By her own account, Didion was a shy, bookish child, although she also pushed herself to overcome her shyness through acting and public speaking. In her final year at the University of California, Berkeley, she won an essay contest sponsored by Vogue magazine. The first prize was a job in the magazine's New York office. Didion remained at Vogue for two years, progressing from research assistant to contributing writer. At the same time, she published articles in other magazines and wrote her first novel, Run River (1963). Although the novel sold poorly, it attracted favorable reviews, and she was offered a contract to write a second book.
The atmosphere of California in the 1960s provided Didion and Dunne with ample opportunities for writing in the personal mode that was becoming known as the New Journalism, also associated with the writers Norman Mailer, Tom Wolfe, Hunter Thompson and Gay Talese. Didion's essays on the '60s counterculture were collected in the volume Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968). Published to critical acclaim, the book is one of the signature works of the decade. Didion's second novel, Play It As it Lays (1970), set among aimless souls adrift at the edges of the film industry, captured a mood of anomie and alienation that crept over the film colony at the decade's close.
Didion published a second volume of essays, The White Album, in 1979. She had won a national reputation as an intensely acute social observer and prose stylist; her voice was admired for its gemlike precision and elegance. In the 1980s, Didion's interest turned to the state of her country's relations with its southern neighbors, examined in two book-length essays, Salvador (1983) and Miami (1987). Travels in Central America and the Pacific also provided the background for novels of political intrigue, including A Book of Common Prayer (1977), Democracy (1984) and The Last Thing He Wanted (1996).
In late 2003, Didion's daughter, Quintana, fell gravely ill. Shortly after returning from a visit to their comatose child in the hospital, her husband, John Gregory Dunne, suffered a fatal heart attack. Joan Didion wrote a searing account of her journey through grief in The Year of Magical Thinking. At the time she finished the book, her daughter appeared to be recovering from her illness, but by the time the book was published, Quintana had died. The Year of Magical Thinking was published to widespread acclaim and received the National Book Award for Nonfiction in 2005. Didion continued to document her heartwrenching loss in the 2011 memoir Blue Nights, which directly addressed the death of her daughter, among wide-ranging observations on childhood, motherhood, grief, mortality and the aging process.