Spence earned that popularity, however. She finished a bachelor's degree in English with a creative writing minor at Southwest Missouri State University in 1991 and went on to earn a master's of fine arts in creative writing from Bowling Green State University in 1994. Her short-story manuscript won the 1995 Willa Cather Award, a competition judged by writer Leonard Michaels, who passed her work along to an editor at Riverhead Books. The collection was named a New York Times Notable Book of the Year in 1998, and she received the North Carolina Literary & Historical Society's inaugural Mary Ruffin Poole award for first fiction in 1999. Her title story "Missing Women" was included in the 1997 Best American Short Stories.
Spence is currently at work on a novel, which should be out on Riverhead Books sometime next year. While she has kept the subject matter of her new book a secret from both family and friends, guarding it like a vault at Fort Knox, there may some hint of it in Kaye Gibbons' comment that Spence "has no illusions and writes intelligently about women in the process of relinquishing theirs." In the meantime, she has supplied The Independent with a short-short story inspired by the title of a tune penned by a friend fond of writing "bad country songs." The story is conceived as a kind of country song, with a heroine in the process of--to quote Kaye Gibbons--relinquishing her illusions.