Irmtraud Morgner was born in Chemnitz, Germany, the daughter of a railway engineer. She studied German literature and philosophy at the University of Leipzig. After graduating, she moved to East Berlin and worked as an editorial assistant at the magazine Neue deutsche Literatur (New German Literature). In 1958, she began working as a freelance writer. Her work, which blended realism and fantasy and explored feminist themes, was a new development in East German literature. She married as her first husband Joachim Schreck, later an editor at Aufbau-Verlag, with whom she had a son. After the couple divorced, she remarried in 1972 to Paul Wiens, also a poet and writer; they divorced in 1977 after she discovered he had been informing on her to the Stasi. In 1965, her novel Rumba auf einen Herbst (Rumba in Autumn) was rejected by the East German authorities. She was asked to do extensive re-writes, and incorporated much of the text into her 1974 book Leben und Abenteuer der Trobadora Beatriz nach Zeugnissen ihrer Spielfrau Laura (The Life and Adventures of Trobadora Beatrice as Chronicled by Her Minstrel Laura), now considered her magnum opus.
Her 1968 novel Hochzeit in Konstantinopel (Wedding in Constantinople) was her first big success and made her name internationally. Other works included Gauklerlegende (Juggler’s Legend); Die wundersamen Reisen Gustavs des Weltfahrers: (The Wondrous Journeys of Gustav the World Traveler); and Amanda: Ein Hexenroman (Amanda: A Witch's Tale).
In 1977, she was elected to the East German Union of Writers. In 1984, she traveled to the USA with fellow writer Helga Schütz to give public readings. She was diagnosed with cancer in 1987 and died in 1990 at age 56.
Fragments of a third novel in the Amanda/Laura Salman trilogy were published posthumously as Das heroische Testament (The Heroic Testament, 1998).