, was released.
On December 23rd, 2021, Joan died at the age of 87 of Parkinson's disease.